Q: How about helping us decipher Microsoft Error description messages? I’m tech savvy, but sometimes they’re really confusing. — Paul

To most computer users, Microsoft’s error messages (as well as the software industry in general) are about as useful as the ‘idiot light’ on older cars and do a good job of making most of us feel like an idiot when they pop up on the screen.

I’m not sure why the average computer user (much less a tech savvy user) would have any problems understanding error messages such as “Invalid Page Fault” or “General Protection Fault” or even the ever popular “Fatal Exception Error!”

Microsoft’s error messages are a great example of how many software developers and engineers write software in a bubble. To them, the whole world should understand these basic concepts and have the ability to decipher their cryptic messages because it’s second nature to them.

These error messages do have meaning and can be very helpful when you can find the guru at the top of the mountain that understands them, so here are my tips for dealing with these messages:

  1. Despite the complexity and confusing language, don’t ignore error messages. If possible, take a screen shot of the error message (press the Print Screen or PrtSc button, then paste into a Word document) or write it down verbatim.
  2. Take a second to gather your thoughts about what you were doing when the message came up (jot it down while it’s still fresh in your mind to avoid the ‘I don’t remembers’ later).
  3. If you are a Do It Yourselfer, put the exact error message with quotation marks into Google to see what others have posted about the error.
  4. If you want to see specifically what Microsoft has posted about the error message, append your Google search with ‘site:microsoft.com’ which tells Google to only bring back results of pages that it has indexed on Microsoft’s site.

The most important part of the error message is the gibberish that often follows the generic error messages. Any time you see the expression ’caused an error at: XXXXXX’ in any part of an error message, this is what will allow you to track a more specific solution to your problem.

In other words, if you search for ‘Invalid Page Fault’ in Google, you will get millions of pages of information that will be of no use to you. If you search for ‘Invalid Page Fault in module XXXX.dll’ you will get closer to solving your specific situation, but if you include the whole thing: “Iexplore caused an invalid page fault in module Kernel32.DLL” you will have the highest likelihood of finding a solution to your problem.

In addition, intermittent problems are the hardest to fix as there is no way to unequivocally test the system, since you can’t force the problem to appear at will. In these cases, the users details about what was being used around the time of the error (programs, printers, USB devices, etc.) becomes even more important.

Searching for an explanation of an error message in Google will generally bring you to a site that will have some valid information for solving your issue, but if you aren’t patient or willing to weed through all the results and/or try some of the solutions, you may be better off documenting the error and consulting someone that does have the patience and experience.

Whatever you decide, two additional bits of advice: make sure you have a current backup of your critical data whenever you decide to try a ‘fix’ that you find on the Internet and strongly consider creating a “Restore Point” in Windows just in case you need to go ‘back in time!’

Ken Colburn
Data Doctors Computer Services
Data Doctors Data Recovery Labs
Data Doctors Franchise Systems, Inc.
Weekly video tech contributor to CNN.com
Host of the award-winning “Computer Corner” radio show