Using Task Manager to troubleshoot startup woes

Fred langa By Fred Langa

Sometimes when trouble strikes, you have to choose between a simple brute-force fix and a more-complex but also more-informative surgical repair.

Reinstalling software is inelegant but usually works; using Windows’ built-in tools can be quicker and less traumatic.

A blank dialog box appears at every boot-up

Something is leaving an empty dialog box on reader William Bailey’s desktop whenever he starts Windows.
  • “I recently had a failed update of my MS Office 2003 and had to reinstall Office. Now, when I boot my XP Pro PC, it opens a blank dialog box at the end of the boot process.

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    “This happens after everything loads (including all my background programs), but before I open any other programs or my browser. I have run a virus scan and CCleaner. I just X out of the blank dialog box, and everything runs normally until the next boot.

    “How can I stop it? I can find no way to identify what program or service is causing this.”
William, the failed update is the likely culprit — it left something behind that’s opening the empty dialog.

The 2002, XP, and 2003 editions of MS Office are known to leave behind something of a mess after failed installations. Consequently, Microsoft eventually published support article 290301, which includes the free Windows Installer Cleanup Utility download. The utility will help you remove the parts of a failed installation that might interfere with a clean reinstall.

So, William: The quick, blunt-force fix is to completely uninstall Office 2003, run the Windows Installer Cleanup Utility, reboot, and then reinstall Office from scratch. If the problem was indeed caused by the original failed install, this should give you a fresh and error-free start with Office.

If you’d prefer a less-drastic approach, you can delve more deeply into the problem. Start by letting your machine boot normally and fully. Leave the empty dialog box alone. When your system has finished booting, shut down any software that automatically started at boot. You want your system running, with the mystery dialog box shown, but otherwise as idle as possible.

Next, from an admin-level account, bring up Task Manager (Ctrl + Alt + Del), and click its Applications tab. If any applications are shown there, close them one by one: if the empty dialog window closes when you kill a particular app, you’ve found the source of the problem.

If nothing’s listed in Applications and the empty dialog is still visible, click over to the Task Manager’s Processes tab. Enlarge the Task Manager window so you can see the full list of running processes. Check the Show processes from all users box. (See Figure 1.)

Task manager
Figure 1. Task Manager lets you observe and control almost all the software currently running on your PC.

Note the names of the running processes. The easy way is with a screen grab: hit Print Screen to capture an image of the screen to your Windows clipboard. Open Paint or any graphics-editing tool, and paste the clipboard image into the app. You now have a visual record of everything that’s running on your PC when the empty dialog is present.

Leaving Task Manager open, manually close the empty dialog box. One or more processes should disappear from the Task Manager list. Compare the new process list to the one in your screen-grab. Those processes that went away are probably associated with the mystery dialog.

With the names of those processes in hand, you should be able to track down the misbehaving app. Resources such as What-Process.com and ProcessLibrary.com can help.

Either technique — brute-force reinstall or careful analysis — should get that empty dialog off your screen for good!

How to identify truly duplicate files

Dario C. Aguilar is trying to make sense of a ton of duplicate files.
  • “After running a find-duplicate-files diagnostics tool, how do you determine which duplicate files to remove? I have never had the confidence to remove any file. Sometimes duplicate files seem to have different file names within the listing.”
Two files are truly duplicates only if they have the same name, the same length (in bytes), and the same file-creation date and time. Even then, there are some technical reasons why two seemingly identical files might actually be different.

With that in mind, you’ll have to sift through your duplicates and make judgment calls. For example, if you have two photos with the same name but with different file sizes, odds are good that the larger one is the original; the smaller file is usually an edited or recompressed/resized copy.

With identically named documents, the one with the latest file-creation date is usually the live copy.

