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“Have you tried rebooting?”

It’s technical advice that gets thrown around a lot, but there’s a reason: it works. My own personal experience has been that a simple reboot can fix a computer issue 80-90% of the time, whether that issue is related to networking, graphics, slow performance, or faulty programs. And it’s not just issues with Windows that respond well to a reboot; this method works for a wide range of devices, including smartphones and routers and even software.

Why is this solution so prevalent? What is it about computing devices that makes rebooting so effective? And why can’t these problems be fixed while the device is running? Read on to find some answers.

Common Issues Fixed With A Reboot

To help you understand the more complex underlying principles that are at the basis of why it takes a reboot to make things work again, we’ll start with the symptoms and the most likely basic causes you already know.

Symptom: The computer slows down or freezes.
Cause: Memory leaks.
Solution: Stop software or reboot.

Symptom: Windows Blue Screen Of Death
Cause: Driver or hardware error.
Solution: A reboot is enforced.

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Symptom: WiFi stops working.
Cause: Driver crashed or router software causes a problem.
Solution: Reboot or perform a power cycle (unplug power for 30 seconds) on router.

reboot-computer-errors

Taken together, something stops working, which causes problems, and the fix is to start from scratch.

The root cause can often be attributed to human error. Computers are designed and programs are written by humans. If humans are fallible, why should the things they create be without fail? All man made things have the capacity to be flawed and as a computer’s complexity increases, so does the number of flaws. Now what exactly are those flaws?

How Does Rebooting Fix Memory Leaks?

When you first boot the computer, you can think of it as a clay market place. The clay represents the various resources that are available on the computer, such as memory. The operating system handles the clay (among other things) and distributes it to programs when necessary.  Theoretically, this loop could go on forever without issue. The problem is, some programs waste the commonly used resources.

Clay Distribution

In order to run, a program must receive some clay from the computer and it becomes the program’s responsibility to account for all of that clay. The ideal program would clean up the clay and return it to the computer when it finishes, allowing the computer to distribute the clay to other programs in need.

Now imagine that there are 3 programs, each with their own share of clay. One returns all of the clay without issue. One leaves a chunk of clay on the ground and only returns half of the clay to the computer. The last one loses its clay and returns nothing to the computer. Now the computer has less clay to distribute.

Over time, as flawed programs fail to return all of the clay they’ve been given, other programs need to wait longer and longer for their share of resources. This is where memory leaks, program lag, and runtime errors come from.

reboot-computer-restart

So your computer has been running for a few hours and now it’s slowed to a crawl Slow Computer? 4 Ways To Speed Things Up Slow Computer? 4 Ways To Speed Things Up Buying a new computer can really set you back a pretty penny. So have you considered upgrading what you have now? Read More . If we assume that the cause is due to poor clay management (which it most likely is), then what can we do to fix it?

One solution would be to take away the responsibility of clay management from the programs and leave it with the operating system. When the operating system detects lost clay, it retrieves it. The problem is that this process, known as “garbage collection”, can be processor intensive and would impact operating system performance, hence it’s uncommon.

The other solution is: reboot!

By rebooting, everything is reset to its initial state and the operating system begins fresh with a full block of clay. Then, as programs start running and asking for clay, the whole procedure repeats itself until another reboot is later necessary.

This phenomenon can be applied to software, too. For example, your web browser. Ever notice how Chrome or Firefox can get laggy when they’ve been open for hours at a time? That’s because those browsers are flawed AND they have flawed addons. Restarting is one way to speed up a slow browser What Can You Do To Speed Up Your Browser? What Can You Do To Speed Up Your Browser? If you’re like me and you spend a huge portion of your day browsing the web then you understand how frustrating it is to have a slow, bloated browser that seems to be on its... Read More .

How Does Rebooting Or Power Cycling Fix Other Issues?

Basically, the same principle that applies to resource management also applies to issues with drivers or low-level error: All evidence of the error is wiped away and the computer starts with a clean slate.

reboot-computer-slate

Your WiFi router, for example, is run with software, just like your computer. A power cycle, i.e. completely turning the router off for at least 30 seconds, will clear its cache and reset the software.

