Seven Reasons Why Computers Crash

Category: Hardware , Software

It’s a real pain when your computer just stops working, locks up, freezes or crashes. This sort of problem can be devilishly difficult to diagnose, because many things can cause a computer to crash. Here are seven common causes of computer crashes and some tips on how to deal with them...

Why Do Computers Crash?

Often I'll get a reader question along the lines of 'My computer is crashing, what should I do?'. As much as I'd like to help, that's not enough information to diagnose the problem and suggest a solution.

A computer crash can take the form of a complete power down, an unexpected restart, the Blue Screen of Death, or a screen freeze. In some cases, just restarting the computer will get you going again. But chances are, you haven't really solved the problem. Here are seven things that can cause your computer to crash:

HEAT: An overheated processor (CPU) will shut down without warning, to avoid damage. Heat can build up because a cooling fan is not working or is clogged with dust. Hard drives are also temperature sensitive, and I suspect that motherboards and RAM memory can become flaky when temperatures inside a desktop or laptop computer rise above normal. One of my computers used to experience random crashes every few months. I've found that periodically opening the case and cleaning all the fans, heat sinks and components with a can of compressed air would solve the problem.
Computer Crash

There are several free utilities that monitor temperatures within your computer and fan speeds; some will even let you control fan speed. See Overheating: Enemy Number One for additional tips and download links. A few months ago, my desktop PC would just lock up or shut down at seemingly random times. I used a free temperature monitor program to determine that my graphics adapter was overheating, because it's cooling fan had failed. Fortunately, it was designed to send a "Warning, Danger!" signal to the motherboard, which prevented it from melting down or catching fire.


SOFTWARE ERRORS: If crashes occur only when you’re using a specific software application, that’s the first place to look for problems. Sometimes a software bug causes a crash when a certain operation is attempted. Check the software maker’s Web site for any updates that may fix your problem. It's also a good idea to scan your computer to ensure that all your software is up to date with the latest security patches. See The Missing Link in Computer Security for some tips on getting that task done.

Occasionally, software may become corrupted or “scrambled;” that can cause crashes too. If software updates and a disk check (see below) don’t fix your problem, you may have to remove and then re-install the corrupted software.


HARD DRIVE ERRORS are yet another potential cause of computer crashes. A problem with your hard drive doesn't necessarily mean that it needs to be replaced. There are a variety of factors that can cause files, folders, or partitions to become damaged or lost. Human error, malware, and poorly designed software are all possibilities.

A drive error may be a logical error in the Master File Table, or a defective sector on the disk itself. Windows has a built-in utility that will detect and fix logical errors, and mark bad sectors so they are not used to store data. See Windows 7 Hard Drive Errors for more information about the CHKDSK utility, and other programs that can help. If you can't restart your computer after a crash, see Help, My Hard Drive Died! before going off in search of a new hard drive.


MALWARE: Viruses and other forms of malware often causes computer crashes; in fact, some malware is written to do just that. Running a full scan with one or more good anti-malware tools is a good thing to do when crashes occur at random. If you want to replace or supplement your existing anti-virus protection with free alternatives, see my picks in Free Anti-Virus Programs.


DEVICE DRIVERS: Outdated device drivers can cause crashes. I've heard reports where simply plugging a device into a USB port caused a system crash. Drivers usually work fine until you install a new operating system or a major update to an existing operating system, such as a Service Pack. If you start suffering crashes after an operating system change, updating the drivers for your printer, scanner, CD/DVD drive, external hard drive and other peripheral devices may solve the problem. The best place to look for new device drivers is the vendor's website. Stay away from "driver update" websites and downloadable programs that offer to scan your system and supply new drivers. To learn more about device drivers, see Should You Update Your Drivers?


FLAKY MEMORY: It’s rare for RAM memory to go bad, but that can be a cause of computer crashes. Sometimes a RAM chip with a "bad spot" will work fine, until a software program attempts to use that portion of memory. Memtest86+ is one of several utilities that can diagnose problems with RAM and other hardware that may be causing computer crashes. My related article How to Test and Fix Your Computer Hardware contains links to that and several other handy diagnostic programs.


