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How to solve Windows 8 crashes in less than a minute

By Dirk A. D. Smith, Network World
April 15, 2013 05:09 AM ET

Network World - Windows 8 has been out for a while, featuring an interface that's as cool as it is annoying . . . until you get the hang of it. But, like any computer operating system, it can fall over. Luckily, there is an easy way to solve the cause of most crashes; just call up WinDbg, the Windows debugger; a free tool to diagnose the most common causes of Windows crashes -- misbehaved third party drivers.

In W8, the Blue Screen of Death/BSOD has been modified to include a large, simple : ( emoticon and a short message in human (if not very informative) language. (Watch a slideshow version that walks you through any crash.]

Windows 8
The Windows 8 Blue Screen of Death has become the frown of frustration.

Also, Microsoft has made advancements in the dump file creation and management process. While this article focuses on W8, the information applies to both RT and Server 2012. For earlier operating systems, see Solve Windows 7 crashes in minutes or, for XP and 2000, see How to solve Windows crashes in minutes.

About Windows crashes

Operating system crashes are quite different from applications crashes, system hangs or other problems. In most cases, operating systems crash as a protective measure. When the OS discovers that critical devices are failing or that an internal operating system state has been identified as inconsistent because of possible viruses, bad device drivers or even RAM failures, it is generally safer to stop immediately. Otherwise, continuing operations would allow far more serious damage, such as application data corruption or loss.

[HELP IS ON THE WAY: Where to go for help with Windows crashes]

Two out of three system crashes are caused by third party drivers taking inappropriate actions (such as writing to non-existent memory) in Kernel mode where they have direct access to the OS kernel and to the hardware.

In contrast, drivers operating in User Mode, with only indirect access to the OS kernel, cannot directly cause a crash. A small percentage of crashes are caused by hardware issues such as bad memory, even less by faults in the OS itself. And some causes are simply unknown.

Thanks for the memory dump

A memory dump is the ugliest best friend you'll ever have. It is a snapshot of the state of the computer system at the point in time that the operating system stopped. And, of the vast amount of not-very-friendly looking data that a dump file contains, you will usually only need a few items that are easy to grasp and use. With the introduction of Windows 8, the OS now creates four different memory dumps; Complete, Kernel, and Minidumps and the new Automatic memory dump.

1. Automatic memory dump

Location: %SystemRoot%\Memory.dmp

Size: ≈size of OS kernel

The Automatic memory dump is the default option selected when you install Windows 8. It was created to support the "System Managed" page file configuration which has been updated to reduce the page file size on disk. The Automatic memory dump option produces a Kernel memory dump, the difference is when you select Automatic, it allows the SMSS process to reduce the page file smaller than the size of RAM.

2. Complete memory dump

Location: %SystemRoot%\Memory.dmp

Size: ≈size of installed RAM plus 1MB

A complete (or full) memory dump is about equal to the amount of installed RAM. With many systems having multiple GBs, this can quickly become a storage issue, especially if you are having more than the occasional crash. Normally I do not advise saving a full memory dump because they take so much space and are generally unneeded. However, there are cases when working with Microsoft (or another vendor) to find the cause of a very complex problem that the full memory dump would be very helpful. Therefore, stick to the automatic dump, but be prepared to switch the setting to generate a full dump on rare occasions.

3. Kernel memory dump

Location: %SystemRoot%\Memory.dmp

Size: ≈size of physical memory "owned" by kernel-mode components

Kernel dumps are roughly equal in size to the RAM occupied by the Windows 8 kernel. On my test system with 4GB RAM running Windows 8 on a 64-bit processor the kernel dump was about 336MB. Since, on occasion, dump files have to be transported, I compressed it, which brought it down to 80MB. One advantage to a kernel dump is that it contains the binaries which are needed for analysis. The Automatic dump setting creates a kernel dump file by default, saving only the most recent, as well as a minidump for each event.

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