Jerrold Foutz, an expert in the design of power supplies, offers another interesting view on how a reset can fix electronic devices, including household items:

In hardware, there are many causes for what is called a Single Event Upset (SEU). A power glitch, a cosmic ray passing through an integrated circuit (IC), or an alpha ray from the plastic IC package, can all cause an SEU, possibly changing a logic state (1 to 0 or vice versa), or triggering latchup in the pnpn layer most ICs have. In software, the computer can get caught in an infinite loop.

In other words, random events can put electronic devices into an odd state that renders them useless. Jerrold explains that one state which all functioning devices can recover from is the power-off-state. And hence he recommends to turn the device off, unplug the power, remove the battery, wait for a set amount of time, then plug the power back on and restart.

Why Do Some Issues Mandate A Reboot?

In the case of poor resource management, it is possible to manually track down and close offending programs. But other issues simply cannot be fixed while the computer is running and the answer why can be quite philosophical. Einstein recognized that problems cannot be solved from the same level of awareness that created them. In a way that’s also true for computers. Why?

Einstein Quote

Computers are finite state machines that constantly need to monitor for events and respond accordingly. They operate on an infinite processing loop to stay alert for new events, even when idle. Events can be anything from plugging in a mouse to loading a program to shutting down. Each event leads to a change of state.

One reason for a reboot is that, depending on your operating system, the infinite loop can’t be modified while it’s already running. That’s why driver installations and Windows Updates often require a system reboot – to change the way the operating system works at the most basic level. Hopefully, you won’t enter into an infinite reboot loop How To Fix A Windows 7 Infinite Reboot Loop How To Fix A Windows 7 Infinite Reboot Loop Have you ever encountered an infinite reboot loop? It is instantly recognisable by the failure of Windows to correctly load up after switching on your PC or laptop. Fortunately thanks to the way in which... Read More .

If an error affects this infinite processing loop, only a reboot can set it back to its known state, from where it will work again. Barring the fact that computers lack consciousness (at least as far as we know), this is pretty much the opposite of what Einstein meant; the “awareness” doesn’t progress, it’s reset. So maybe “ignorance is bliss” would be a more apt analogy.

And It All Comes Back To What Is Known

This article can only scratch the surface of what can go wrong inside your computer that can be fixed by a reboot. Sometimes it just works and even the experts can only guess why. Basically, a reboot works because everything returns to its original state. In this familiar state, the system knows where to start, like a game of chess, after you forgot whose turn it was.

Apart from being a quick fix to many issues, rebooting also is a troubleshooting step. If the issue persists after rebooting, the underlying cause might be much more serious than a random error. Problems such as corrupted software, presence of malware 10 Steps To Take When You Discover Malware On Your Computer 10 Steps To Take When You Discover Malware On Your Computer We would like to think that the Internet is a safe place to spend our time (cough), but we all know there are risks around every corner. Email, social media, malicious websites that have worked... Read More , or failing hardware are rarely fixed by restarting.

Which devices and symptoms have you successfully fixed with a reboot?

Author Credit: This article was co-produced with Joel Lee.

Image Credit: Computer Comic via ShutterstockWoman with Clay by Marshall Astor via Flickr, Ctrl+Alt+Dlt via ShutterstockSlate Board via ShutterstockEinstein Quote by QuotesEverlasting via Flickr

  1. jeff
    August 14, 2016 at 5:32 am

    does rebooting erases what i installed on my computer?

    • Tina Sieber
      August 14, 2016 at 11:10 am

      No, not under normal conditions.

      However, if the computer is set up to do that, for example with software like RollBackRx or DeepFreeze, it could be reset to its original state with every reboot. This is used on public computers to prevent malware from spreading.

  2. Michael Weldon
    July 10, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    Running Puppy Linux, as I do, every time you re-boot it's like starting with a brand-new install, as Puppy's core-files are held in a 'read-only' state (and hence, cannot become corrupted over time.

    All of Puppy's settings are held in what's called a 'save-file' or 'save-folder'. This contains another entire Linux filesystem within it; if anything goes wrong, you just replace it with a previously backed-up copy and you're good to go again.

