159. Your Computer's Black Box
By Andrew D. Wright
When there's a plane crash, the first thing you hear about is the search
for the Black Box, a protected instrument package that keeps a record of
the plane's sensors and crew conversations. It gives investigators a place
to start looking for causes for the disaster.
Computers keep this sort of record as well. Usually referred to as log
files, your computer keeps a record of when programs and services start up
or are closed. The computer records the successes and failures of various
background tasks all the time.
In the Windows operating system these log items are called events and you
look at them with the Event Viewer.
When a Windows computer crashes or otherwise behaves in an unexpected
manner, there's usually a reason. If you can figure that out, you may be
able to fix the problem. This is where the Event Viewer comes into play.
In Windows you get to the Event Viewer by going to the Start button and
right-clicking on My Computer. In Windows Vista and Windows 7 you'd
right-click on Computer. On the context menu that opens up, click on
Manage. In Windows Vista and Windows 7 this will require Administrator
When clicking to select an item on a context menu, you always left-click.
This is a standard feature in Windows: right-click gives you a context
menu, left-click selects an item.
In the Computer Management window that will open up, Event Viewer will be
found under the System Tools menu. Click the little plus sign or arrow to
the left of Event Viewer and you'll see a number of categories listed. In
Windows Vista and Windows 7, you then click on Windows Logs.
The items we'll focus on here are Application, System and Security.
Application is referring to the programs you run on your computer.
Application items will have a time stamp and say Information, Warning or
Error. It is not unusual to see the occasional Warning or Error on any
system, and usually the items are minor. Newest items are at the top.
Double clicking on a listed item in Windows XP will show a more detailed
report. In Windows Vista and Windows 7, the Event Viewer has been
redesigned to show the detailed information right away when an item has
been selected. The detailed report will offer the option of sending the
information to Microsoft for a possible solution. This will require the
computer be on the Internet and may take a minute or three to come up.
The System heading covers all the background tasks Windows performs all
the time - synchronizing the computer clock with Internet time servers,
starting and stopping background services and the like. Again, it is not
unusual to see the odd Warning or Error here and most are minor. Clicking
on them shows the detailed message and online help from Microsoft is
available if needed.
Security covers Windows security audits and is usually more populated by
events in Windows Vista and Windows 7 systems where program access is more
restricted by Windows logins and the User Account Control (UAC) prompts.
What you're looking for in all three headings are clues to malfunctions
such as program crashes, system lockups and system crashes. Seeing a lot
of Warning or Error messages is your computer's Black Box trying to tell
you something is wrong. Check the dates to make sure you're looking at
events that occurred now and not in the past. Make sure your computer's
clock is set to the correct date and time since the computer time stamps
events based on what it thinks is the correct time.
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Originally published 2 October 2009