Why Did My Computer Crash? (7 Possible Reasons)

Category: Hardware

Did your computer lock up, freeze, crash, or display the dreaded "blue screen of death" with some cryptic error message? 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 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.

A computer crash can take the form of a complete power down, an unexpected restart, the Blue Screen of Death, a screen freeze, or even a temporary halt that mysteriously resolves itself. 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 or pet hair. 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

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 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 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. When I opened the case, I found that it's 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.

Pet (especially cat) hair can really gunk up a computer. If you see an accumulation of hair or dust in or around the cooling vents on the exterior of your computer, it's time to open it up and clean it out. If the fans and cooling devices all seem to be working fine and yet the CPU temperatures seem excessive, the problem may be with the thermal paste between the CPU and the heatsink. Replacing this with fresh paste can solve some overheating problems.

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 Keeping Your Software Updated Simply 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. (Despite the title, that article also applies to Windows 10.) 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.

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.

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 "Why Did My Computer Crash? (7 Possible Reasons)"

Posted by:

Renaud Olgiati
27 Apr 2018

Yet another problem that can cause your computer to freeze is if your hard disk gets completely full, and the system can no longer find the space needed to create temporary files.
This can be cured by booting with a live CD like UBCD, Knoppix or RescueCD, and using that to clear some space on the HD.

Posted by:

Bob K
27 Apr 2018

Sometimes the obvious are overlooked.

My daughter had a commercially built desktop that would randomly reboot. The national known company that had sold it was great about trying to fix it. Eventually everything except the case itself had been replaced, altho they were not able to duplicate the problem.

I ended up with it to look at, and was running into the same problems. Turned out to be a defective power cable, which was never with it when it went into the repair people.

Posted by:

John T
27 Apr 2018

Some 6 months ago my PC I built in July of 2011 upgrade to Win 10 experienced the blue screen each time I would move the mouse to wake it. I have it go to sleep after 1 hr. of non use. What I found from the stop error code on the blue screen was I had a problem with my motherboard on-board graphics! Found out that the driver was no longer being upgraded to support the updates of Win 10! I found some had video issues 2-3 years before I did! Not the exact same issue but still. So I solved this by purchasing a mildly priced GPU, installed it and now it goes to sleep and wakes properly!

Posted by:

27 Apr 2018

For all their diminutive appearance, our home computers are superbly complex. They can outpace the super computers of not long ago, if their thousands of teeny tiny whatnots are all happy.

Rant: With all the logging in Windows, we are still confronted with useless reports like "TIMEOUT timed out". Would it kill programmers to log recent histories showing what their programs are doing, e.g. "Issue write to disk 7 at 14:33:12.321"?
Then an event log like "TIMEOUT from

Posted by:

27 Apr 2018

Don't know if I'm the only one that had this experience or what. Occasionally I get a red screen saying my computer is locked and..yada..yada. You know the bit. All I have to do is either reboot or hit ctrl-alt-delete and click on task manager and close the screen and all is well. It only happens on Yahoo when I'm reading one of their news stories. I've ran malware scans, virus scans and everything else and it comes up clean. Doesn't happen every time but when it does it sure is annoying.

Posted by:

Sandy Jewell
28 Apr 2018

Last week my computer opened to a screen saying that Microsoft Edge was only a temporary account and I had to sign in again. Round the mulberry bush a few times and no joy. Grabbed the laptop and headed for a Tech. Fiddle, fiddle, close and reopen and all was well. ANSWER: We think the Windows 10 update to the Windows 10 corrupted update hit my computer all at once. Was I in a panic!!!!!

Posted by:

Sandy Jewell
28 Apr 2018

Meant to ask: Is everybody else having FACEBOOK problems? Jams, etc. Is it only me? Its been happening for weeks now. Should I delete the program and load it again? Your thoughts please.

Posted by:

28 Apr 2018

JimM: the likely cause of your 'red screens' ("computer is locked and..yada..yada") is not in the computer at all - it is an bad ad in Yahoo. Suggest you use an ad-blocker like uBlock Origin.

(But be sure to turn the ad-blocker *off* on Ask Bob - it's what feeds his family!)

Posted by:

30 Apr 2018

Thanks for the reminders about major issues with our computers, Bob. Your timing is always great.

I just had my Hard Drive (HD) die, without the obvious signs, like clicks, whirlings, grinding, clanging and so forth. It simply died quietly, just like that. But, one thing that I did check before I thought it may be the HD. . .Was the CMOS battery!!! That little round lithium battery we see in watches and other electronic devices.

So many times, it really is the CMOS battery that is dying. It is a simple thing to replace and cheap as all get out. I changed mine. I knew that it must have been awhile since it was replaced. I put in a brand new one and my computer was running better, than it had been.

Then the HD simply stop working and I could NOT get my computer to start. I looked around for a new HD and found a good deal on a Western Digital 2TB 5400rpm HD. I got this one for $59 and free shipping. Now, that is a bargain for me.

When I removed the old, now dead HD, I saw that it's manufacturing date was 12-27-2007! That HD gave 10 years of service. This computer was a Refurbished Dell Out of Lease Workstation. This had to have been the original HD. Now, that is some great service for a computer, in my book.

Now, my computer is running beautifully. I love that I have 1TB more storage and I got it for an excellent price. I have always preferred Western Digital. This does NOT mean that Seagate or Toshiba or Maxtor or Samsung or HGST are not good, for me I have had the best success with Western Digital. This is over a 20 year period of usage.

I did have one Western Digital that died 3 months after purchase. I called Western Digital, gave them the code number and they simply mailed out a brand new one for me, at no charge. I still remember the code, it was 250. Not sure what that meant but the technician did and there were no questions nor did I have to sent back the dead HD. Now, that is the way things should be done in the computer world, in my opinion.

Please, remember to check your CMOS battery, too. When a CMOS battery starts to go bad things with your computer start going crazy, like the time keeps getting slower or a different date, much like when your watch starts acting goofy or your battery run clocks around your house.

I have had family and friends ask me to look at their computers because they are doing strange things. After checking for the most obvious things to check for, I will then replace the CMOS battery and things go back to normal. It is an easy fix and inexpensive.

Posted by:

07 May 2018

Nothing to add except thanks to all of the posters here who added great value to Bob's article - so worthwhile I have bookmarked it.

Posted by:

09 May 2018

The biggest issue for computer suddenly crashing:

Windows 10 is installed


Format the hard drive and put windows 7 or some form of linux on it.

Posted by:

11 May 2018

Also Windows 10 updates. My computer would not boot and displayed the blue screen with some choices to repair the computer. None worked and I didn't want to reinstall Windows unless absolutely necessary. Took it to a computer shop and they said that they had 12 computers in the last two weeks with the same problem. The only thing that each had in common was a Windows update right before it happened. No word from Microsoft about the problem, except after a call they said that certain computers seemed to be having a problem. They did not offer to help pay to resolve the problem.

Posted by:

05 Jun 2018

Oh Bob!
You said, "Stay away from "driver update" websites and downloadable programs that offer to scan your system and supply new drivers."
I've been using Driver Booster, fro IObit, for several years (on 3 PCs). It checks all of my driver and waits for me to tell it to update them. In all this time, I've had ONE update that messed things up, and I was able to UN-Install it and get things back to normal.
I'm thinking, Bob, that YOU recommended this software some time back.

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