Boot the Unbootable: 11 Steps to fix a Poorly PC

Windows won’t start?  Here are eleven steps to help get you back up and running.  Let’s list them first, before examining each one in turn (click on any if you’d sooner dive straight in).

Note. Unless stated otherwise, these procedures can be carried out on a desktop PC or laptop.

As long as there have been computers, there have been computer problems.  It’s so widespread that even the TV show, The IT Crowd, employed the phrase “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” to great comedic effect.  In all seriousness, though, we’ve all been there.  You press the power button on your PC, or laptop, and… nothing happens, or it starts to boot but then freezes or throws some spurious error message.

A non-cooperative computer can be pain in many a Network Manager’s derriere.  You’d be amazed in my day job how many times when returning from a holiday, some piece of equipment or other fails to work – it’s as though the machines have been on vacation too, and none of us really want to come back to work.

What do you do?

Well, you may feel like throwing the blessed thing out of the window – I’d advise against it as you’ll probably regret it later (and it could be a costly exercise).  So, say a few choice words if you must, but if you can refrain from doing anything more severe, I’ll guide you through eleven steps that will, hopefully, get that ailing computer back on its feet.

Note. Most of the tips in this article apply directly to Windows 10, though some may be transferable to earlier operating systems.  I did consider giving Windows 7 a specific mention at key points, as its a great operating system that’s still in wide use – plus I’m not the world biggest fan of Windows 10 (and would soldier on with Windows 7 given the choice).  But, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end – and that’s now looking true of Windows 7.  It’s not often when you hear that phrase, you can actually put a date on it.  However, in this instance, we actually can – since Microsoft has kindly given it to us – and that date is January 2020.  So, if your Windows 7 PC (or laptop) has bitten the bullet, it might be a good time to consider investing in a new one.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s get fixing that computer.

Step 1. Hold down the power button

We’ll start simple and work up from there – and it doesn’t get much simpler than this one.  If your computer won’t even turn on (or the lights are on, but no one’s home), try holding down the power button and counting to thirty.  Let go and try turning it on again.  Fingers crossed, pressing the power button this time will successfully start your computer.

Step 2. Check for power

If there are no signs of life at all, it’s worth checking the fuse in your plug.  Also, try a different power socket – you never know.  If it’s a laptop, check the power supply unit (PSU) with a multimeter – the expected voltage and current will be written on the PSU.

Step 3. Remove the battery

(where possible)

This step only applies to laptops, and unfortunately not even all of those.  Just like its deskbound brethren, on occasion you may get a laptop that has got itself in a mess; it refuses to power up and boot.  For this potentially easy fix, disconnect the power supply and remove the battery.  Then, reconnect the battery and trying turning it on again.  Sadly, a lot of new laptops no longer have a removable battery (at least not one that’s easily removable), but, if yours does, this is certainly worth a go.

Step 4. Disconnect the peripherals

For reasons that will soon become apparent, this step is probably more applicable to desktop PCs than laptops.  A faulty peripheral can prevent your computer from starting.  You may have a range of external devices connected to it: printer, scanner, speakers (these are collectively known as peripherals).  Disconnect all of them, except the most essential.  In other words, unplug everything except the monitor, power supply, keyboard and mouse – if you have spares, you could even try changing these.  Now try starting your PC.

Step 5. Reset the BIOS

Sometimes the problem can be caused by the computer’s BIOS (Basic Input/Output System).  This is the chip that initially starts things loading when you press the power button.  Modern versions are known as UEFI (Universal Extensable Firmware Interface).  They basically do the same job, but UEFI is a more advanced implementation of the older BIOS setup.

Accessing the BIOS (or UEFI) varies from one model of computer to another – why are things never straightforward!  It usually entails repeatedly pressing a key as soon as you’ve turned the computer on.  This can be one of the Function keys (common ones are F1, F2, F10, F11 and F12), it could also be the Delete key, or even the Esc key.  Just keep tapping the (correct) key until the PC enters its BIOS.  If you can’t get it to work, try a quick Google search with the make and model of your PC to make sure you’re using the correct method.

