Capturing error messages and looking up text for error code numbers

When it comes to troubleshooting end-user PCs, you often have to deal with cryptic error messages with unknown error codes. Here you will learn how to translate these error codes into descriptive messages.
Latest posts by Sami Laiho (see all)

Here are a few examples I have gotten from my end users. The first one gives me no information (and has a normal comment in it about IT's job being to break computers):

A message from an end user

A message from an end user

On the other hand, this piece of paper was once delivered to my desktop:

 A piece of paper on which an end user wrote down the entire blue screen

A piece of paper on which an end user wrote down the entire blue screen

Getting informative messages starts with making it easier for the end user to capture the error messages returned by the system. Here, I offer some easy-to-teach tips on doing just that.

Every error message in Windows includes copy/paste functionality. When you get an error message such as this one, just press Ctrl+C. This copies the text from the error message to the clipboard.

You can press Ctrl+C to copy the error text to the clipboard

You can press Ctrl+C to copy the error text to the clipboard

You can then open an email and paste it there. I'll just use Notepad here.

You can paste the text to any text editor

You can paste the text to any text editor

If the error is not from Windows or for some reason doesn't allow copy/paste, you can use OneNote. Just capture the message with any screen capturing tool (Snipping tool, Snagit, etc.). I'll do that from OneNote in this example.

Starting a screen capture from OneNote

Starting a screen capture from OneNote

Capturing an error message from OneNote

Capturing an error message from OneNote

If you used a tool other than OneNote itself, paste the picture into OneNote. Now right-click the picture, and choose Copy Text from Picture. Then just paste it out again. It uses optical character recognition (OCR), so it works on anything; on the other hand, it is not perfect.

Using OCR to interpret the error message

Using OCR to interpret the error message

Now that you have the error in text format it's also easy to paste it to a search engine. I'll just paste it right back to OneNote.

Pasting the output of the OCR

Pasting the output of the OCR

Our users often think we know all the error codes by heart. But there are 32,768 error messages in Windows, so we really don't. This is a common conversation I have, as people honestly think they are doing a good job as they took note of the error number.

Customer: "Sami, I had error 1617."

Me: "What did it say?"

Customer: "No idea but I wrote down the number."

Luckily, we can translate these. This is a skill I use myself all the time, as event logs often show only the number. As do error messages.

There is an older tool that takes in decimal values and it's in NET.exe. Here is an example:

NET HELPMSG 1617

Using NET HELPMSG to translate an error number (in decimal) to text

Using NET HELPMSG to translate an error number (in decimal) to text

If you have a hex value, you can use the newer version in WinRM.exe like this:

WINRM HELPMSG 0x651

Using WINRM HELPMSG to translate an error number (in hex) to text

Using WINRM HELPMSG to translate an error number (in hex) to text

Some error messages are quite funny. Try my favorite one out!

"When you are married and you go to a company party, you need to remember NET HELPMSG 4006."

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5 Comments
  1. NET HELPMSG 4006: Replication with a nonconfigured partner is not allowed... frown

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  2. Nice to refresh knowledge, tanx Mr. Sami

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  3. certutil/error 5

    Gives a better overview of the error.

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  4. Suren 4 months ago

    Its really good and very help ful Thanks Sami

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  5. Roman Gallauner 4 months ago

    To be the one "student" who always knows everything better (or other ways): Error Lookup Tool, works even when WSH is disabled (did not know WINRM is merely a CMD redirecting arguments to cscript :-D).

    My favorite errors: 0x8000FFFF and 0x80072035

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