Help! My Icons, Start Menu and Taskbar Have Disappeared!

Surprised User

Unless you’re brand new to using Windows, you have likely experienced a problem with your icons, start menu and task bar suddenly going MIA. If you had no windows up, you were probably left looking at a solid colored screen with just a mouse cursor on it. With nothing on your screen, you had no way to interact with your computer. Maybe you had typed some important notes in to notepad (which does not autosave) or maybe you’d left a useful figure up in the Windows calculator. With no way to access those windows, you had to do a hard turn off of your PC by holding down the power button. Your work was lost.


Today, I’m going to teach you how to recover your unsaved work in that scenario INSTEAD of turning your PC off. If you already turned your PC off then this tutorial isn’t for you. This brief tutorial will teach you how to attempt to recover your Windows session so you can save your unsaved work.


How to Know If This Tutorial Is For You

This tutorial is appropriate for you if “Windows has disappeared” (an oversimplification that will make my IT colleagues cringe or laugh if they read it). If your start menu, task bar, clock, system tray, desktop icons and, if applicable, wallpaper are nowhere to be found, you will find this article of use regardless of whether those things never appeared after you logged in to Windows or they disappeared while you were using Windows.


The Limits of This Article

The symptoms described in the previous section are almost always caused when a Windows process called “explorer.exe” crashes and is not automatically relaunched. That is the immediate cause… but there are several things that might be responsible for the crash of explorer.exe. This article will teach you how to recover your Windows session, save any unsaved work and restart your computer. Restarting your computer will often fix whatever issue caused explorer.exe to crash… but not always. Explorer.exe should not be crashing on a regular basis. If this is a frequent thing, you have a bigger problem and you’ll need to do some googling to find the cause and address it. I will give you a very quick and simple rubric here that will resolve the vast majority of cases where Explorer.exe is crashing on a regular basis: (1) Even if you have an antivirus, download Malwarebytes Antimalware, install it and run it on the affected PC. You probably have malware and that is probably causing Explorer.exe to crash. (2) No significant malware? Do a system restore to a time before the problem began. You’ll have to google how to do it. (3) Google how to use a command line utility called SFC.


If none of those techniques stop the recurrent crashes, do some googling or get your PC to a qualified technician. What I’m trying to say, and I’m doing a lousy job so far, is that this article only walks you through salvaging your work and rebooting your PC in the case of the odd, isolated Explorer.exe crash. If you’re trying to learn how to make Explorer.exe stop crashing, this is not the right tutorial for you.


How to Recover Your Session and Reboot Your PC


You may or may not have received a scary dialog box with an error message informing you that Explorer.exe has crashed. Maybe your icons, start menu, taskbar, clock and system tray just disappeared out from under your nose. Maybe you logged in to Windows and Windows just never appeared… with the exception of the mouse cursor. From the previous sections of this article, you should now know whether this article applies to your situation so I’m not going to dwell anymore on that.

But before we get started on how to try to recover your unsaved work and restart your PC, I’d like to give you a super quick (promise!) overview of what’s happened to deprive you of your Windows interface. It’s very simple. “Processes” work together on your PC to do… just about everything your computer does. Each process has a job. One process on Windows PCs is called “Explorer.exe.” Its job is to show you the Windows interface and allow you to interact with Windows. Other files help Explorer.exe do its job but that’s beyond the scope of this tutorial. Explorer.exe displays your desktop icons, your start menu, your taskbar, your system tray and your clock. Explorer.exe’s job is very important. So when it crashes, it is supposed to automatically relaunch itself to bring back the Windows interface. But sometimes it doesn’t get relaunched. When that happens, you’re left without an obvious way to interact with Windows. If you have no windows up, you’ll just be staring at a mouse cursor on a solid colored background. That’s where this tutorial comes in to help you rescue your unsaved work and get your PC restarted.


Recover Your Saved Work With Alt+Tab

So, the first thing you should know is that ALT+Tab still works. If you don’t already know, holding down Alt and tapping the tab key toggles through active application windows in Windows. It will pull up a menu that will remain on your screen as long as you keep holding down alt. Every time you tap Tab, the selector will move to the right unless it’s at the end of your active application windows. If it’s at the end of the list of your application windows, it will go back to the beginning (all the way to the left).

If you’d prefer to try to recover your Windows session, read the next section called “Recover Your Windows Session.”

