Windows Freezes at Login Screen: Hardware Problem or Windows Problem?

Windows fixes
Reader Greg is trying to help his in-laws solve a pretty major laptop problem:

"When it powers on, it comes to the login page and freezes. The mouse won’t move and I can’t type in anything into the password field. The disk access looks busy, which I know is typical when a PC starts, but even after it eventually slows down, neither the mouse nor keys will work. I tried firing it up in the various Safe Modes but the results are the same."

Greg also notes that he tried a system-recovery disk he created on a different system, but had no luck with that, either.

Problems like this can be difficult to diagnose. The fact that you're "locked out" even when booting into Safe Mode suggests there might be some kind of hardware failure, but because it sounds like the boot process is running its course in the background, there might be something else afoot.

Here's my suggestion: try Linux. Specifically, load any "live" version of the Linux operating system onto a flash drive, then boot from that drive. (Lincoln Spector explains how in Boot Linux From a Portable USB Drive with Universal USB Installer.)

This is a pretty cool trick, because it effectively turns your PC into a Linux system without making any permanent changes to it. The entire OS is contained on the flash drive, and it runs from the flash drive, thereby leaving your Windows programs and data alone.

That said, assuming you're able to boot successfully, you'll be able to access any data stored on the hard drive, meaning you now have a rescue option. You could, for example, copy important files back to the flash drive, or upload them to the cloud for later retrieval.

The key here is to boot Linux and see if the system works. If it does, then there's probably some corrupted Windows driver or system file that's leaving you stuck at the login screen. Given that your system-restore and -repair efforts failed, you may have no choice but to wipe the drive and reinstall Windows. That's not fun, but in my experience it solves 99 percent of problems--and makes slowpoke PCs run much faster.

If Linux doesn't work--you still can't control anything with the mouse and keyboard--then you're almost certainly dealing with a hardware issue. Now it's time to look at your repair options. My advice: find a local shop, explain the steps you've tried, and see what they advise. Of course, if the system is still under warranty, start with the manufacturer.

Contributing Editor Rick Broidawrites about business and consumer technology. Ask for help with your PC hassles at hasslefree@pcworld.com, or try the treasure trove of helpful folks in the PC World Community Forums.Sign up to have theHassle-Free PC newslettere-mailed to you each week.

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