Every other week or so, FOXNews.com tries to solve your most vexing technology-related problems. Send your questions to TechQuestions@foxnews.com and we'll reply to selected ones in our next installment.

The year is fast drawing to a close, and your humble Nerd would like to wish one and all the merriest of Christmases and a very prosperous New Year.

For many of you, this means that the time has come to reload Windows on your computer to restore it to its original, fresh-out-of-the-box performance.

I came across a great tutorial on how to do this safely. You can find it here.

• Click here for FOXNews.com's Personal Technology Center.

An Icon in the High-Tech Field!

Q: I run XP on my home system. I do some development work so I have a stash of icon files that I use in the program interface designs.

Recently, when browsing the icon folders using Windows Explorer, the icons ceased showing their images and began displaying a default icon image for each of them. They had previously shown each icon's image, regardless of what view mode — list, detail, thumbnail, icon, etc.

It now is difficult to select the proper icon for a particular application without a lot of trial-and-error, since the icon names are not the best indicators of their appearance.

I think I must have changed a setting somewhere but cannot find it. Even searching the Net, I cannot find anything that addresses this. Can you help?

A: I think your problem might be a corrupted thumbnail cache. On XP systems, this means a small, hidden file named "thumbs.db" which exists in every directory that contains images that can be "thumbnailed" — unless the "Do not cache thumbnails" property has been set.

One of the curious properties of the thumbnail cache is that Windows doesn't remove the thumbnail from the database when a file is deleted from the directory.

This property can be exploited by computer forensics experts to determine if a file ever existed in the directory, whether it's currently there or not.

I don't know if there is a limit to how many thumbnails the database can hold. But if you are constantly adding and removing icons from a single directory, you can see how the file might get quite large.

Like any database file, "thumbs.db" is subject to corruption. There are many ways this can happen.

For example, it can get overwritten with a different "thumbs.db" file if you copy all the files from one directory to another and you answer that it is OK to replace "thumbs.db" when the program finds a file with the same name in both the target and source directories.

This might be the reason Microsoft chose to replace the multiple-thumbs.db-files-scheme found on XP with a single-thumbnail-cache-in-a-central-location scheme found in Vista.

Anyway, the solution is simple. Delete the existing "thumbs.db" file in your icons folder (you may have to go into folder properties and set "View hidden files" first, so that you can see it) and then view that folder in thumbnail view. It will rebuild "thumbs.db" and everything should be OK.

If that doesn't work, run Windows Explorer, choose Tools —> Folder Options —> File Types, scroll down and highlight the "ICO" file type, and then check to see if there is a program associated with the "ICO." Remove it if it isn't blank.

Me Has a Problem?

Q: The motherboard and processor on my XP system computer overheated. Both components experienced catastrophic failures but the hard drive survived. I replaced the processor and motherboard and reinstalled the same hard drive.

Now the system tries to boot but stops with an error stating the 'Intel ME' has a problem. How can I solve this problem?

A: "ME," in this case, is Intel's Management Engine interface. We occasionally see this message in conjunction with a failed attempt at upgrading the BIOS.

In your case, there's a mismatch between the physical chipset on the motherboard and the software on the disk.

By way of explanation, the chipset is a group of integrated circuits — or chips — that manage data traffic between the various components.

There is a controller for high-speed devices such as memory or AGP video, commonly referred to as the "northbridge," and a controller for slower devices like USB, IDE, ISA and legacy devices, commonly called the "southbridge."

Just like everything else, the chipset needs special software to communicate with the operating system.

In all honesty, the easiest solution is to get a new hard drive. Install it as your system drive, reload Windows and install the original drive as your "D:" drive. Then copy files from D: to C: as needed.

The caveat is that you need to have installation media for all the software you want to keep. Make sure to have the install CDs for Office, AutoCAD, Photoshop, etc.

If a Wipe and Reload isn't feasible, you need to figure out how to delete the chipset software without the ability to boot Windows. I wish you the best of luck.