    I feel that Linux memory management is somewhat superior to that of Windows.....although it still doesn't compensate for hardware problems..!

    • Tina Sieber
      July 11, 2016 at 11:04 pm

      Sounds like a system restore on reboot deal. Windows machines can do that with the help of third party software. The best known one is Deep Freeze. Would be awesome if Windows could do it natively though.

  3. Robert
    June 2, 2016 at 11:50 pm

    I think this is just random junk that the author has written here. There is no technical backing to any of these.

    • Tina Sieber
      June 8, 2016 at 1:51 am

      My approach was to explain the experience that a reboot often fixes computer issues in simple terms. This makes it easier to visualize the concept, but it does require to drop some details and technical lingo. I still sneaked in the infinite loop.

      If you agree that a reboot often fixes issues, how would you explain it?

      • Marc Hone
        October 2, 2016 at 9:31 pm

        My understanding of issue that require a reboot is this:

        When software is created it is tested to a finite level with few test steps compared to the real world environment. i.e. when the program is ran, how it is used and other programs etc that are opened closed etc whilst it is operating. As the almost infinite amount of variables that could be considered whilst testing are unreasonable to test for it is likely that a sequence of events can lead to a missed bug/flaw in the program created.

        As testing is usually carried out in controlled environments (for example after a fresh reboot on a newly loaded OS, with little else installed) the variety of systems people will use the software on vary massively in spec and software etc. so the tests can be passed and the software released to a measurable status of stability.

        Rebooting returns the PC to the closest state it was tested at and therefore the most stable point, to be used until a sequence that triggers the flaw(s) is again reached.

        • Tina Sieber
          October 7, 2016 at 11:06 am

          That's a great explanation. Thank you, Marc!

  4. henok
    February 25, 2015 at 5:42 am

    my pc when I do shutdown sleep when I do restart shutdown what is the problem and solution.
    and 10q ..

  5. susanpub
    February 28, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    I had to reboot a "frozen" TV recently. Neither remote nor buttons on the TV would do anything. It just froze. After momentary panic, I unplugged it for several minutes & plugged it back in & Voila! All fixed.

  6. Abet
    February 8, 2014 at 8:02 am

    A virus infection definitely cannot be solved by rebooting. If one believes that rebooting can fix many issues on his pc, then he is the real problem--he don't understand those problems and is too lazy to figure out the causes and solutions to those problems. If your pc crashes more often, rebooting will not fix the causes why your pc seems so fond of crashing. If you accidentally deleted a critical system file (like the ntldr in windows os), rebooting will put you through hell. What else?

  7. jackp
    February 6, 2014 at 7:38 am

    Please, don't try to explain something you don't understand yourself.
    There are really too many errors...

    • Tenyo M
      March 1, 2014 at 9:11 am

      Cool!

  8. KC1127
    February 1, 2014 at 1:36 am

    Agree with James.

    I seldom reboot the windows. "End Task" is always a good way to fix the "problems".

  9. Keefe K
    January 31, 2014 at 11:47 pm

    Thanks for the article! I know from experience that turning a computer off and on again can solve alot of problems, and that some errors happen at random. It's hard to explain it to those who are less tech-savy, but still feel they know enough that it was caused by a virus, or their computer is hacked. So I appreciate this article alot, as it helps me explain to people that yes, restarting can be an effective way to cure some problems. Now, I'm not saying all errors are at random. Reoccurring ones needs to be addressed differently, but then restarting your computer is a vital troubleshooting step!

  10. Robyn McIntyre
    January 31, 2014 at 11:24 pm

    I agree with a lot of the article and with commenter James Fry on the memory leak issue. Many times, rather than reboot the computer, I free things up by running Task Manager and finding the process holding things up and kill the process. I do totally have to reboot my browser from time to time, because it does tend to get gummy. And I completely shut down my laptop every night, which I view as a sort of cleansing act, LOL.

