Why Do Computers Crash? Seven Reasons Why...

Category: Hardware

It’s a royal 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 (and burn!). 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 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 can catch fire, so don't ignore signs of overheating.


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 Keep Your Software Updated (or else...) 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.


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. If you can't restart your computer after a crash, see Hard Drive Makes a Clicking Sound? 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 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 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 sometimes 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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This article was posted by on 25 Apr 2019


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Most recent comments on "Why Do Computers Crash? Seven Reasons Why..."

Posted by:

Chris
25 Apr 2019

Micro-slop coding...
Always had, as far as I know, 'hybrid sleep' enabled on Windows 7 & 10 and never an issue. WELL… recently the system started coming out of sleep to do a task, as it's faithfully done for years, but it just locks-up and needs rebooting. Oddly the power light comes on, goes off, then back on again, then just sets there. Read somewhere that someone, recently started having a similar issue. Disabled 'hybrid sleep', so far no lock-ups; time will tell.
Clearly MS isn't vetting these updates they push on us. I guess Windows 11 will fix it.....


Posted by:

John
25 Apr 2019

You left out hardware errors. In more than one occasion I have seen PCs crash due to poorly seated RAM, poorly seated graphic cards, and failing graphic cards.


Posted by:

Dennis Del Grosso
25 Apr 2019

I can second the idea of dust. It is really like clothing your components in WOOL, sort of like putting a sweater on them. Frequent cleaning with compressed air does wonders. Also, though not a prevalent in today's PCs, frequent power cycles On =heat up, off=cool down) can cause chips to "walk" out of their sockets. We used to pull all of our slot cards and put them onto a table and press firmly and gently onto all of the socketed chips. VERY often you would hear the noises of them reseating into their sockets. Finally, age and heat will eventually destroy the foil capacitors. Those are the small can like devices soldered onto the boards. If you see them swelling, or the top popping up more than being simply flat, its only a matter of time before you have a complete failure. This is in fact why most flat screen monitors fail - the Caps in the screen power supply swell and pop.


Posted by:

Mike
25 Apr 2019

CAUTION!!! That is NOT compressed air that you use.
That is Refrigerant 11(R-11 for short). R-11 is used by by HVAC Techs to clean out a system in which a compressor has burned-out. Compressed air does not turn liquid when compressed. That liquid that sloshes in the can is liquid R-11, which turns into a gas when released. Should some of the liquid come out and touch your skin, you can receive a severe freezer burn. That's the reason for all the warnings on the can. Please stop referring to it as 'Compressed Air'. And, please include appropriate warnings as to its proper use.
Words to the wise can save personal injury.


Posted by:

Stuart Berg
25 Apr 2019

I find it extremely effective to test the drivers to find the offending driver, if there is one. You can test the drivers using a program built into every version of Windows from Windows 7 through Windows 10. It's called Microsoft Verifier which can be found at C:\Windows\System32\verifier.exe).

You can test all the drivers at one time and if it does NOT cause a crash, it's NOT a driver. If it DOES cause a crash, use a binary search to find the offending driver (i.e. keep testing half the drivers than half of the half that causes a crash, etc.).


Posted by:

Cho
26 Apr 2019

@Mike....
No Mike, what we use is what Bob said ....
COMPRESSED AIR ....
If you buy R-11. that's on you...


Posted by:

Deb
26 Apr 2019

From science.howstuffworks.com :

Compressed air canisters are not really canned air. Rather, these canisters contain a compressed, liquefied gas that propels its own vapors through a nozzle. Most of the time, the liquefied gas is one of two types. One is difluoroethane or 152a, which is found in canisters marketed for computers and electronic equipment, and incidentally, also is known as Freon — the same gas that makes refrigerators and car air conditioners cool. The other type of gas is tetrafluoroethane or 134a, which is recommended for use when flammability is an issue, such as with hot surfaces or spark-producing equipment. However, some types of canned air may also contain butane, the same liquefied gas found in cigarette lighters.


Posted by:

MmeMoxie
26 Apr 2019

Bob, GREAT article!!! I have experienced ALL seven of these problems, some even more than once!!! Including that "devil" component back in the Mid-90s called IBM MWAVE Modem & Sound Card ... Now, that was the worse component I ever had to deal with in my 22 years of computing.


