Get help from the Windows Reliability Monitor

Woody leonhard By Woody Leonhard

Windows abounds with special-purpose tools that can help in the care and feeding of the beast — if you can just figure out where to find them.

Today, I’d like to introduce you to the Reliability Monitor, one of my favorite ways to identify and exorcise the demons that lurk within.

The Windows 7 Reliability Monitor, as well as the version in Vista, slices and dices event logs (as explained later). The logs record information related to your PC’s stability. The Reliability Monitor doesn’t catch everything — more about that in a moment — but what it does find can give you instant insight into what’s ailing your machine.

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The easist way to launch the Reliability Monitor is to enter reli in the Start menu’s search box and press Enter. (In Vista, you can enter perfmon /rel in the Start, Run dialog box or at a command prompt.) To get the most out of the monitor, sign in as an administrator.

Windows 7 reliability monitor
Figure 1. The Reliability Monitor in its Windows 7 version.

The top line in the display (see Figure 1) supposedly rates your system’s stability on a scale of 1 to 10. In reality, it doesn’t do anything of the sort. But if you see that line drop like a barrel over Niagara Falls, there’s likely some problem in your system worth investigating.

Your rating more or less reflects the number and severity of problems recorded by the event logs in the following categories: Application, Windows, Miscellaneous, and Warnings.

The information icons (circled i’s) generally represent updates to programs and drivers. If you have Microsoft Security Essentials installed, for example, there should be a circled-i icon almost every day, because MSE frequently updates its signature files.

A Microsoft TechNet document contains more details about the types of data reported in Reliability Monitor.

You can arrange the stability graph by day or by week — click on either, and a box at the bottom of the monitor shows entries from the corresponding event log. Many of these event entries have a more detailed explanation, which you can see by clicking the View Technical Details link.

Using Reliability Monitor to solve real problems

The Reliability Monitor does not provide a comprehensive list of all the bad things that have happened to your PC — and it isn’t much of a stability tracker, either. The 1-to-10 rating uses a trailing average of daily scores, where recent scores are weighted more heavily than old ones.

In my experience, the stability graph doesn’t track reality: my system’s performance can bounce like a Willys Jeep in the Nevada desert, and it doesn’t affect the rating. Conversely, my system can hum along like a well-tuned machine while its stability rating tanks.

The Reliability Monitor’s true value lies in showing you a time line of key events — connecting the temporal dots so you may be able to discern a cause and effect.

For example, if you suddenly start repeatedly seeing the dreaded message “Windows Explorer has encountered a problem and needs to close,” check the Reliability Monitor to see what changed in your system recently.

Installing a new driver, for instance, can make your system unstable. If you see your rating tumble on the same day as the driver update, it’s a good bet the new driver is the culprit.

I dug into the Reliability Monitor recently, after I noticed unusual conflicts between Outlook 2007 and Excel 2007. When I tried to preview a spreadsheet in Outlook, I suddenly couldn’t start Excel, open a new sheet, or even switch to Excel. The problem cropped up when I started looking at e-mailed spreadsheets.

I didn’t remember seeing that kind of weird behavior before, so I immediately ran to the Reliability Monitor … and didn’t find a thing. The Reliability Monitor told me that Excel had crashed once, months before, but that didn’t seem to be associated with my current problem. The Reliability Monitor didn’t even show the conflicts that kept Excel from working correctly. Bummer.

But I noticed that my Reliability Monitor rating had taken a big hit several weeks earlier and had not improved. It took a bit of clicking and some head-scratching on my part, but I finally figured out that Adobe Flash was crashing when I went to a specific site. I hadn’t noticed the crashes previously because the browser hadn’t done anything unusual — although it did seem to slow down. I installed a new copy of the Flash Player and, lo and behold, the crashes and slowdowns stopped.

Reliability Monitor has a link at the bottom called Check for solutions to all problems. Clicking the link almost always brings up a box stating No solutions are found (this is very common for Microsoft products) or a link to a manufacturer’s Web site, along with the general admonition to install the latest version of the offending program. Not exactly rocket science.

Proverbial bottom line: the thing doesn’t keep track of everything, and some of it’s a bit deceptive, but the Reliability Monitor can provide some worthwhile information when Windows starts hiccupping. Well worth adding to your diagnostic bag of tricks. For detailed information on the app, see Microsoft’s TechNet documentation.

Mining your system’s info with the Event Viewer

Every Windows routine leaves traces of itself in various event logs. Start a program, and the event gets logged; stop it, and the log gets updated. Install a program or a patch — and a log knows all, sees all. Every security-related event goes into a log. Things that should’ve happened, but didn’t, get logged — as well as things that shouldn’t have happened but did.

Most of what ends up in event logs is understandable only to programmers and computer techs. But there is information that the average computer user can understand — and use. The window to all of these logs is the Event Viewer app. (Note: you need administrator rights to view all logs.)

To launch the Event Viewer in Win7, enter event in the Start menu’s search box and press Enter. To open the program in other versions of Windows, see Knowledge Base article 308427, the app’s Vista directions, and its Win7 directions.

Event Viewer’s left column contains a list of logs and also offers predefined filters. The right column displays log details, as illustrated in Figure 2.

Windows 7 event viewer
Figure 2. Windows 7’s Event Viewer offers a wealth of information about your PC’s health.

Don’t expect any divine revelations from the Event Viewer. A casual glance at Windows’ event logs can be overwhelming, and nailing down a specific problem is like looking for a needle in a field of haystacks. But the info is there if you want it.

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

Woody Leonhard‘s latest books — Windows 7 All-In-One For Dummies and Green Home Computing For Dummies deliver the straight story in a way that won’t put you to sleep.

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Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.