10 Things That Cause Computer Crashes

Category: Hardware , Software

Have you ever experienced the dreaded Blue Screen of Death? Does your computer lock up, freeze, crash, or display cryptic error messages?. This sort of problem can be very difficult to diagnose, because many things can cause a computer to crash (and even burn!). Before you blame those mischievous gremlins, here are ten 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 keeps 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. It's like telling your auto mechanic there's a funny noise coming from your car, and asking him for advice on how to fix it.

A computer crash may or may not be in the eyes of the beholder -- it 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 ten things that can cause your computer to crash:

#1 - HEAT: An overheated processor (CPU) or graphics card (GPU) may shut down your computer 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.

Computer Crash caused by Gremlins?

One of my computers used to experience random crashes every few months. I 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 temporarily. Replacing the system fan (which was making a loud buzzing noise) solved the problem.

There are several free utilities that monitor temperatures within your computer and fan speeds; some will even let you control fan speed. See Do You Know Your Computer's Worst Enemy? for additional tips and download links. A few years 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. When I opened the case, I found that its cooling fan had seized, and was partially melted! Fortunately, it was designed to send a "Warning, Danger!" signal to the motherboard, which prevented it from catching fire. Computers (and even smartphones) can catch fire, so don't ignore signs of overheating.

#2 - 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 website 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 Here's Why You Must Keep Your Software Updated (and how to do it for free) for some tips on getting that task done.

Occasionally, software may become corrupted or “scrambled” and 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.

#3 - 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 Hard Drive Errors for more information about the CHKDSK utility, and other programs that can help. (This article was written for Windows 7, but the information still applies to Windows 10 or 11.)

If you can't restart your computer after a crash, see [CAUTION] Hard Drive Clicking Sound? before going off in search of a new hard drive.

#4 - 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. My current favorite is PC Matic, which uses a "whitelist" approach, in addition to traditional "signature based" virus detection methods.

#5 - 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 or one of those twice-yearly Windows Updates. 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 [TIP] Time to Update Your Drivers?

#6 - 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.

#7 - 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 sometimes recommend a new power supply. Fortunately, power supplies are cheap and easy to replace yourself. See Is It Time to Replace Your Power Supply? for some helpful tips.

#8 - ELECTRICAL PROBLEMS: A sudden surge or loss of electrical power can damage your computer or cause it to crash. In addition to losing anything you were working on at the time, power glitches can also cause head crashes in hard drives, which can damage a disk and the data on it. A power surge can damage your power supply or other components. To guard against power surges and power failures, I do recommend that you get an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) to provide a backup power source and surge protection for your computer. For complete protection, look for one that comes with software and a cable that can send a signal to safely shutdown your computer in the event of a power failure. See Battery Backup Power - Here's What You Need to Know.

#9 - OVERCLOCKING: Overclocking involves fiddling with the BIOS settings to run a computer's CPU, GPU or RAM at a higher clock rate than it was originally designed for. In some cases, this can result in better performance, but it can also lead to system instability and crashes. Overclocking accelerates the wear and tear on computer components, and can cause overheating and memory errors. See How Fast Is Your CPU? Benchmark it! for some related info.

#10 - COSMIC RAYS: Really? Yes, really! A friend of mine who is an expert in electronics trouble shooting said this: "A Single Event Upset (SEU) can cause electronic circuitry to malfunction. An SEU can be caused by a power glitch, or a cosmic ray passing through a integrated circuit, and can actually flip the logic state (from 1 to 0 or vice versa) of a circuit. A cascading effect may trigger a hardware lockup, an error in calculation, or an infinite loop in software." See Silver Bullets, Cosmic Rays and Tired Computers to learn more about that.

BONUS TIP: If your problem is software-related, there's a free program called WhoCrashed that you can run after experiencing a system crash, unexpected shutdown/reset, or "blue screen of death" event. WhoCrashed which will analyze your Windows system log files, report on the most likely cause, and offer suggestions on how to fix the problem. WhoCrashed runs on Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8, 10 and 11.

