Why Do Computers Crash? Here are Seven Reasons

Category: Hardware , Software

It’s a real pain when your computer locks up, freezes, crashes, or displays 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 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.

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.

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 Computer Security: The Missing Link 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.

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 Do Computers Crash? Here are Seven Reasons"

Posted by:

david sparkman
14 Aug 2017

You didn't mention an overloaded computer or memory thrashing. A Hard Fault is when the computer needs to access the virtual drive. Should the computer become over loaded with swapping out too many programs to do timed operations, it will get in an endless loop. There is also the problem of fragmented memory. Should an operation fail because memory could not be allocated, Microsoft often just goes on to the next operation. If the skipped operation was critical, you are in trouble. Hackers often use this weakness in their attacks.

Posted by:

14 Aug 2017

All these rational causes are good to know about, but let us be mindful of the most powerful troublemaker: the Perversity of Inanimate Objects.

Posted by:

Bob K
14 Aug 2017

A few years back my daughter bought a new computer at a reputable store. Repeated system reboots!

The store was great about replacing various components, on a gunshot basis, because they were not able to duplicate any crashes when they had the box in for getting the problem fixed. Eventually, they had replaced everything without solving the problem.

I stumbled on the culprit. A defective power cord that she wasn't taking in when the computer went in for service.

Posted by:

14 Aug 2017

If the fans and cooling devices all seem to be working fine and yet the CPU temperatures seem to be excessive the problem may be with the thermal interface material between the CPU and the heatsink.

Replacing this with fresh paste can work wonders for CPU temps.

Posted by:

john silberman
14 Aug 2017

I switched to Ubuntu about 8 years ago. No more BSOD, freezes, or unexpected crashes. Actually, I did have a freeze one time when my video card was not seated properly.

Posted by:

Frank Verano
14 Aug 2017

I've used the System file Check often to find if any of the OS files went bad.

Posted by:

15 Aug 2017

WhoCrashed is not free.

EDITOR'S NOTE: There is a free home edition and a Pro edition.

Posted by:

Jon S.
15 Aug 2017

If you have cats, check the fans, cooling holes, and CPU heat sink frequently. Cat fur floating around in the air is nearly invisible but the fans find it and pack it into the cooling holes. I had a desktop that crashed randomly. I finally opened it up and cleaned out the cat fur (I had enough for an additional cat...). That fixed the crashes.

Posted by:

Howard Rice
15 Aug 2017

Thank you so much for the link for Speedfan works Great!!!!!! THX Bob. Howard

Posted by:

15 Aug 2017

Bob, you mentioned RAM problems, but also can be a VRAM (Video RAM) problem with pretty same result.

Twice I bumped into a rare problem - computers froze completely unexpectedly. Temperature was OK, no hardware problems, no badblocks, no viruses, nothing. Rule of thumb in those cases is to replace components one by one. But it was enough just to place a hard drive out of the case. Since that component is electro-mechanical, I decided to isolate it by placing dielectric material everywhere where could be a possible contact with computer case. Problem was solved - I kept an eye at least for some months - worked perfectly. So - another, eight reason - shortage.

Also a shortage can turn down some systems, like USB - one friend asked for my help when her laptop stopped to recognize mice, printers, anything that she tried to connect through USB interface. The problem was with one jammed USB port - the plastic part inside was broken and missed that caused jamming of contacts by some USB device that was inserted after. After fixing that jam other USB ports worked with no problems. Luckily that shortage didn't kill the motherboard, since there is 5V in the USB that comes from motherboard itself. Look like only data contacts were jammed.

And don't forget our lovely Microsoft that periodically launching faulty updated that in extreme cases successfully bricked computers (I can recall at least 3 those cases).

Rare case can be also with localization. Several times I was asked for help when people tried to switch from English version of Windows 95 to Russian and computer just died - with black screen after BIOS messages and even didn't boot with floppy that is theoretically impossible. The problem was with code in MBR record - those locals were incompatible so hard that it froze computer before code for booting from floppy drive. Rewriting MBR at another computer manually (by HEX-editor with feature of physical hard drive sector access) fixed the problem.

So I wouldn't count on a hard number of possible reasons. By the way, there can be only two problems with any electronic or electrical device - a contact where it shouldn't be and no contact where it should be. Other problems - just consequences of those two.

Posted by:

15 Aug 2017

Sorry for typo -

"faulty updated" - "faulty updates".

Another advise from experience - sometimes computer literally bricked, but can be unbricked by complete reboot that means to remove any source of power to zero every bit of memory (RAM, VRAM, some cells at components etc). It is especially tricky with laptops and computers with additional batteries. Also don't forget to load default BIOS settings.

I'd better stop... It seems to be an endless subject...

Posted by:

15 Aug 2017

You forgot one of the more common causes of computer error ... humans.

Posted by:

15 Aug 2017

I have found in my experience - That Microsoft's Operating System was one of the biggest problems for the infamous BSOD! I had significantly a LOT fewer problems with BSOD when I started using NTFS Operating System for Windows. I began using NTFS with Windows XP Pro. You had to select using either NTFS or FAT32 when installing the OS. I literally fell in love with NTFS, when I finally installed it.

When I first had a choice, I was worried about how NTFS would react to my casual games. It did just fine. Yes, I had trouble with my older games, just like I do now with Windows 10 Pro. This issue is called progress with the OS that you are using.

I have debated installing Windows XP Pro in a partition but I know that XP no longer has any updates - Which means security is a big problem! So, to date I have not tried to do that and feel good about NOT installing Windows XP Pro!


Posted by:

15 Aug 2017

If it's an older computer, open the case and vacuum/blow out the interior. Re-seat all memory chips, PCI cards, etc. Check all points of connection, such as where cables plug into drives, the motherboard, etc. This is a good time to replace the CMOS battery also, something that people tend to forget about. I have found that many times these steps can resolve mysterious crashing issues and help the computer to run cooler.

Posted by:

15 Aug 2017

I agree with Rodgman, I use a Laptop and it has an app for Fan Speed & Temperature. I monitor both on a daily basis.
Monthly or so, I remove the battery & the bottom & disconnect all cords. Blow out all the dust, lint, hair. dirt etc. Especially around the fans & vents.
Laptops are very vulnerable to acquiring & sucking in stuff into their small compact space.

Posted by:

Rhonda Lea Fries
20 Aug 2017

Every now and again you might receive a defective virus signature update.

Happened to me the other day, and my laptop was unusable until I managed to roll it back. Memory and drive were both at 100%.

If task manager hadn't finally loaded--took forever to show me what was going on--I'd have been forced to wipe the laptop and start over.

As it was, system file checker showed damage done. Took DISM to fix it, but for the first time in my memory, it worked as expected without additional complications.

Support hasn't gotten back to me yet, but when they do, they'll get an earful.

Posted by:

John Rice
26 Aug 2017

Many years ago, I took a PC trouble-shooting/repair workshop. This was when the 486 first came out. The instructor said that the #1 cause of problems was a bad power supply. This year, my home PC started crashing. I took out the power supply, and heard things rattling. I shook it, and pieces of the power supply cooling fan started falling out. I said, "well, there's your problem". I replaced it and it has been working fine ever since. I built this box from bare-bones back in '09. I've also had to replace the case fan, and one of the memory sticks during that time. 64 bit Win 7, AMD Athlon X2 250, 3 GHz, 8 gig ram.

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