Note: This article is adapted from Windows 7 Secrets Chapter 25, Troubleshooting and Recovering from Disaster. –Paul

The integrated Windows Troubleshooting tools works well in Windows 7, and they’re one of many reasons that this OS is superior to its predecessors. But sometimes you will run into an issue that isn’t covered by the built-in troubleshooters. When that happens, it’s time to escalate the issue, either with Microsoft Support or, if you’re a corporate customer, with your IT help desk. Either way, Windows 7 includes an excellent new tool that takes the guesswork out of explaining what happened when something went wrong. It’s called the Problem Steps Recorder, and it allows you to record the steps you took leading up to a problem so you can duplicate it and provide a record of what happened.

Secret: Problem Steps Recorder is hidden in Windows 7, so you have to know it exists before you can access it. To enable this tool, open the Start Menu and type problem steps in Start Menu Search. You’ll see an item called Record steps to reproduce a problem in the search results. Click that, and the minimalistic Problem Steps Recorder application appears.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Problem Steps Recorder
Problem Steps Recorder is hidden in the Windows 7 UI and pretty subtle when it’s running too.

Here’s how it works. Click the Start Record button in Problem Steps Recorder. When you do, the application interface changes slightly, to indicate that it’s recording and provide a few additional options, including Pause Record, Stop Record, and Add Comment.

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Windows 7 Feature Focus: Problem Steps Recorder
You’re on candid camera: Duplicate that bug.

Now, you step through the things you did that caused the issue you’re trying to report. Along the way, as you click on things, you’ll see an orange circle appear below the mouse pointer, indicating that Problem Steps Recorder has taken note of that step. If you get to a particularly important part, you can take a manual screen, and provide a note: Just click Add Comment and you’ll see something like the following figure.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Problem Steps Recorder
Take a picture and leave a note if you want to explain something further.

When you’re done, click Stop Record. Problem Steps Recorder will prompt you to save a ZIP file on your desktop. Give it a name and click Save. At this point, you’re supposed to email this to the entity that’s going to provide the help. But let’s take a look inside that ZIP file to see what’s going on.

Inside the ZIP file, surprisingly, you’ll find a single MHTML document, which can be viewed with Internet Explorer. The file, an example of which can be seen in Figure 25-15, is actually pretty impressive. It includes a complete walkthrough of all the steps you took.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Problem Steps Recorder
The Recorded Problem Steps file documents want went wrong.

But it’s even more impressive than that. Each time you clicked anything, the Problem Steps Recorder took a screenshot and highlighted what was clicked. As you can see here, this can be very specific.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Problem Steps Recorder
Each mouse click triggers a screenshot.

Secret: Problem Steps Recorder is so helpful, in fact, that it’s not hard imagining using it as a training tool or for other kinds of documentation. Hm…

But wait, there’s more…

There’s much more going on with Windows 7’s troubleshooting and recovery features, but you’ll have to check out Windows 7 Secrets for the rest, including Windows Troubleshooting, Troubleshooting Packs, Startup Repair, Windows Recovery Environment, and System Restore. The book is available now from Amazon.com and other booksellers. Click here to find out more about Windows 7 Secrets.