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 "10 Things That Cause Computer Crashes"

Posted by:

15 Feb 2024

My wife and I stopped in at her favorite women's salon to pay a bill, and the cashier was swearing at her computer because it kept shutting down after ten minutes of operation. She said their computer "expert" recommended a new computer.

I suspected a heat problem, and told her it likely was fixable. I offered to bring in my tools the next morning and take care of it. She seemed dubious, but agreed.

The next morning I popped the lid and checked the CPU heat sink. No fins were visible; the sink was COMPLETELY packed with hair and grease and chemicals that had been pulled in by the fan. I pulled the sink, showed it off, dug all the chunks out, and cleaned it thoroughly. I cleaned everything else inside, buttoned it all up, and turned it on.

It ran like a champ, and after half an hour we pronounced it fixed. Happy customer; they were glad to offer a reasonable token for my time, expertise, and effort - much cheaper than buying a new PC.

Posted by:

15 Feb 2024

I saw an on-line article where ants were held responsible for a PC processor overheating.The ants were eating the paste used to keep the processor cool.the machine was cleaned up and anti-ant methods were used to keep them away.It might be a good idea to clean any debris (food,dust,etc.)around and in a machine.

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr. (Oldster)
15 Feb 2024

I have used Core-Temp to monitor my computer's CPU temperature for many years, so I haven't had any heat-related crashes since I started using it. I have a multicore CPU, so I configure it to display the highest temperature at each data update (about every tenth of a second), in the 'system tray' (on the Taskbar near the clock). Any time things seem to get a bit wonky, the temperature display is one of the first things I check.

I had a computer I inherited from my brother. Core-Temp began to indicate that it started over-heating. When I opened the case, I found that the CPU fan had begun to fail intermittently (even after cleaning the heat sink), so I replaced it with a newer, larger fan. While I was at it, I upgraded the CPU to the fastest one that the motherboard could support. After completing the CPU/fan upgrade, that machine ran faster and cooler than it ever had. Its average operating temperature changed from running in the upper 40s to lower 50s to running in the upper 30s to lower 40s (about a 10 degree Celsius drop), and it tended to drop into the upper 20s when idling/inactive for even limited periods of time. My guess is that the COU upgrade/fan change probably extended the life of that machine by about ten years. Since both items cost me less than $100.00 (US) combined, I consider that money well spent. Note: That computer was getting old when I got it, but I never dispose of usable hardware, instead, I re-purpose or donate it.

My point here is, since Core-Temp is a free utility, and you can configure it to display the CPU temperature in the 'system tray' near the clock, it (combined with a good system hardware maintenance routine) can save or extend the life of your computer. I strongly recommend it as an essential addition to any Windows computer (there's a desktop widget that does a similar job for GNU/Linux).

Ernie (Oldster)

Posted by:

16 Feb 2024

Here I go again but it never can be suggested too many times.

I have always removed the left-hand panel of my tower and directed a small (but powerful) fan at
the motherboard.

Never once had an overheated pc but a continuous supply of icepops however hahaha (not really)

Posted by:

wild bill
17 Feb 2024

I have seen a fair number of cases of computers that shut down due to dust and grime buildup on the heat exchange assembly. The problem can be severe in laptops, where space requires a small and efficient exchange unit. Smoking, pets, carpeting and cooking all tend to exacerbate the issue. When my old laptop starts to run the fan more than previously, that's my warning to get ready to tear it down to the fan and exchange and clean out the fins. Works a wonder.

Posted by:

20 Feb 2024

To re-inforce my statement using an additional fan and taking note of @wild bill

TO PROVE OUR POINTS ........Those of you that clean and service pedestal fans, especially in the home, will notice an IMMEDIATE increase in efficiency after replacing a washed fan blade- yes?

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