FAILING POWER SUPPLY: Unexpected restarts can also be a sign of a failing power supply. When someone has tried everything else, and their computer is still glitching at seemingly random times, I often recommend a new power supply. Fortunately, power supplies are cheap and easy to replace yourself. See How to Replace Your Computer's Power Supply for some helpful tips.

Do you have something to say about diagnosing and fixing computer crashes? Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Seven Reasons Why Computers Crash"

Posted by:

Zedbeat
21 Mar 2014

My system will occasionally crash and often I get a message that my video driver has stopped working and Windows has recovered. Other times I just get the BSoD. Then I find if I shut down and actually unplug the machine from power, and restart it will work fine until the next time which could be a few weeks or a month later. But I do seem to have to shut the power source off to get things working again. I have an AMD 6900 series graphics card.
Zoltan


Posted by:

Scott
21 Mar 2014

A malfunctioning USB hub can also make your PC crash or not even start, it happened to me.


Posted by:

Martha
21 Mar 2014

OFF TOPIC

Happy Birthday, belatedly. I hope you had a good one.


Posted by:

sandy
21 Mar 2014

Now, why didn't you write this a year ago? Last April I was cleaning up my old XP computer, and it crashed just as the scan was finishing. Three weeks ago we found it was the RAM stick w/o cooling, and I was able to retrieve the income tax info I needed. OMG that beast is slllooooow! :-)


Posted by:

Ari
21 Mar 2014

Thank you Bob as usual very informative and precise article.

I learned something new.


Posted by:

David
21 Mar 2014

Sometimes you have to really look “outside-of-the-box” to find out why you are having problems. About 25 years ago I got a new PC computer at my office (with monochrome CRT monitor no less), and it kept powering off randomly. I couldn’t come up with any reason why this was happening, even after I had tried a number of troubleshooting tricks. I had the CPU sitting on my desk, with the monitor on top of it. Then one day, I noticed that the power button of the CPU was exactly at the same height as the back of my keyboard. So anytime I inadvertently pushed the keyboard away from me at just the right angle, it would hit the power button of the CPU, and turn it off. I put a riser under the CPU, and problem was solved!


Posted by:

Richard Christensen
21 Mar 2014

Excellent article Bob! This kind of information is very useful to a computer user. Over the years I have run into several of these problems and it sure helps to have an understanding about the possible reasons for a given problem with your computer. Best regards,
Richard Christensen


Posted by:

KRS
21 Mar 2014

I periodically lose my (cable modem) web connection. What gets it back is a cold shutdown - at the Command Prompt: Shutdown /s /t 0

Then I unplug the cable modem , wait 15 seconds and plug it in again.

Then I unplug the computer (actually, turn off the UPS switch) and press the Start button to purge stored data, plug back in and start. This runs the modem, router and computer through the complete handshaking procedure and gets me connected.


Posted by:

BallyIrish Bob
21 Mar 2014

Thanks for the informative article, Bob.

There's a free program (and a Pro version) called WhoCrashed Home Edition v.5 by respeldence.com, which, if you run after a crash, will analyse the crash dump and render a report on the most likely cause.

I have found it very useful: some months ago my Windows 7 Pro BSODed now and again, and WhoCrashed's report referred every time to the Nvidia driver as the probable cause. Updating the driver solved the problem.


Posted by:

Bob D
21 Mar 2014

When I installed a Satechi USB 3.0 hub on my HP 1370t desktop, there would be a keyboard error at boot. The keyboard was plugged into a USB 2.0 port. USB hardware must be a challenge for computer manufacturers.


Posted by:

Bill
21 Mar 2014

Sometimes if a program crashes it is due to some other program running or it's service still running after closing it. Also problem with a hd sometimes needs nothing more than unplugging cable both ends and reconnecting. When I get a new puter I always at least double the memory right off the bat.


Posted by:

Tony
22 Mar 2014

Bob
Your article should be encapsulated in Computer Breakdowns 101. Being a self-taught computer fixit guy for more years than I can remember I arrived (mostly) at these steps initially by perseverance and latterly by Google.