Once in the BIOS/UEFI, look for the part where it gives you the option to “Load Setup Defaults” or similar.  Select this and then save and exit.  Now wait to see if your computer starts Windows or not.

Tone’s Tip. If your PC uses a traditional BIOS, you’ll have to use your keyboard to navigate it; the cursor keys will help you move around.  With UEFI, the mouse should work as well.

Step 6. What to do with an error code?

If you’re getting an error code when your computer fails to start, make a note of it.  It may look like complete gobbledygook (that’s the technical term), but this information can be invaluable when it comes to troubleshooting a problem – it’s when you don’t have one that the fun begins!

Error code to hand, Google is your friend.  By typing it into the search giant you can often find a technical forum, or even Microsoft support page, where people are discussing that particular problem.  Some of them will even let you join so you can post a comment regarding the issue you’re having.  Who knew that Google’s search engine would be the path to enlightenment!

Step 7. Windows 10 recovery options

Method 1

If your PC refuses to boot as far as the logon screen, the easiest way to access the Choose an option screen is to force your computer to not start properly three consecutive times.  It may do this itself if you keep trying, or you can hold down the power button on each successive boot until it goes off.  On the third try, it should go into Automatic Repair mode.  After a brief Diagnosing PC session it will reach the Automatic Repair screen.  Click “Advanced options”.

Method 2

If you can reach Windows login, you can access the Choose an option screen more quickly by holding down the Shift key on your keyboard as you click “Restart”.

Windows 10 includes the following options to aid with system recovery, which we’ll look at in turn.

Startup Repair
System Restore
Go back to the previous build
Reset this PC

NB. To save on repetition, the instructions for each of these sections make the assumption that you’re starting from the Choose an option screen.

Startup Repair

As the name suggests, this one is for trying to automatically fix any issues that are preventing Windows from starting.  Click “Troubleshoot” and then click “Advanced options”.  Here you’ll see “Startup Repair”.  Selecting it will restart your computer and ask you to choose an account.  After doing so, you have to enter the password for your account and click “Continue”.  Windows will now Diagnose your PC and try to repair it.

System Restore

Think of System Restore as rolling back the clock to a time before your computer was having problems.  Click “Troubleshoot” and “Advanced options”.  Once you have selected “System Restore”, hopefully your computer will find some restore points for you to pick from.  So choose an earlier date and jump back in time – don’t worry, there’s no 88 mph speed-limit breaking antics in a Delorean involved!

Go back to the previous build

As you may already know, Windows 10 is the last version of Windows (according to Microsoft).  There will be no Windows 11.  This is because Windows 10 is constantly evolving, which is done through huge six-monthly “feature” updates.  These updates are designed to keep Windows current with all the latest features, etc (and are additional to the more regular security fixes).  Unfortunately these updates have a habit of sometimes breaking things, which may even be the reason your computer isn’t starting in the first place.

At least we have an option to deal with this.  Click “Troubleshoot” and “Advanced options”.  Now select “Go back to the previous build, and click it again if you’d like to proceed.

Reset this PC

Windows 10 has the option to reinstall the OS (Operating System) baked right in; Microsoft calls it Reset Your PC.  Whereas Windows 7 – let’s not talk about Windows 8 (nobody liked that one) – required the installation DVD to reinstall the OS, Windows 10 let’s you do with no additional media; this is one of the few things I actually prefer over Windows 7.

Important. Resetting your computer should probably be considered as a last resort, and there are many other steps you can try (covered in this very post) before attempting it.  Sure, it may get you back up and running, you can even choose to keep your files (though I’d highly recommend you have a backup as well), but you’ll still have to install all of your programs again.

If you still want to try this, click “Troubleshoot” and this time select “Reset this PC”.  You have two options, “Keep my files” (which is most likely the one you want) or “Remove everything” (if you want to start afresh).  Click “Keep my files” and then click “Reset”.  Note. If, for whatever reason, you did want to remove everything, you then have the choice of “Just remove my files” or “Fully clean the drive” – the latter is great if you plan on disposing of the computer, as it will securely wipe the hard drive.  Since your computer is effectively reinstalling Windows, be prepared for a long wait – best to leave it running.