  11. Gbolahan O
    January 31, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    Yeah I am a huge Reboot/Reset freak myself. Dont know why tho. Lol

  12. James Fry
    January 31, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    Most of what you wrote about memory leaks is wrong. If a process is leaking memory, and you kill it, ALL of that memory is ALWAYS returned. At least as long as you arent running windows 95/98/ME anymore. On any modern OS (NT/2k+/*Nix/Solaris/OSX/etc) the kernel will ALWAYS return all of the memory a process uses when it exists. There are no ifs and or butts here, this is a simple fact. Task manager does not lie, and all memory can ALWAYS be accounted for (however due to things like shared memory, caches, buffers, etc, this is a bit more complicated than most people expect). Kernel code, which includes drivers, can however cause persistent memory leaks. Drivers run in kernel mode, as opposed to user mode. Drivers with poor memory management can cause memory leaks that cannot be resolved unless you reboot, however, this is INCREDIBLY rare.

    Garbage collection is not performed by the kernel. Garbage collection is something done in managed languages (and ONLY managed languages) like C# and Java, as opposed to native languages like C/C++. In C/C++ you need to manually allocate and deallocate memory when you need it and are done with it. If you forget to deallocate memory, then you cause memory leaks. In managed languages you have a garbage collector, which essentially automatically detects memory no longer being used and frees it, which returns it back to the kernel. All of this happens within the scope of a single process, however. Regardless of whether you have a program running native code or managed code, it CANNOT pollute the memory of another process, and it will not leave ANYTHING behind once the process is no longer running (whether it was killed, it crashed, or exited normally). Garbage collection in C#(and other .NET languages) is performed essentially by the .NET Framework, and in Java is is performed by the Sun/Oracle Java framework/vm.

    The point here is that no matter how badly an app is written, if the process is ended the memory is ALWAYS freed. It doesnt matter if it is native or managed code, if the process is ended the memory is ALWAYS freed.

    Something running in kernel mode also has the ability to bluescreen the computer (user mode apps CANNOT bluescreen the computer, or cause a panic in OSX/*nix). Kernel mode code must cause an unhandled exception for a bluescreen to occur. User mode apps that talk to drivers can cause the driver to crash (unhandled exception) which may make it seem like a user mode app causes a bluescreen, but the real cause is something running in kernel mode. If a user mode app has an unhandled exception, which means it crashed, then the process ends, and the memory is freed, and thats it.

    Of course, a Single Event Upset can cause things to happen that normally wouldn't, but these are incredibly rare as well. If you have things happen like the mouse freezes, the computer randomly shuts off, the screen becomes garbled, you probably have a hardware failure.

    So why do reboots help a lot? Well, yeah the computer is a huge state machine, and sometimes it gets into a state it should not. This can be caused by hardware issues, it can be caused by software faiulure as well. It probably ISNT a memory leak though. People use the term memory leak way too often, and for a lot of things that arent actually memory leaks.

    I figured it would be good to clear some things up here. :) That bit about restarting your web browser to speed it up if it has slowed down is true, but you DON'T need to reboot the whole PC, JUST the browser itself. :)

    • Christoban
      January 31, 2014 at 10:02 pm

      1) Regular programs can misbehave like dividing by zero and stealing memory (clay), but no reboot is required because modern OSes isolate programs and keep track of anything they've "borrowed." Modern mobile OSes even take the liberty of automatically killing them when they borrow too much.

      2) On Windows at least, some hardware drivers are isolated and can be killed and restarted automatically by Windows. Other drivers are less isolated -- if they do bad things, the OS has a harder time fixing it and the result is occasionally an OS crash. (BSOD)

      I find that these days, overheating is the biggest source of crashes, and of course running an open source video driver on Linux. :)

    • Tina S
      February 2, 2014 at 12:20 pm

      Thank you for the thorough explanation, James!

      For many people rebooting is easier than to end individual processes via the Task Manager. Of course that shouldn't have kept Joel and me from including that "advanced" tip more explicitly than to simply write that "it is possible to manually track down and close offending programs".

      Moreover, checking the Task Manager might reveal the offending software. With rebooting, the exact cause remains a mystery.

    • Brad W
      February 3, 2014 at 12:53 am

      Had an online backup program freeze a Mac that was not cylced through regularly due to uploading taking so long. Went over a month without a restart and then chocked and froze one day.

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