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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Blue Screen of Death (BSOD)

This past weekend I had some issues with my laptop's hard drive and I thought that this would be the perfect time for the first Tech Tips/Advice article. Hard drives today have gotten so large that we often forget that the smallest error in that drive can wreak havoc on your computer. Now I was lucky this time that the hard drive didn't die but next time I might not be so fortunate and its good to know what to do if you're ever in this situation. I can tell you from experience that if you own a computer you will have to deal with a hard drive problem at some point in life.

I'm sure most people here have experienced a blue screen of death at some point in their past. Even if you didn't know what a blue screen of death was you'd be able to figure it. Lets just say that it isn't a good thing as anything with the word death in it is usually isn't. Techies often refer to a blue-screen-of-death by the acronym BSOD, which is how I'll refer to it from now on. BSODs have existed since the dawn of Windows and the name was coined by Erik Noyes while he worked for Charles Schwab and Co., Inc.'s technical support for the Electronic Service Delivery division in early 1991. Ever since then, blue screens of death have popped up everywhere, even at your local ATM.

A little background ...
Google is a great research tool and a quick keyword search for "Blue Screen of Death" returns over 22 million pages containing the words. Here is an examples of a BSOD from a Windows XP machine:



In new operating systems (OSes), such as Windows 2K / NT / XP, a blue screen of death occurs when the kernel or a driver running in kernel mode, encounters an error from which it cannot recover. Therefore, the only safe action the computer can take it to force the user to restart. Unfortunately, the user is not given any opportunity to save any new work and the data is lost. Microsoft more affectionately refers to these errors as 'Stop Errors' or 'Bug Checks' in their documentation.

When a BSOD occurs, the operating system creates a memory dump file which is effectively a copy of the entire contents of physical RAM. The memory dump file can be debugged later, using a kernel debugger, to ascertain the true cause of the problem. The other instance when a BSOD of death is encountered is when a criticl boot loader error occurs. This occurs when the opertaing system is unable to access the drive or a part of the operating system. When this happens, there is no memory dump but the problem can be fixed by using the Windows Installer CD.

If you get a blue-screen you can use the information on it to determine what went wrong and how to fix it. In my experience, most of the blue-screens are a result of a hard drive access problem and can be fixed with the Windows CD.

Red Screen of Doom (RSOD)
Until I did some research for this article I was not familiar with the Red-Screen-of-Doom (RSOD). The RSOD is the nickname for error messages that exist in some beta versions of the upcoming Windows Vista as well as in rare versions of Windows 98. The screen appears when a boot loader error occurs. Essentially, RSOD is the ugly red-headed step-brother of the now infamous BSOD. While the RSOD was removed from Vista in the latest versions, we can be happy that the more popular Blue-Screen-of-Death still remains.

Popular Blue Screens of Death
The most famous BSOD occured at COMDEX '98 when Microsoft's Bill Gates was debuting the new Windows 98. The demonstration PC spit up a BSOD when an assistant connected a scanner to it. The event has been memorialized on tape and can be seen here. Gates' only response was, "That must be why we're not shipping Windows 98 yet." BSODs have become so popular infamous that it has been included in TV shows, movies, games, and even on T-shirts. A comic named after the BSOD can be found here. If you really want to experience a BSOD for yourself try this web simulation out.

Macs Don't have BSODs?
This isn't completely true. Back in the day, Macs just like PCs had their share of problems and they came in the form of Sad Macs and Bombs. Today Macs run on Unix which is much more stable but still prone to problems.

Still hungry?
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