After trying these built-in recovery options, hopefully you have a working PC.  If not, let’s move on to the next step.

Step 8. Safe Mode

Where would we be without good old Safe Mode?  A lot of what can be done to resurrect a non-booting computer is carried out from here.  Knowing full well that there may come a day when your computer fails to start, Microsoft built this option right into its operating system to aid with recovery – it seems that the dreaded Blue Screen of Death (BsoD) was there from the very beginning (read more about the most infamous of Windows system crashes here).

In a nutshell, Safe Mode runs an extremely cutback version of Windows.  It does this by stopping most of the processes from running – the very code that makes Windows such a versatile and capable operating system, but also (potentially) what may be preventing your computer from starting.  Of course, if you can’t even log in to Safe Mode – which could well happen – you’ll need to dig deeper.  In which case (if your computer is displaying an error code) look back at Step 6, or click here.

Back in the good old days, accessing Safe Mode used to be as simple as hitting the power button and gently tapping the F8 key until the option appeared in a menu to load it.  Unfortunately, Microsoft knows best and – for reasons known only to them – this is not possible any more.  Instead, there is now a range of options to get us there (none of which is as straightforward as tapping F8).

Booting into Safe Mode

It could be argued that Safe Mode is another of Windows recovery services – though in and of itself it does nothing to fix your broken computer; it’s what you can do from within it that can potentially save the day – still, this is perhaps why Microsoft has chosen to make it accessible from the same Choose an option screen as the rest of the Windows recovery options.

So, in order to boot into Safe Mode, you need to load the Choose an option screen first (as covered in Step 7 – click here to revisit it).  From there, click “Troubleshoot” and then select “Advanced options”.  On the next screen, choose “Startup Settings”, and then click “Restart”.  After the computer reboots it will go into the Startup Settings screen.  Use the number keys on your keyboard and press the number 4 (Enable Safe Mode) to start in Safe Mode.

Tone’s Tip. Option 4) Enable Safe Mode only works with local accounts (those created on the computer itself).  If you usually sign in to your Windows 10 computer using a Microsoft account, you’ll need to select 5) Enable Safe Mode with Networking instead, as this is an online account.

All being well, your computer will boot to the login screen.  Login as you normally would and you’ve finally reached Safe Mode – easy, or what!!  If you can now successfully log on, that’s good news.  It more than likely means your problem is software related, which is cheaper to fix.

Now you know how to access Safe Mode, let’s investigate three things you can do from within it to potentially fix your computer.

Disable Services
Disable Startup Programs
Remove a dodgy driver

Disable Services

The first is to disable services.  Back when your computer was functioning properly there would’ve been all sorts of services working behind the scenes (these are the processes running in the background executing program code – they’re what make your computer function).  On occasion, some of these can go awry.  So let’s make sure everything’s in order.

Boot into Safe Mode and, from the desktop, open the Start Menu.  Start typing “msconfig” (without the quotes).  When “System Configuration” appears, click on it.  You should now be looking at the following screen.

Next, click on the Services tab.  Put a tick in the “Hide all Microsoft services” checkbox (as shown in the screenshot).  This narrows the services down to those outside of the operating system – in other words, software that you’ve installed.  Hopefully it’s fairly evident what each of them is, if not from the name of the service then by the Manufacturer.

We’re going to disable all of them to see if it’s one of these that’s causing the problem.  Click on “Disable all” and then click “OK”.  You’ll be asked to restart your computer to apply the changes and then your computer will reboot.  Fingers crossed it will boot to the login screen and allow you to login to Windows (no longer in Safe Mode).  If this is the case, go back into System Configuration (following the earlier steps).  If not, skip to the “Disable Startup Programs” section lower down (or click here).

You will see that the system has started using something called Selective startup (on the General tab).  This confirms that our non-Microsoft Services have been disabled, and that one of them is causing your computer not to boot.  If you go back to the Services tab, you can re-enable them one at a time (click “OK” and restart after each).

Unfortunately, constant restarting can be a laborious process (depending on how much software you have installed).  Eventually you should reach the service that’s preventing your computer from starting.  Congratulations, you now know which program is causing the issue and can proceed to the Remove Problematic Software section (or click here).

