Troubleshoot blank desktop (explorer.exe didn’t start)

I was uninstalling Microsoft Visual Studio yesterday and all those extra components it pollutes computer with. And this morning I was greeted with completely blank desktop and error message. Microsoft…

Blank desktop (actually with wallpaper and mouse cursor) is a sign that Windows shell, namely explorer.exe, did not start properly. Good news is that it’s often easy to fix without Windows reinstall or recovery.

What is explorer.exe

Windows is not really monolith. Shell runs as explorer.exe process and is part that manages important, but standalone chunk of interface that includes:

  • desktop;
  • start menu;
  • task bar;
  • native file manager;
  • most of end-user autorun entries.

So when shell fails you lose all of these, but OS itself just goes on. Not that you can do much with it in such state.

Common issues

There are three most common reasons for:

  • explorer.exe file was destroyed or corrupted;
  • shell settings were hijacked or erased by malware;
  • faulty DLL crashes explorer.exe on launch.

How to start software without shell

  1. Ctrl+Shift+Esc hotkey opens Task Manager.
  2. File > New Task (Run…) there allows to type in or browse for executable and launch it.



This is your lifeline. As long as you can launch something you can attempt to fix situation without drastic measures.

Things that will be of use

It is best to come prepared, but if you can get to browser and Internet you can prepare in the process as well. You will need at least some of these (preferably portable and ready to use):

  • file manager (Q-Dir will do if you need something that looks common, otherwise choose your own poison);
  • search tool (inside file manager or good one like Everything);
  • anti-malware scanner (I’d start with CureIt);
  • autorun manager (Autoruns);
  • registry editor (native regedit.exe will do, but things like RegScanner help);
  • event log viewer (native eventvwr.msc or MyEventViewer);
  • Process Explorer is much better than native Task Manager for troubleshooting.

Things to check

  1. Run scan for malware, it is probably most common issue. Even if it cleans up malware it might leave explorer.exe broken (which is why it often breaks after malware is killed).
  2. Run chkdsk.exe to check hard drive for errors.
  3. Verify that explorer.exe is present in Windows directory.
  4. Verify (and correct if needed) that shell is pointing at explorer.exe and it alone, without additional parameters or anything, easy to see in Autoruns or in registry HKLM\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Winlogon\Shell
  5. Verify that explorer.exe isn’t being hijacked.
  6. If there are DLL errors try to find missing files (or copy them from another PC with same Windows version, can also download from Internet but careful with that) and place them in Windows\system32 (called something else in 64bit versions) folder.

If none of this helped it is time to hit the logs and situation is an uncommon one.


Blank desktop is usually much less of a problem than it seems. You can easily run most of software and even get online. As long as you know how to check and fix common issues it is easy situation to get out of.

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  • Saurabh #

    "How to start software without shell" You had such a experience? Many many years ago ,when I didn't even have a net connection I lasted a whole month using this technique. I was much younger then and I gathered the courage to reinstall Windows only after a month.
  • mypsick.com - שולחן עבודה ריק #

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  • Rarst #

    @Saurabh Well, I had that just two days ago as described in post. :) It is really common effect or aftermath of malware so I see this quite a bit around.
  • Seelenwahnsinn #

    So you bother trying to fix it? I don't know why, but I tend to always format when I face this kind of situation. Any kind of fix seems to me as a "temporary fix," and it bothers me to know the system could be better if just reinstalled. Also.. Ctrl+Shift+Esc? I always opened it by Alt+Ctrl+Del; didn't even know this shortcut. :)
  • Rarst #

    @Seelenwahnsinn Why format for an issue that is often fixed with single registry edit?? :) Major waste of time. Ctrl+Alt+Del goes to intermediary window from which you can run Task Manager. Ctrl+Shift+Esc just goes to Task Manager directly - handy.
  • Seelenwahnsinn #

    As you know, explorer.exe problems are, most of the times, caused by malware. At least for me, every single blank desktop that greeted me was because of it. And though removal tools are effective, sometimes it's just faster to format the machine than to completely remove malware and fix the broken things it left behind. Of course in a situation where a program uninstall is to blame, I would pretty much just fix the registry and move on. About the shortcut... I don't have much experience with this "intermediary window," as in most of Windows XP machines it doesn't happen, and I skipped Windows Vista entirely. But still now that I'm using Win7 as my home computer OS I don't see this window too much (Process Explorer is my manager of choice). Thanks for the tip, I'll try to remember about this shortcut next time. :)
  • Rarst #

    @Seelenwahnsinn Reinstall Windows and you learn nothing new. Figure out how to fix something and you can save time on reinstalling Windows next time(s). :) I know that if you fix PCs for a living it will probably boil down to don't-think-reinstall. I don't do such stuff that much so I can take my time to learn and tinker.
  • nathan #

    Hi i recently removed some viruses off my laptop using spyware doctor and what you described above has happened. I ran task manager and typed in explorer and it couldnt find it! Help please
  • Rarst #

    @nathan Most likely malware had ruined explorer.exe completely and it was erased rather than recovered. Basically you need fresh copy of file. If you have access to computer with same (or at least roughly same) version of Windows you can try to copy it from there. If you have Windows installation disc (again - same or roughly same) you can extract clean copy of explorer.exe from there. Also try System File Checker, which is launched from command line and quite good at restoring system files (will need installation disc or copy of one as well).
  • nathan #

    yeh i checked virus history and it had infected the explorer file, which then my anti virus deleted! Thanks for helping me find out what it was! Do you get an installation cd when you buy a computer?
  • Rarst #

    @nathan It depends. You may get full installation disc, or recovery disc, or hidden recovery partition on your hard drive, or nothing at all. It is hard to advise on such issues remotely, so I suggest you find some friendly computer techie offline to take a look at your computer.
  • Yendo Braz #

    I was having the Black Screen of Death with mouser pointer and realised through Event Viwer (eventvwr.msc) that the explorer.exe crash was associated to the propsys.dll located in windows\system32 folder. So, I managed to emulate a mini WinXP via Hiren's Boot, loaded a "health" propsys.dll from my other Windows 7 system and overwrote the corrupted one. Problem solved to me!
  • Rajesh kumar #

    This morning went to start work at my home office and WIndows XP is munted!!! XP Professional SP1 It will boot up to allow me to select the user account. On both user accounts, one with Admin rights, it boots until it shows the desktop wallpaper then stops. No taskbar or icons are shown. The intro music plays. I can open the Task Manager
  • NosaAlonso #

    i experience this problem and explorer.exe didnt exist on C:\WINDOWS (only explorer.scf & explorermgr.exe and i tried this: 1. start menu disappear 2. CTRL+ALT+DEL 3. Click New Task 4. Type C:\Windows 5. Browse 6. rename explorermgr.exe into explorer.exe 7. Rename (again) explorer.exe into explorermgr.exe 8. Suddenly there is explorermgr.exe & explorer.exe!!! 9. Click Explorer.exe 10. Start menu Reappear Hope This Helps... NosaAlonso