There are many more file-identification shortcuts: files or folders with names that contain temp, temporary, or tmp are usually safe to delete. Likewise, duplicate files found in odd locations are probable candidates for the trash. (Why is a copy of a vacation photo in my MP3 collection?) Just be sure the file is a duplicate and not a misplaced original. The trick is to apply logic to each file type and circumstance.

There’s also a simpler and safer process: make a complete system backup, then freely delete any and all suspected duplicate files. If it turns out that one of the duplicates was really something you need, you can restore it from your backup files.

Worry-free file cleanups are just another of the many benefits of having good backups!

Win7 stymies XP-based custom repair/backup CD

Claus Wellendorf’s XP-based recovery toolkit won’t work on his Win7 setup.
  • “I had a free and fully working backup-and-recovery system on my XP Home Edition PC. A boot CD based on Bart’s-PE builder and loaded with a backup tool, among other things, worked to my satisfaction.

    “Now I have shifted my PC to Win7. I cannot find a solution similar to the one I had. The Bart-PE Builder Boot CD no longer works on my system. Do you have other solutions?”
Like you, I’m a major fan of the Bart’s Preinstalled Environment do-it-yourself recovery CDs (site); they saved my bacon more than once on XP systems.

But Bart’s and similar recovery tools rely on the fact that XP’s different editions (Home, Professional, Business, and so forth.) shipped on different CDs.

In contrast, a standard retail Windows 7 DVD actually contains all the editions on one disc. Your license key activates only the specific edition you paid for.

This side-by-side setup greatly complicates the building of a custom recovery CD, and that’s why Bart’s and similar, older recovery tools no longer work — they’re based on a Windows distribution method that Microsoft no longer uses.

Fortunately, Win7 is the first version of Windows that doesn’t need third-party recovery apps — it has a good suite of backup and recovery tools built in. Check out my May 27 column, “Use Windows System Restore with caution,” for more information on how these tools work.

Bart’s programs served you well, and they still work fine on XP. But now that you’re using Win7, it’s time to lay your Bart’s CD to rest.

I suggest a solemn burial with full-geek honors.

Keep the info on a lost flash drive secure

Patrick Qu writes:
  • “Like most people, I try to maintain good PC security. My system is well-protected through the regular home-based security suites, I back up regularly, and the home wireless network uses strong WPA.

    “However, the family got a surprise the other day when my son lost a memory stick at school. It contained copies of some of his work and (alas) some family information which, while not critical, I would have preferred stayed in the family.

    “So my question is, how to secure a memory stick and still maintain the flexibility that these devices provide. What would be ideal is a program which requests a password prior to opening the drive. Any advice on such a program?”
Perhaps the simplest answer is to use a free, open-source tool such as 7-Zip (download site) to compress, encrypt, and password-protect the files on the flash drive. If you save the encrypted files with a standard .zip file extension, almost any unzip tool that supports AES-256 encryption should be able to read the files.

You could also carry an unencrypted copy of the 7-Zip setup files on the flash drives and — if allowed — install 7-Zip on the computers where you’ll use the flash drive.

A step up: use a free, open-source, whole-disk encryption tool like Truecrypt (info page). It’s very secure, but you’ll need to install the application on every machine that might be connected to the flash drive.

Or, consider a high-security flash drive such as IronKey (info page).

There are other options, too, and the Windows Sources archives are rich with info. Consider these articles:
  • Dec. 10, 2009, Top Story, “Secure flash drives keep you safe on the road”
  • Dec. 17, 2009, Known Issues, “Inexpensive alternatives to a secure flash drive”
  • Oct. 8, 2009, Langalist Plus, “Make sure your private data’s snoop-proof”
If your son can work with any of those solutions, lost drives should no longer present a data or identity-theft problem!

Have more info on this subject? Post your tip in the WS Columns forum.

Fred Langa is a senior editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He was formerly editor of Byte Magazine (1987–91), editorial director of CMP Media (1991–97), and editor of the LangaList e-mail newsletter from its origin in 1997 until its merger with Windows Secrets in November 2006.
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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.