Disable Startup Programs

Next up, we have disable startup programs.  It could be a troublesome program that’s trying to run in the background when Windows launches that’s causing the problem.  To check this, we’re going to disable programs from starting automatically.

From the desktop in Safe Mode, click the Start Menu and type “msconfig” (without the quotes).  This will open System Configuration, the same as used in the last section to disable services.  However, this time click the “Startup” tab.  You’ll note that, with Windows 10, Task Manager now handles this, so click “Open Task Manager”.

It will open on the Startup tab and you’ll see a list of any software that’s enabled to run at boot time.  Single click on a program to select it and then click the “Disable” button.  Do this for each program in turn until all of them show “Disabled” in the Status column, then reboot your computer.

If you can logon as normal (into Windows proper, not Safe Mode), go back into System Configuration (msconfig) and turn the startup programs back on, one at a time – restart your computer after each one has been re-enabled.  Once you get to the program that prevents your computer from starting, you know where the problem lies and can move on to Remove Problematic Software section directly below.

Remove Problematic Software

The astute among you will have observed that I didn’t list this as a separate section; the reason being is it’s merely the follow-on from the Services and Startup Programs sections.  If either of those were causing the problem, disabling them from starting is really just a temporary fix.  Ideally you should remove the software that’s responsible, as follows.

In Safe Mode, open the Start Menu and click “Settings”, then select “System – Display, notifications, apps, power”, and finally “Apps & features”.  Now scroll down the list until you find the problematic program and single click on it.  The “Uninstall” button will reveal itself and you can click this to remove the software.  After you’ve done this, restart your PC.

All being well, your computer should boot properly.  All that’s left to do is to return the startup mode to normal – remember we altered it by disabling services and/or startup programs.  Go back into System Configuration (msconfig) and on the General tab select “Normal startup”.  After clicking “OK”, you’ll need to restart one last time.  Congratulations on fixing your PC woes.

Remove a dodgy driver

Note. You may need access to a second computer to carry out this step.

No, not a doggy driver, a dodgy driver (one that’s corrupt).  Drivers are the software that control (or drive) the hardware connected to your computer, and it could be one of these that’s causing the startup problem.  Everything from the graphics chip to an attached printer requires a driver to operate correctly.  So, as you might imagine, there’s quite a few of them.

You may have recently updated one (in which case you can likely identify the culprit), or the issue could have arisen due to a Windows update – believe it or not, this has been known to break drivers that were working perfectly well (and upset a few other things besides; and I’m not just talking about Computer Technicians!)  Regardless of the cause, the solution remains the same: we need to remove the suspect driver, and for this we need Device Manager.

From within Safe Mode, click on the Start Menu and start typing “device manager” (without the quotes) until it appears in a list for you to select.  Once Device Manager has opened, removing a driver is as simple as right-clicking on a piece of hardware (you may have to expand the section first by clicking the little arrow to the left) and choosing “Uninstall”.  Click “OK” to agree to the driver being uninstalled.  Depending on what you remove, you may need to restart the computer.

If your computer starts successfully and is back up and running, you should install any driver(s) you removed.  However, this is where you might require access to a second computer (if a driver you removed was a network adapter, your “repaired” computer may not have internet access until the driver is reinstalled).

Tone’s Tip. When replacing a driver(s), try to download the new one(s) from your computer manufacturer’s website to make sure they’re genuine.  They’re normally available on the support page.  Select either the model number of your system, or enter its serial number, and you should see the available drivers for you to download – also make sure you’ve got the correct operating system selected.  Copy these to a USB flash drive so that you can install them on your “broken” PC.

How do you know which driver to remove?

A good question.  Windows has another handy built-in tool called the Event Viewer.  Click the Start Menu and type “control panel” (without the quotes), then open it.  Next you want to to click on “Administrative Tools” and finally double-click “Event Viewer”.

You’re looking for any error in the “Windows Logs” section on the left.  Expand the group and look through the subsections.  Click on an error to view the information beneath it.  More info can be gleanded from the “Details” tab.  If nothing jumps out at you, make a note of any listed code(s) – error or otherwise – then look back at Step 6, or click here.