Use Alt+Tab to get to all the applications in which you have unsaved work. Save your work. Skip to the section about how to reboot your PC.


Recover Your Windows Session

This is a little bit riskier than Alt+Tab because you’re reopening a process (Explorer.exe) that Windows had to close because there was a problem with it. Maybe the problem that caused Explorer.exe to crash is still there. When I say “riskier,” the risk is primarily that Explorer.exe will continue to crash and interrupt things you’re doing. It’s really a better idea to just take the time to reboot. It’s also possible that relaunching Explorer.exe could lead to an even more problematic error resulting in your system locking up completely or having to restart itself completely (like a “Blue Screen of Death”). If you want to try to recover and resume your Windows session anyway, please use the Alt+Tab method above to access all the programs in which you have unsaved work and save your work before attempting to recover your session.

Press CTRL+Shift+Esc on your keyboard to launch the Task Manager. That is, hold down the Ctrl key. While holding down the Ctrl key, also hold down the Shift key. While continuing to hold down both the Ctrl and Shift keys, tap the Esc key. Now release all the buttons. The Task Manager should appear. If you’re using a version of Windows earlier than Windows 10, you want the Processes tab. If you’re using Windows 10, you want the details tab. The processes should be sorted in alphabetical order. If not, click the column heading that says “Name.” Now scroll down and see if Explorer.exe is running. If your icons, taskbar, start menu, etc. are missing, then Explorer.exe will probably not be on this list.

Task Manager

If you don’t see Explorer.exe on the process list then skip to the next paragraph. If you do see Explorer.exe on the process list then it’s not working correctly so we’re going to force it to close then restart it. Click on Explorer.exe so that it’s selected. Now click the “End task” button. On the confirmation window that appears, click “End process.” It should disappear.

Up at the top left of the window, click “File” then click “Run new task…”

Run Box in Task Manager

In the text box labeled “Open:,” type “explorer” without the quotes and then press the “Enter” button.

If all goes well, your Windows interface should reappear. Do what you need to do and then I really recommend that you restart your PC through the Windows interface as you normally would if you wanted to restart your PC.

If your Windows interface never reappeared after you tried to restart Explorer, then you should proceed to section about restarting your PC to learn how to restart your PC through the Task Manager.


About Your Internet Explorer Windows and Folder Windows

If they you can’t access them with Alt+Tab then they’re gone. Windows ate them. Sorry.

No… really. I’m not kidding. They were tied to Explorer.exe. When Explorer.exe crashed, you lost your Internet Explorer windows and the windows for any open folders you were browsing.

Newer versions of Internet Explorer don’t close when Explorer crashes but older ones do. Folder windows will close if Explorer crashes.


Restart Your PC

If you recovered your Windows session then you can just restart your PC through the shutdown menu button on the start menu like you normally would.

If you did not recover your Windows session, hopefully you saved your work using the Alt+Tab method above. If not, you should save any unsaved work using the Alt+Tab method. After any unsaved work has been saved, proceed with the following to make your PC restart itself.

I’m going to teach you how to restart your PC by typing a command in to the run box in Task Manager. There is an easier way… you could hit CTRL+Alt+Delete and then click the shutdown/reboot button. But I’m teaching you the command method because we’re going to be a little more… firm with Windows than usual. We’re going to tell Windows not to bother waiting for every program to confirm that it’s ready for a reboot. We’re also going to tell Windows that we’re not interested in doing Windows updates right now.

First, Task Manager needs to be open. If Task Manager isn’t open, hit CTRL+Shift+Esc to open Task Manager. Click “File” at the top left of the window and then click “Run new task…”

Force Shut Down Command

Carefully type the following command in to the field labeled “Open:” and then press the “Enter” key. Your PC will reboot when you do.

shutdown -f -r -t 00


Because this blog is designed to cater to home and small business users with even the most basic technical knowledge and skills, my posts tend towards verbosity. But the process described here is really quite simple and you’ll probably remember it after you do it once. In short, if “Windows has disappeared,” use Alt+Tab to toggle to your programs and save your work. Then call up Task Manager and use it to restart your PC. Alternatively (and at slightly higher risk of system instability), recover your Windows interface by using Task Manager to relaunch explorer.exe. Then restart your PC after quickly wrapping up whatever you need to wrap up.

Copyright Shaun Whelden 2019
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