Windows

What to expect from Windows XP's help tools

Don't get lost in the sea of help features available in the latest version of Windows. In this Daily Drill Down, Brien Posey uncovers what you need to know about supporting XP.

Before long, Microsoft will release Windows XP and, like any new operating system, it’s bound to have a few problems (if the beta version is any indication). Since Microsoft will be trying to push everyone in the world to switch to this potentially buggy operating system, you might be curious about what types of troubleshooting features it includes. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll review some of XP’s troubleshooting mechanisms. Keep in mind that Windows XP hasn’t been released yet, and it’s possible that any of the features I discuss could change before the final release.

Help And Support Services
The familiar Help command on the Start menu has been changed to Help And Support Services. This is where you can turn for all of your basic troubleshooting needs. As you can see in Figure A, Help And Support Services works a little differently from the Windows 9x or Windows 2000-style help screens you’re probably accustomed to.

Figure A
The Help And Support Services screen is the place to go for technical support.


The Help And Support Services screen is divided into two main areas. On the left is Pick A Help Topic, which includes about a dozen help areas, such as Windows Basics, Security And Administration, and Printing And Faxing. The section to the right is Support Tasks. It includes options like Support, Windows Update, and Tools. The Help And Support Services screen still includes a Search option that allows you to locate a specific topic, but among the other Help And Support Services links, the Search feature can be easy to overlook. I should also point out that rather than referring to static help files on the hard disk, many of the Help And Support Services link to the Internet. This means that you can instantly access the latest information that Microsoft has to offer about your problem. Unfortunately, it also means that if your Internet connection or Microsoft's Web site is down and you need help, you might be out of luck.

Device Manager
Although the Device Manager is difficult to locate, it still exists in Windows XP. It’s now located under Control Panel | Performance And Maintenance | System | Hardware | Device Manager. At first glance, the Device Manager doesn’t look any different from the one that’s included in previous versions of Windows. However, Microsoft has added a few subtle improvements that will make the tedious process of troubleshooting hardware a little easier.

When you look at a device under the Device Manager, you’ll see the standard properties sheet that tells you that the device is working correctly and instructs you to click the Troubleshooting button if you’re having problems. One improvement of note is that the troubleshooting wizard is Web-enabled so you can see the latest Hardware Compatibility List.

Where the Device Manager really shines is on the Driver tab. We have all installed drivers that just didn’t work out for one reason or another. The Driver tab makes the process of recovering from such a problem easy by allowing you to update the driver, roll back to the previous driver, or completely uninstall the driver. Being able to roll back to a previous driver or uninstall a driver should prove very helpful.

Remote Support
Perhaps the best new troubleshooting feature in Windows XP is Remote Assistance. Remote Assistance allows either Technical Support or an individual to remotely control the PC to fix a problem. Although I think this feature poses security risks, it looks as if Microsoft has made an effort to prevent remote control capabilities from falling into the wrong hands.

The Remote tab of the System Properties sheet has two check boxes. The first is Allow Remote Assistance Invitations To Be Sent From This Computer. Although this feature is pretty much undocumented in my beta copy of Windows XP, from what I can gather, it’s designed to allow a certain individual to control your system remotely for a specific period of time. You’ll click the Advanced button beneath this check box to control how long a remote invitation is valid. You can also determine whether the remote user will be able to actually control the system or only view it.

The other check box is Allow Users To Connect Remotely To This Computer. This check box isn’t selected by default. There’s also a Select Remote Users button that you can click to determine who should have remote access to the system.

A lot of thought has been put into the Remote Access portion of Windows XP. For starters, it’s been designed so that if you need to access someone else’s system, Windows XP doesn’t have to be running to do it. All you need is a copy of the Terminal Server Client program, which is available free on Microsoft’s Web site for a variety of operating systems. I run the Terminal Server Client on my pocket PC, which should give you an idea of the diversity of platforms that you can use to remotely access Windows XP.