Another handy axiom (if that's the right word) to remember is this: any computer problems one may encounter is not unique and that some unselfish humanistic person has posted a solution

Many happy returns:)


Posted by:

Francine
22 Mar 2014

I picked up some malware and battled it to the death. I'm pretty I got rid of it with some aggressive tools (some from this column, thank you!) wielded in safe mode. BUT. Since then, my OS (XP) could not be updated. It just wouldn't access the Win upgrades. And MS diagnostics for WinXP would just lock up. Clearly the malware destroyed some crucial file. Now, of course, I guess that's moot as MS has cut XP adrift. But could you recommend some good XP diagnostics and help sites?

EDITOR'S NOTE: System Restore should fix a problem like that.


Posted by:

phil
22 Mar 2014

Ive had a faulty mouse cause screen freeze!


Posted by:

MmeMoxie
22 Mar 2014

Bob ... I can't even begin to tell, my tales of woe, regarding computer failures and downfalls! Great article, to remind ALL of us, not to think immediately that the Hard Drive has failed or is bad!!!

There is nothing worse, than spending money, you don't really have, to replace a Hard Drive, go through all of the motions to replace a Hard Drive ... Only to find out ... The exact same problem, still exists!!! Been there, years ago. The time that happen to me, I began to learn to "Think out of the box" and look for other solutions, besides just the Hard Drive.

In "Thinking out the box", I found bad Graphic Cards, dead Memory Modules, corrupt software, Viruses, Trojan Horses, Worms and eventually, Malwares! One of the worst things that can and does happen ... The keyboard connection simply quits and can NOT be replaced, because it is part of the motherboard!!! Of course, this was back in the days of AT Motherboard and early ATA Motherboards.

What is today's culprit is ... The USB port(s). If, those are not working, you are in a really bad situation ... Because, neither your mouse or keyboard will work and how do you expect to "control" and do work, on your computer, when this happens. Thank goodness, you can purchase a PCI USB card, to save the day. For me, I just happened to have an extra one, laying around ... Geeks tend to do that, have a lot of extra computer stuff, laying around. :)

I can only suggest, for those who really don't know much about computers or how they work ... That they find a really good computer repair person or a wonderful friend, that is a computer Geek and will do things for you, for a song or some really good food.

I am lucky ... Since, I am my own computer Geek. However, I am always ready to help a family member or friend, when they really get into trouble. While, I don't do as much computer repairs today, I am more or less, retired ... I am still, more than willing to help, all I can. I am also, proud to say ... I rarely took money, for my services. Basically, because I am not an expert, with formal training, nor am I greedy. I would ask that they paid for all items needed and I would even find them bargains, so, they weren't paying exorbitant prices, when not necessary.

One small point to make ... Is your mouse doing erratic things and seemingly out of control ... If, this is a wireless mouse, check your batteries!!! The same goes for a wireless keyboard. Regular batteries die, all the time ... It happens to me, often. Yes, I have the "newer" wireless mouse and keyboard, but, it still happens, just not as often, now. :)


Posted by:

RandiO
22 Mar 2014

On the 8th day, the computer Gods threw in another reason that even confuses the expert repair people.
I wonder if this 8th reason can be attributed to 'intermittent connectivity' problems of different hardware that make up the system. Re-seating all of the connectors will sometimes truly be the black magic to resolve some crash related problems. This effort does not just include re-seating of external I/O connectors (e.g. AC, keyboard/mouse, USB, monitor, audio, network, etc.). Sometimes, it is advisable to re-seat internal connectors that are part of the motherboard. These may include the power supply internal DC connectors, RAM memory, fan, plug-in cards (mating to the MoBo) and header connectors that lead to the external of the case. Of course, in some cases with older computers, the backup CMOS battery (the button cell that is usually the size of a US quarter) may also require a replacement.
The microprocessor (Intel/AMD) chip interface to the MoBo is one area that should normally be left untouched, as this connection is usually very robust and attempts at re-seating this interface is very complex and delicate connection that should be left alone, as any attempt to fiddle with it can have some serious negative effects and may actually make matters much worse!


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