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Troubleshooting BSOD

The rare Blue Screen of Death, also known as a stop error, bugcheck, or BSOD is one of the most painful error conditions in the Windows world. When it happens, your computer abruptly stops all normal functioning, and you likely lose any work you have recently performed. The typical Blue Screen as displayed provides few clues, of which the stop code and (sometimes) the filename are usually the most valuable. 

Most BSODs are the result of hardware or driver issues. More rarely they can be the result of non-driver programs behaving very badly.

Here's our general advice for troubleshooting BSOD issues. As always, we recommend having a complete and recent backup before you start these procedures!

  1. If this is the first time you've seen a BSOD in a long while, just reboot and get on with life. In a number of cases, the problem is a "one-off" and may not recur at all. If that's the case, it's probably not worth troubleshooting.
  2. If you're seeing repeated BSODs, you'll want to start collecting enough of the specific BSOD error information to locate the root cause of the issue.
    1. Boot partition issues such as the Stop 0x7b error are typically the result or attempts to boot multiple operating systems, or other attempts to monkey with the boot sequence. They're beyond the scope of this article. 
    2. Drivers and/or other software issues. Since it is easier to troubleshoot for software as the root cause of your BSOD, we suggest you do this first.
      1. Have you added or updated any drivers or software recently? If yes, these will be prime suspects. Revert any such changes and see if the BSOD repeats. Reverting to your most recent Restore Point can be a good way to do this.
      2. If the above doesn't work (or you are not aware of recent software/driver changes to the system), we suggest examination of all recent BSOD information, either by looking through the Event Logs (which requires some experience with Event Viewer) or by use of  NirSoft's BlueScreenView tool. Look for commonalities:
        1. Are you seeing the same bugcheck code or string with each BSOD? (This is also known as the Stop Code.)
        2. Are you seeing the same "Caused By Driver" or "Filename" with each BSOD?
        3. If yes to either or both of the above questions, you have likely located the root cause. 
          1. If it's a driver, see if there is a recent update for it. Or if you recently updated it, see if you can revert it to the prior version.
          2. If it's 3rd party software, contact that software vendor for support.
          3. If it seems to be part of the operating system itself, search on the bugcheck code or string at support.microsoft.com
      3. Another strategy for locating driver issues is the use of the Microsoft Driver Verifier tool.
      4. Finally, you can try Microsoft's System File Checker, also known as sfc.exe. Here are instructions for its use.
    3. Hardware issues are a bit harder to troubleshoot. They are typically marked by more random BSOD errors - that is to say, you might get three BSODs in a row, each of which has wildly different error details.
      1. If you've added new hardware recently, try each of these steps in order, until the issue goes away. After each step, let the computer run awhile to see if the BSOD returns.
        1. Try re-seating anything that may have come loose when you added the hardware. If the hardware was internal to the PC, re-seat all memory sticks, and all internal cards and cables. If external, make sure all cables are plugged in tightly. 
        2. Update the new hardware's drivers. Typically you should prefer drivers recommended by the vendor who sold you that hardware. That is to say, if you got an Intel card from Dell, check Dell's site first, and only go to the Intel site if Dell has no drivers available at all.
        3. Remove the new hardware.
      2. If no new hardware has been added recently, or the above does not help, the hardware problem may be elsewhere.
        1. Run a memory check utility. We suggest the one included with Windows.
        2. Try removing and/or replacing other hardware components one at a time. Typically you'll want to start with add-in cards, then move to memory sticks (remove one memory stick at a time unless your motherboard documentation suggests otherwise), then the power supply, and finally the motherboard itself. 
        3. Hard drives themselves are rarely the issue, though corrupt files can be. If you suspect corrupt system files:
          1. Try running chkdsk.
          2. It may be time for a repair install of the operating system. Here are repair install procedures for XP, Vista, and Windows 7.

We are aware of a few tools which help in troubleshooting the infamous Blue Screen of Death:
  1. NirSoft's BlueScreenView is a simple tool for capturing the basics of all BSODs your system has experienced. It can help identify the driver or module which faulted.
  2. Microsoft's Driver Verifier is included in Windows. Ed Bott has written a good article on how to use it.
  3. Microsoft's Debugging Tools for Windows are for advanced users. Be sure to install the symbols, and read the docs. New to debugging and feeling a little lost? Try this article: Basics of Debugging Windows.
  4. A list of Bug Check Codes are here
  5. A helpful site to analyze dumps is here
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