Windows XP supports multiple users, the same way Windows NT and Windows 2000 do. What makes Windows XP different is that when one user logs off and another user logs on, it’s possible for the user who just logged off to leave applications running within their session (in a suspended state). When that user logs back in, he or she can pick up where they left off and their applications will still be running. This feature has been combined with remote access. It’s possible for someone to log off at the office but to leave applications running. Later, they may connect to their machine from home and resume their previous session, even if someone else is using the remote PC at the time (working on a local session).

Boot options
As you’ve probably heard by now, Windows XP is a hybrid of Windows 2000 and Windows 9x technology. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the boot options go way beyond those offered by Windows 9x and closely resemble those included in Windows 2000. If you press [F8] during boot up, you’ll see the following menu choices:
  • Safe Mode
  • Safe Mode With Networking
  • Safe Mode With Command Prompt
  • Enable Boot Logging
  • Enable VGA Mode
  • Last Known Good Configuration
  • Directory Service Restore Mode (Windows Domain Controllers Only)
  • Debugging Mode
  • Boot Normally
  • Reboot
  • Return To OS Choices Menu

Windows XP borrows heavily from Windows 2000 but still maintains the look and feel of Windows 9x. In spite of predictions about the command prompt disappearing, you can see by the menu choices that it still exists. Windows XP doesn’t ride on top of DOS anymore, though. If you select the Safe Mode With Command Prompt option at boot up, you can watch Windows load several Windows 2000-style drivers. Windows then switches to VGA mode, prompts you for a password, and displays a single window containing the command prompt. Therefore, the command prompt in Windows XP is a DOS emulator rather than an actual version of DOS, as is included in Windows 9x.

The Blue Screen of Death
Because Windows XP is built on a derivative of the Windows 2000 kernel, it’s susceptible to Windows 2000-style Blue Screens of Death during certain types of system failures. Like Windows 2000, though, Windows XP gives you several ways to recover from these failures. For example, if you go into the Control Panel and select Performance And Maintenance | Advance, you’ll see a Startup And Recovery section. Click the Settings button in this section and you’ll see that you can configure what will happen when a system failure occurs, just like you would be able to in Windows 2000 or Windows NT. You can see an example of this screen in Figure B.

Figure B
Windows XP allows you to configure what will happen during a system failure.


Event Viewer
After looking at that last screen, it should come as no surprise that Windows XP has adopted the Windows 2000 Event Viewer. The Event Viewer is a tool that allows you to view logs created by the system, your applications, or various security-related events. Access the Event Viewer by going into the Control Panel and selecting Performance And Maintenance | Administrative Tools | Event Viewer.

System Restore
Another handy troubleshooting feature found in Windows XP is the System Restore. System Restore was previously available in Windows Me but wasn’t available to those of us running Windows 2000. System Restore is available through the System Properties sheet’s System Restore tab. In case you’re unfamiliar with System Restore, the idea is that it dedicates 12 percent of your system’s hard drive space to the task of compiling a log of every change that occurs on your system. Should something catastrophic happen, you can use the log to undo the changes and “go back in time” to a point before the problem occurred.

Although System Restore is a great feature, think twice about how much hard disk space you allow it to use. The default setting is 12 percent. While this might not sound like a lot, consider that one of my systems has 160 GB of hard disk space. On such a system, I’d instantly lose 19.2 GB of space. I would be losing more space than some people have on their entire systems. Of course, that’s only counting the space that you lose to System Restore, never mind the hard disk space that’s reserved by the pagefile, the Recycle Bin, and Internet Explorer. My point is that if you don’t make some adjustments to disk space usage, Windows XP could quickly eat up half of your system’s total hard disk space.

Conclusion
As with any new operating system, Windows XP is bound to have a few problems when it is initially released. It’s important to have a fundamental understanding of the troubleshooting options available to you. While XP changes a lot of the look and feel of previous help features offered in its Windows products, there are still some traditional tools available for fixing a problem. You just have to know where to look for them.
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