8 Things That Cause Computer Crashes
Have you 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!). Here are eight 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 eight 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.
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.
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...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 19 Apr 2022
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