Enterprise Software

The Google Chrome startup mystery: Troubleshooting the Ghost in the Machine

Google Chrome has a handy self-updating feature, but this convenience can also require some detective work if things go wrong.

One of the many things I appreciate about Google Chrome is that it has the ability to update itself silently in the background without prompting or alerting you. Let's face it, too many applications are programmed to check for updates on startup or badger you when new updates are available. Updating an application before you can use it is like remodeling your kitchen to make a sandwich. Furthermore, I doubt there's a single user out there who opens their browser saying to themselves: "You know, now is really a great time to be notified of a new version of this program and asked whether I want to download and install it. I wasn't getting online for anything urgent anyhow."

Letting the robot maid do the housekeeping in the background is what technology was invented for. Having the robot ask me "Mr. Jetson is it OK for me to take out the trash now?" is not what I define as modern convenience.

I started using Chrome several revisions ago. However, to be honest, I've never been precisely certain which version I've been on thanks to the auto-update feature. Chrome is now up to version 21.0.1180.89 at the time this article was posted and I've only had a single update problem - however, the one I did have was memorable.

My adventure started last month when my 32-bit Windows 7 workstation at the office - which is always running - suddenly wouldn't open Chrome, which I leave up 24x7. No errors were produced. I tried launching the program several times, but without results.

Sifting through the evidence

I checked the Windows Application log, but found no references to the problem. Not to snipe at the competition, but this is a familiar issue when using Firefox, which sometimes snags on startup and shows in the Task Manager, but doesn't actually load, thereby necessitating that the process be manually ended and the program relaunched. However, in this situation I checked Task Manager and found no instances at all of chrome.exe running. That struck me as very weird. Normally when a program can't start there's SOME sort of reason why.

Since Chrome wasn't running, I didn't feel rebooting would change anything unless something else was blocking it somehow. Antivirus? I checked it, found it fine, and toggled it off. No joy, as we say in IT. I immediately toggled my antivirus protection back on.

The next inclination was to remove and reinstall Chrome. After all, thanks to Chrome Sync (check out a great article by my colleague Andy Wolber on how this feature works), getting all my bookmarks, settings, extensions and other personalized details back onto a reinstalled Chrome would be a snap. But this approach doesn't really tell us what's happened under the hood amidst a problem like this, and I wanted a direct answer if I could get it. As in the case of rebooting, I resisted the urge, at least for the time being.

As a Windows administrator I was tempted to try running Chrome in compatibility mode, which can be activated for any application in Windows 7 by right-clicking the program shortcut, choosing Properties, and then clicking the Compatibility tab as shown in Figure A.

Figure A

Compatibility tab

In most cases it's fine to check "Run this program in compatibility mode for:" and then leave the selection at "Windows XP (Service Pack 3)." Fine, that is, if the application will run in Compatibility Mode. I tried it in this case just to see what would happen, knowing that it probably wouldn't fix the issue since there's no reason Chrome should need to run in this legacy context (my hope was to get a different error which might give me some insight). No change in the situation.

I decided to take a look at the Chrome program files for any clues. I right-clicked the Google Chrome shortcut, and chose Properties. (Figure B)

Figure B

Clicking the "Open File Location" button displayed the following files under C:\Program Files\Google\Chrome\Application. (Figure C)

Figure C


I double-clicked chrome.exe but as before nothing happened.

I thought perhaps the issue might be with the location of the Chrome installation. Chrome is usually installed under the user profile folder; e.g. C:\Users\(user account)\AppData\Local\Google\Chrome\Application. If you navigate to this location in Windows to check out the files, please keep in mind that Mother Microsoft has hidden away many of the critical folders under your user profile folder. You'll need to go to Control Panel, Folder Options, click the View tab (Figure D) and choose the option to "Show hidden files, folders and drives."

Figure D

Folder options

In my case, I did have a C:\Users\(user account)\AppData\Local\Google\Chrome\User Data folder, but it contained no program files. This folder is for user-specific information such as bookmarks, history and last tabs. I went back to the C:\Program Files\Google\Chrome\Application folder. It had been used by Chrome before the error occurred, so I didn't see why its location should be a problem now.

In viewing the contents of the Application folder, the debug.log file (Figure E) immediately leaped out at me. I opened it in Notepad.

Figure E

Debug.log file

Wow! What was going on?

My "Aha" moment

Well, the issue was a lot plainer than the above screenshot might suggest. The line "Failed to load Chrome DLL from C:\Program Files\Google\Chrome\Application\21.0.1180.60\chrome.dll" told me that Chrome was trying to open from the C:\Program Files\Google\Chrome\Application\21.0.1180.60 folder, but couldn't do so.

I opened the 21.0.1180.60 folder and immediately the solution presented itself. It had only a handful of files as compared to the other folder, 21.0.1180.75 - and no sign of the chrome.dll file the error log reported missing. I copied all the files and subfolders from the 21.0.1180.75 folder into the 21.0.1180.60 folder and then Chrome started up. All my bookmarks and settings worked fine.

So, what happened?

It seems a problem occurred when Chrome attempted to update from one version to another. The update failed which left Chrome in an unusable state, until I copied the newer files to the old version folder. Because I leave Chrome up and running all the time (I use a free Windows utility called 4t Tray Minimizer which allows me to minimize running applications to the System Tray so they don't clutter up the Taskbar), that may have interfered with the update process and confused the program as a result.

It's possible to manually check for updates in Chrome and apply them if you (or one of your users) are having issues getting the latest version to install on its own. To do this, click the wrench icon (Figure F) in the upper right of the program:

Figure F

Wrench icon
Choose "About Google Chrome" (Figure G)

Figure G

About Google Chrome

In this case, my Chrome installation is up to date, but if an update were available the details would appear here. Of course, it's also possible to download the latest version of Chrome directly from Google.

What can you do to get further information?

Google offers a Chrome Help page with some basic details. There is also a Google Chrome Forum with many useful posts. If you're on Google+ you can also follow the Google Chrome page for some useful everyday tips as well as announcements about new releases.

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Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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