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Restoring access to your Windows XP Desktop

Ronald MacDonald <ronald@rmacd.com> Thu Mar 26 03:12:19 GMT 2009

Introduction

Windows XP is still used in many establishments, primarily due to its stability, and compatibility with a great deal of hardware and software. There are however, quite a few niggles. Some of these are minor, and can be ignored - like the default action for Windows XP to reboot after applying an update - without any user intervention or confirmation. Fine for security; not so fine if you’ve just spent the day amassing a workable window layout on your 800x600 screen, to find it disappeared after a quick fag break.

Another niggle - one which I will describe here - basically results in your desktop “disappearing” meaning the only thing that’ll come up on your screen is the Task Manager after having done the necessary 3-finger Ctrl+Alt+Delete.

The Cause

There can be a couple of reasons for this problem. If your desktop vanishes but you can still access the Task Manager, the chances are everything’s still okay. It just so happens that Windows can’t start up the explorer process. This could be due to data loss, for example if a virus manages to alter critical system files that deal with the shell (explorer.exe); or it could be corruption to an individual file, or so forth.

The Solution

There’s more than one solution.

The Good News: it means one of these options will work for you - so by covering all the bases, we’re checking out more than one cause to your desktop disappearing.

The Bad News: it might take a bit of time.

Before We Begin

You can open any file or application, or indeed just browse your system (so as to move/copy data) using the Task Manager. On the Task Manager, click on File and then select New Task (Run…). You’ll see a button “browse…”.

Finally, before you use this document, please be advised that I have written it in a discursive method, as opposed to providing a "Problem: Solution" method. This is a conscious effort to encourage you to identify problem-solving techniques in general, and I have tried to make this as clear as possible to read throughout.

Action #1 - Identify the cause of the problem

“Is it happening just to you? Or is it happening to everyone else as well?”

If you’re using XP Home or XP Professional, the chances are that when you installed Windows, you’d have been asked for a user password. Presuming all the settings are as default and Admin/Guest accounts on the computer are set up as standard, it shouldn’t be necessary to set up a separate account to check up on this one.

So! Back to the login screen. If you’re using “friendly” login (as is the default on XP Home), do Ctrl+Alt+Del 2-3 times, to get what’s (presumably) dubbed the unfriendly one. In the user field, tap in “Administrator” - for the password, initially try no password (blank), or try out your own. All else fails? Log in as yourself again and try the following:

Back on the broken desktop - tap Ctrl+Alt+Del; from the File option select New Task (Run…). In the ‘open’ field, type nusrmgr.cpl. This should bring up a familiar-looking interface. Set up an account (with a password) and log out again. Then log in to this new account.

Does the desktop appear?

If No - that’s fine. It’s a good sign your profile isn’t corrupted.

If Yes - that could mean that your individual account data (often referred to as the hive) has become corrupt. The easiest way of sorting this one out is to rename your current account, create a new one, and then transfer all your Documents and Settings. Check out Google for a few ways around this.

Action #2 - Discern a possible reason for this new account’s problem.

Upon logging in, Windows will run similar tasks for all users. These range from loading Group Policies, to setting up previous network shares. This also includes executing data in common folders, such as the little-appreciated Control Panel folder.

If you’ve recently installed any applications, some of these may have planted data into the Control Panel folder. These could be applications which deal with such things as Sound, TV Cards, AntiVirus/Firewall/Security, or sometimes Games and 3D/Graphics applications. If any of these Control Panel items are not compatible with your system, the chances are that it may be stopping your explorer.exe process to start up correctly (if at all).

To check which Control Panel items are currently being loaded, the items are found in your %SysRoot%\System32 folder. This usually translates as C:\WINDOWS\System32. All Control Panel items have the extension .cpl.

To find these, and try see if any have recently been added, use your Task Manager to open a new Browse window: from Task Manager, ‘File’ > ‘New Task (Run…)’ and then click on ‘Browse’. Make your way to the System32 folder, and then Right-Click > ‘Arrange’ > ‘As Type’. .exe and .dll files (application extensions) will be listed before any .cpl files, so skip through the first couple of hundred files. Try see from file creation times not modification files if any items have recently been added.

Any recent files?
  • No - Good.
  • Yes - move this file to another location on disk (C:\ would be ideal)

Corrupt explorer .exe?

This is quite probable to happen in situations where the disk suffers a power outage and could be the root cause of your issue. Unfortunately, as many individual files are used to extend the functionality of the explorer shell, and since different builds of Windows have slightly different distributions of this shell, it makes it very difficult to compare files (e.g. by md5 hash), so as to determine if a critical system file is still intact.

There are a couple of ways to sort this one out: First of all, if you’ve been running System Restore, it may be a very simple case of just “restoring” your system to its last usable state. Secondly, Windows itself provides a database of critical system files, their locations, and most importantly, includes their checksum. This enables the system to scan the disk, and compare individual files on disk to what they should be.

System Restore

It’s an easy application to use and I’m not going to patronise the typical reader of this site by pointing-and-clicking you through using System Restore. For reference, however, System Restore can be accessed using the Task Manager’s Run dialog, under the path %SystemRoot%\system32\restore\rstrui.exe. This is typically C:\WINDOWS\system32\restore\rstrui.exe. If you’ve left the system enabled, it should just be a case of clicking through the options, to get you to the system restoration process. Pick a date which is not too far in the past, but sure to be “trouble-free”, as the further back you go, the more you find missing on your system. Though System Restore will never touch any of your personal Documents (eg in My Documents or on the Desktop), there will be changes to the system by way of previously installed applications and so forth.

SFC Method

The running of SFC should be handled with a bit of caution. Remember that SFC searches for and replaces critical system files on your computer. However, it is often the only, and the quickest, way to restore full access to your computer. Since the Explorer shell is comprised of more than one library, it would be not be sensible to manually check each file for consistency - so that’s where SFC steps in.

What you will need

Your original Windows installation disk - if you don’t have one, borrow one.

Warning

The CD must be the same service pack. As you already have a copy of Windows on your system, for you to download an installation CD for system restoration purposes is legitimate: you will not be “re-installing” from this CD, just restoring.

Get in to a cmd (command) prompt - by the same method outlined above with the Task Manager. Run… > and type cmd. This should bring up a friendly black screen.

Now, insert the installation media, and then type sfc /scannow at the cmd prompt. This’ll start up another dialog, which’ll begin checking your system for consistency. If at any point it asks for confirmation, it’s just a case of clicking continue or such like, for the process to continue.

Have a coffee. Reboot. And you should be back on track.