7 Free Windows Troubleshooting Tools

Category: Windows

An operating system is an incredibly complex beast. If things go wrong with Windows, it can be difficult to track down the source of the glitch. But you can put away the chainsaw and sledgehammer, because there are plenty of free troubleshooters you can use to fix most problems. Here's my recommended list of free Windows problem solvers...

Fixing Windows Problems and Annoyances

What's keeping you from opening or deleting a file or folder? Why do certain programs start automatically when you don't want them to? Why can't you install or uninstall a program? Why doesn't my sound work? Why does an app just sit there, apparently doing nothing, while the activity light of your hard drive flashes busily? These are just a few of the annoyances that can drive you crazy.

Windows has some built-in tools, such as Task Manager, to assist in troubleshooting. There are also built-in troubleshooters you can use. On Windows XP, open the Control Panel, then select the category that best matches your problem, and a list of Troubleshooters will appear on the left side of the panel. On a Vista, Windows 7 or later system, just click the Start button then type "troubleshooting" to access all the troubleshooting tools in one place. On Windows 8, just type "troubleshooting" on the Start screen.
Windows Troubleshooting

But many advanced users turn to other free Windows troubleshooting tools that provide much more information about potential causes of problems and options for solving them.

Sysinternals Process Explorer has been described as "Task Manager on steroids." It displays a tree-view of running processes, organized by which process spawned which other(s). You can sort the display in other ways, too. Process Explorer shows a lot more details about processes than Task Manager and lets you do more than just kill a single process. Processes, or whole trees of them, can be killed, frozen, or resumed. You can also find the process controlling a given window by pointing at it, or search for any running process, handle, or DLL.

Microsoft's Resource Monitor is built into Windows 7 and Windows 8. It charts the way resources are used in your system, helping you pinpoint exactly what is gobbling up CPU cycles, RAM, or disk space. Click Start, then Run, then enter resmon.exe to start Resource Monitor. You may be prompted for an administrator password. A similar utility called Performance Monitor (perfmon.exe) is available for Windows XP and Vista.

Autoruns is another Sysinternals tool. It displays all of the programs that are loaded when Windows starts up, from apps in your Startup folder to scheduled tasks, services, device drivers, Sidebar gadgets, and codecs. Autoruns can show you startup items that you may not need to have running all the time, consuming system resources.

Unlocker is a handy solution to the "file in use by another program" annoyance. Just right-click on the stubborn file, choose Unlocker, and you can see what program has a lock on the file. Then you can end the offending process, make a copy or the file, or just release the lock that the process has on the file.

Speccy and Belarc Advisor are two additional tools you may find useful. These program will give you detailed information on all your computer's hardware components and installed software. You can read more about them in my article What's Going On Inside My PC?

System Information for Windows is not free, but since it packs so many troubleshooting tools into one software package, I have to mention it. It displays your system's software, hardware, and network resources in amazing detail, including things such as software license keys (in case you've lost your hard copy); device temperatures; installed multimedia codecs; and much more. A Tools tab includes handy tools that can reveal hidden passwords, a CPU stress test; and more. There's a PRO Edition ($9.95) and a portable Technician's Version ($29.95) that can be run from a USB drive.

NOTE: There is a free version of SIW, but it's dated October 2011, and according to the author's website, the SIW freeware Home Edition has been discontinued. It seems to work fine on XP/Vista/Win7, but would not run on my 64-bit Windows 8 laptop.

Most of these free Windows troubleshooting tools are created by and for programmers and other tech-savvy users. I recommend that you make a system restore point before making any changes, so you can use System Restore to undo any accidental damage. But if you go slowly and carefully, you can learn a lot about your system and solve some nagging problems.

Do you have a favorite Windows troubleshooter? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "7 Free Windows Troubleshooting Tools"

Posted by:

17 Oct 2014

On the subject of troubleshooting...I recently updated my 3.0 USB Drivers. Thinking my puter was getting slower over time, I tried tuning it up. Not much better. Then copying from 1 USB Drive to another I noticed was very slow. So tried going back to a saved drivers set. Installed fine. Same problem. Then it dawned on me...once a while ago I figured out you can't update usb drivers with a usb attached or this happens. Disconnected drives and updated drivers. Blazing fast copying speeds and whole puter is running 100% better.

Posted by:

17 Oct 2014

With free version of SIW we can see sensitive passwords : i.e : my cable provider accout but worse : my Windows Live access. How to stop seeing my passwords in any apps

EDITOR'S NOTE: Not sure where you are seeing these passwords. Can you clarify?

Posted by:

18 Oct 2014

Since you have had some negative things to say about CNET, I was surprised to see that Unlocker was in your listing above. I went to the linked site and saw "optional bundled software..." which told me to leave the site. I don't trust the "optional" part. I downloaded something in January 2014 from an ad on your site that contained bundled software that was *not* even mentioned until the download was in progress. I'm not taking a chance on Unlocker. Thanks any way.

Posted by:

19 Oct 2014

Whoa! Sysinternals/Autoruns. Makes you feel like Popeye after he has a can of spinach. Like you said though, "take it easy, go slowly". Thanks Bob.

Posted by:

20 Oct 2014

@ Bill
Another thing that can affect USB-drive to USB-drive copying speed is whether the two drives are on the same USB controller. USB 'trees' are 'half duplex', that is to say, one device is sending data and one is receiving it at any given instant.

If the drives are on different controllers, the controller reading the source drive hands the data off to the controller writing to the destination drive. The main interruptions being when the destination drive controller 'asks' the source drive controller to hold up because drives read out faster than they can be written to.

However, if the drives are on the same controller, the controller can't read from one and write to the other at the same time-- it has to alternate between reading from the source drive and writing to the destination drive. This will at least double the transfer time.

Posted by:

20 Oct 2014

With free version of SIW we can see sensitive passwords : i.e : my cable provider accout but worse : my Windows Live access. How to stop seeing my passwords in any apps
EDITOR'S NOTE: Not sure where you are seeing these passwords. Can you clarify?

Yes : Run SIW and click "password" in "Software" (it takes a few seconds before showing) : my password for my Microsoft Account is shown. (Because a while ago I logged into my Microsoft Account when logging in my Windows Live Mail I've clicked "Remember Me")

EDITOR'S NOTE: I don't see why that's a problem. SIW is only showing you passwords that are stored on your computer's hard drive. As long as you are the only person with physical access, there's no harm.

Posted by:

21 Oct 2014

I should also mention that the NirSoft tool, product key viewer, can do what System Info for Windows does, all for free, and is portable as well.
NirSoft also makes other good tools which can recover passwords as well - and all are free :)

Posted by:

02 Nov 2014

None of these directions work!
I have Windows Vista, with plenty of problems, eg. slowness and losing internet connection after about 2 hours.
When I click on Download I always get the messsage: This XML file does not appear to have any style information associated with it.
When I click on Start/Run and type in Trouble shooting or resmon.exe, the message appears:Windows cannot find (this).
Any suggestions?

Posted by:

30 Dec 2014

"Unlocker" installed with a program called Pro PC Cleaner from Download.com. Not good. And it poked you about installing Yahoo as defaults. Gotta be careful on this one.

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