Product Activation Question

Q: In the XP Deathwatch Q&A you indicated that Microsoft policy has the OS 'die' with the computer. For a pre-installed bundled version of the software on a new computer I would expect so, but I would like to verify whether or not this is the case for the Windows retail version.

If I purchase a copy of the OS at retail, I would expect I could use it on my current 'built it myself' computer as well as my next machine — whatever that might be.

A: This is a spirit-of-the-law vs. letter-of-the-law question.

Microsoft is trying to curtail what it considers software piracy — the practice of buying the OS once and then installing it on many computers. Hence the policy that the OS dies with the machine. That's the letter of the law.

Microsoft realizes, however, that hardware can fail — as it did with the unfortunate reader in the previous question — and so they allow you to reinstall the software and activate it online more than one single time. This is the spirit of the law.

How many times? I've been told that it's as few as three times and as many as 10 times. After that, the only way to activate is by telephone, where you talk to a living, breathing, carbon-based life form and try to convince that person that your eleventh activation really is legit (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

Your plan to install XP on your "next machine" clearly violates the letter of the law — and the spirit of the law, too, in my humble opinion.

But I refuse to get into the argument about how much Microsoft charges for the OS, other than to say that if all users were completely honest with regard to piracy, the software probably wouldn't be so expensive to begin with.

I do understand the opposing viewpoint, however, especially now that copies of XP are getting kinda scarce.

Windows XP Deathwatch, Mk. VI

In a related note, the BBC is reporting that "Microsoft has given yet another reprieve to its seasoned Windows XP operating system" by once again pushing back the deadline for PC makers to obtain licenses from Jan. 31, 2009 to May 30, 2009.

Well, You Can Do a Complete Wipe and Reload

Q: What can I do to get rid of the intrusion of the about:blank page window that appears spontaneously and freezes my Toshiba/Windows XP to the point where I have to shut down and re-start?

A: The CoolWebSearch (CWS) virus can produce this symptom. There are too many variants of this particular piece of malware to address in this column, but a good starting place for a solution can be found here.

Feedback

Regarding the question of KVM switching in my last installment, I heard from Bill in McKinney, Texas:

If the 'V' can be removed from the equation (in the case of laptops having their own displays), then there is a free 'KM over IP' solution at http://synergy2.sourceforge.net/. It's open source sharing of keyboard and mouse that is very similar to the Windows Display control panel and the Extended Desktop feature.

On the same subject, Jessica (who works for Intuit, but I'm not sure where) suggests "an application like Synergy to control multiple computers with one mouse/keyboard."

To complete the trifecta, reader William (again, not sure the location) writes:

At work I use a program called Synergy from http://synergy2.sourceforge.net/.

Three positive responses to one question! Perhaps I should include a dreadful pun in each of my answers?

Glenn in Nashville writes:

There is an even easier/cheaper solution for the KVM solution you discussed today.

Visit www.kavoom.biz and check out their SOFTWARE solutions that talk over your local network. They don't care what kind of connections for the keyboard, video or mouse you have, just so that the two machines can see each other over your local network. They've got some other GREAT solutions — we use them all over our office.

I checked, and as near as I can tell, Glenn doesn't work for Kavoom.

Finally, Chuck (no location) writes:

I'm a big fan of free software, and I look for the best of it. So I thought that as long as you are recommending a paid program to backup and restore drivers with or even across OS reinstallations, you might like to also try (and I'm sure you'll then also at least co-recommend) "Driver Max" software, which has a fully functional free version that will accomplish everything you recommended "My Drivers" for.

It is not a 15-day trial. It does also have a paid version with some optional functions, but those are not needed for the purpose of the recommendation you made (the paid version currently sells for $29). You can download it at the Driver Max home page.

Thanks and a hat tip to Bill, Jessica, William, Glenn and Chuck. As always, feedback is welcome here at Tech Q & A.

Guy R. Briggs is a member of the Nerds On Site international IT service team and is based in Los Angeles.

Got questions about computers and technology? Send them to TechQuestions@foxnews.com and we'll answer selected ones in our next installment.

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