Yes, I have had Hard Drives "die" on me, usually at the worst time possible. Hard drives can give you some warnings, but not always. I had the clicking, clacking, whirling, whining sounds, and doing a Disk Checks to find "Bad Sectors," which means ... BACKUP EVERYTHING and get a NEW Hard Drive. When there are "Bad Sectors" trust me, this is NOT a good thing, at all!!! My last Hard Drive that died, it just died, no warning, noises or "bad sectors" ... It just died! Talk about surprised!

The same thing with Power Supplies, most times they die, and you can't get very far without electricity, either!

Fans, another big issue, all sizes, CPU Fans, Graphics Card fans, System fans and so forth. In all honesty, any fan that can be attached to a computer. Bad, dying fans are frequently the cause of HEAT within your computer. Bob has stressed this fact many, many times over the years and to be honest; it can't be stressed enough. On average, fans are about the cheapest component that you can buy for your computer and your computer case. Keeping the inside of your computer case and the components FREE OF DUST is a vital aspect of maintaining your computer.

Memory Modules, another problem you don't want since they seem to happen at the worse possible time.

Old software programs, with today's computers it doesn't take long for some of your favorite past games or software programs, do not work on your newer computer system. The advancement of all Computer Operating System is the cause of this catastrophe.


Software errors can be multiple things, corrupt files, dlls and so on are usually the culprits. Updates can cause software errors, as well.

Device Drivers are a real bug-a-boo these days with Win 10 updating so frequently. MS doesn't even give the companies time to update the necessary codes for their devices so that they are up to date with the latest Win 10 Updates.

What more can one say about Anti-Virus/Malware??? You MUST have an Anti-Virus/Malware program!!! Bob has several archived articles about Anti-Virus/Malware programs, both FREE and Paid. Just look at his Archived Articles on the Front Page of his Website, and you will find them. Savvy computer users know just how vital Anti-Virus/Malware programs genuinely are for your security and safety.

I feel that the worse of all these disasters ... Is when your MOTHERBOARD DIES!!! For those of you who are not a Computer Geek or Computer Savvy ... Your only solution to that issue is to get a brand new computer or a refurbished one. For those of us who are Computer Geeks or Savvy enough to attempt building your computer from scratch ... More power to you!!! I love building my personal computers from scratch. It's fun for me, though it can be expensive. But in the end, it is so worth it to me, and I know all about my computer because I put it together, planned it, bought all of the components, Motherboard, CPU, Graphics Card, Memory Modules, Computer Case, Fans, DVD-ROM and so on. I picked them out, and I pretty well know what is right, after 22 years of computing.

Why do Computers Crash??? Simple answer, because that is the nature of the beast. What is essential is that YOU become knowledgeable enough to know what to do when it happens. You can not prevent it, but you can be prepared for when it happens.


Posted by:

RalphC
26 Apr 2019

Bob, thanks for this very timely article. My 6 year old Win 10 Dell laptop is chrashing way to frequently these days, and I intend to do all of what you suggest. First thing I will do though is a full back-up just in case I mess something up. I have read all of the comments and they are also very useful in my quest to getting this computer running properly. I do have a concern though, and that is opening the laptop to clean the dust out. I have no clue how to do that and am worried that I will break a reasonably running laptop into a useless piece of trash if I break something. Any suggestions on opening the case would be well received by this non techie senior citizen.


Posted by:

RandiO
27 Apr 2019

I am inclined to think that one of the weakest hardware in our computing devices (desktop/laptop) is the cheap internal fans. And using compressed air to 'dust-off' the innards of PCs only helps to lodge these dust particles in the most sensitive parts of hardware: *Fan bearings and *motherboard electrical contacts (ICs, CPU, and plug-in cards).
With respect to CPUs, every reputable manufacturer of thermal paste (which is used for heat dissipation from the CPU chip) recommend the replacement of the thermal paste every few years. Two years after building an Asus Z170 motherboard with Intel Skylake i7-6700K, my BIOS (UEFI) showed that temperature of the CPU had increased by about 8degrees Celsius. Replacement of the original/expensive thermal paste (by ThermalTake) under the CPU had become somewhat caked and replacement thermal goo (by Noctua) brought down the temperature to original values.


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