Step 9. Command prompt to the rescue

The venerable command line.  It has stuck with PCs since back in the days of MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System).  Redmond (that’s where Microsoft’s headquarters are located) would have you believe that it’s all about PowerShell these days, but there’s still a lot that can be achieved through a command prompt window.

As your computer is having trouble starting, first boot into Safe Mode (here we go again!) and, because we’re getting geeky and going old school, we’ll use the Power Users Menu to open a command prompt.  To do this, hold down the Windows key and press “X” on your keyboard.  A different menu will pop up with all sorts of options.  You want “Command Prompt (Admin)”, so click on that.

An empty black box with a flashing cursor may seem daunting at first, but don’t panic, I’ll explain what we’re doing step by step, and the commands are nice and easy anyway.  So allow me to introduce you to two command line tools for checking the integrity of the system.

The first is called chkdsk.

Chkdsk (short for check disk) does exactly what the name implies.  It looks at every sector of the (hard) disk to check for errors – an excessive amount can be the sign of a failing drive.  To get maximum use out of this tool, we’re going to use a switch (a “switch” is tagged on to the end of a command to tell it to do something more specific).  In this case I’m adding “/R”, which means locate any bad sectors and recover any readable information.

So the full command will be “chkdsk /R” (minus the quotes).  Type it in and press Enter.  You may receive a message (highlighted in the screenshot) about the volume being in use by another process.  If this is the case, it will ask you if you’d like it to run the next time the system restarts.  Type “Y” for Yes and press the Enter key, then reboot your computer.  The process may take a while as its scanning the entire drive – a good opportunity for a coffee break.

The second command is sfc.

Perhaps not such an obvious name, until you know what it stands for.  Short for System File Checker, this tool scans the integrity of all protected system files.  However, it requires an additional tag in order to work.  We’ll use “/scannow”, which repairs files with problems when possible, replacing incorrect versions with the correct Microsoft ones.

So type in the full command, “sfc /scannow” (minus the quotes), and press Enter.  Again, this may take some time to complete, but just leave it running and come back to check on the progress.  Hopefully, after running both of these commands, and restarting your computer, Windows will load and your computer will be back up and running.

Step 10. Use a rescue disk

Note. You will need access to a second computer to carry out this step.

Software exists designed primarily to get you out of a pickle (or out of trouble, if that doesn’t translate in the US).  A useful tool for the job is the All in One – System Rescue Toolkit.  This is available for free and you can download it here.

Grab the ISO file and copy it to a USB flash drive using another free (and also very handy) program called Etcher.

Then plug the flash drive into your computer that won’t start.

Tone’s tip. You may need to change the boot order in the BIOS/UEFI to get it to boot from USB.

When the boot menu loads, leave it on the preselected “All in One – System Rescue Toolkit” option and press Enter.  The software will load to a desktop full of icons.  There’s lots here, but we’re only interested in one: the “Boot Repair” icon.  Double-click it to open the program.

For a deeper look at what’s going on, you could delve into the “Advanced options”, but the “Recommended repair (repairs most frequent problems)” is all that’s required.  This automatically restores the Master Boot Record (MBR) and repairs Windows boot files.  So click it and let the program do its thing.  You probably don’t want to upload the report to pastebin when it’s finished, so click “No”.

Once complete, by all means read the summary file, then click “OK” to close the Boot Repair screen.  Now restart your computer (to accomplish this, click what resembles the Windows Start Menu and select “Logout”, then choose “Reboot”).  Remove the flash drive from your computer and press Enter when instructed to do so.  Time to cross your fingers (and toes) and hope that Windows starts.

Step 11. Get help

Well done on getting this far and ruling out a whole truck load of possible problems.  I’m afraid if nothing has worked so far, it’s not looking good.  At this point, it’s highly likely that its the hardware at fault.  If you really want to rescue your PC, and don’t want to replace it, you should probably contact your local computer repair shop.

Disclaimer. While the information contained within this feature is, to the best of my knowledge, accurate and correct, I take no responsibility for any data loss or damage that occurs from you undertaking your own repairs.