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You were minding your business — going through expense reports or browsing the internet — when the worst struck. Your PC crashed, and you don’t know what to do. Confusion is typical when your otherwise normal day gets interrupted. Yet, there’s no reason to worry.
With this simple guide, you’ll be able to diagnose the case of a PC crash in minutes.
In this article: What Is a PC Crash? | Software Failure | Hardware Failure | Crash Indicators | Most Common Causes for a PC Crash | First Crash | Problem Persists | Analyzing Hardware Issues | Analyzing Software Issues | Asking for Help | Preparing Precise Logs | Tech Support Forums
1. PC Crashes and You
This article will focus on what an unexpected computer crash is and how to identify the issue. Computer crashes occur for a variety of reasons. To the average PC user, PC crashes are often taken as signs that a PC is broken or damaged. In reality, PC shutdowns are rarely something to worry about. As long as no immediate harm has come to the PC in the form of physical damage, voltage spikes, or product defect, your PC should not be in any lethal danger.
1.1 What Is a PC Crash?
The simplest way to explain a PC crash is through the metaphor of a chain. There are two types of chains in a PC: a hardware chain and a software chain. When you first boot up your PC, the hardware chain activates. The BIOS checks to see which hardware components are connected to the motherboard and powered by the PSU (Power Supply Unit). If a hardware component, such as a hard drive, is not properly connected to the motherboard, you will be informed of the issue through an error message.
Once the hardware chain finishes, the software chain initiates. The first link on the chain is the OS (Operating System). If OS files are damaged in any way, you will receive an error on your display. Afterward, drivers and startup items load. Finally, typical programs become available for use and the chain ends.
A PC crash is caused by a break in this logical chain. Of course this can also happen while the PC is already running. If any links are broken, damaged, or missing, your PC will crash.
1.1.1 Software Failure
The three main reasons for software failure are: OS corruption, program crash, and driver failure. Out of the three, a driver failure is the most common. Different drivers connect with, and control, different hardware components.
OS Corruption — An OS error occurs in your operating system. This type of error indicates that your system files are corrupted, damaged, or missing. OS files can become corrupt for two main reasons: faulty disk drive sectors or deleted system files. Faulty hardware sectors occur when the physical disk of your hard drive becomes damaged or worn. A damaged hard disk cannot read files properly, which your PC considers a corruption. On the other hand, the issue may stem from system files simply missing. Certain viruses aim to delete system files, which are the most crucial files of a PC. If system files end up missing, the OS cannot perform and your PC will crash.
Program Crashes — Program crashes are often associated with hardware failure. Programs rarely crash a PC in themselves. If a program fails, the program itself will crash, rather than the PC as a whole. Instead, program crashes are a method of troubleshooting deeper problems. For example, if your PC crashes every time you are using your Chrome web browsers, it may be a result of RAM failure. If your PC crashes every time you begin playing a PC game, your GPU may become easily over-stressed and shut down your PC.
Driver Failure — The majority of PC crashes do not occur due to software or hardware failure. Drivers allow for the use of hardware components. Driver failures are a type of software bug, wherein the connection between your hardware and software fails. Drivers may be faulty when installed, or may corrupt over time. Outdated drivers may lead to PC crashes, as can the latest drivers.
Driver hotfixes are often released by software developers when a driver works improperly or is released unstable.
1.1.2 Hardware Failure
Unlike software failure, hardware failure cannot be fixed through tweaks or downloads. If a component is defective, the component will not work. Although under-clocking — a method to reduce the speed of a component — may prolong the component’s use, it will not fix the component. The odds that a hardware component has failed in your PC are fairly low.
Motherboard — The motherboard allows for communication between the different hardware components. Everything from your flash drives to your hard or solid state drive is connected via the motherboard. A damaged (faulty capacitor, faulty inputs, short-circuited board, etc.) motherboard will lead to frequent crashes and shutdowns. Power surges may burn the motherboard. Faulty slots, such as PCI or RAM slots, may lead to issues as well. Motherboard issues are tricky, but are rarely the cause of frequent PC crashes.
CPU (Central Processing Unit) / GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) — Most PC crashes caused by hardware problems will involve the CPU or GPU in some capacity. Any issues on behalf of these two hardware components will lead to frequent shutdowns. The CPU handles most processing tasks such as multi-tasking or video rendering. The GPU handles computer graphics. Overheating is the main issue with these two components. CPUs or GPUs automatically shut down when they reach a certain temperature threshold for protection.
PSU (Power Supply Unit) — PSU provide the electrical power necessary to run your components. A low-quality PSU can ruin a PC with frequent voltage spikes. Improper voltage, voltage spikes, power surges, and the like can do serious damage to all PC components. Most pre-built and factory-made PCs come with cheap power supply units, and are also poorly ventilated. All of these factors may lead to crashes.
1.2 Crash Indicators
Crash indicators are vital for troubleshooting and an attentive observer will spot them immediately. These indicators act as information you can use to troubleshoot your crashing issues. Crash indicators do not imply specific problems in themselves. They do, however, help with gauging the severity of your issue.
Sound Stutter — Sound stutter is a sure indication that your PC will inevitably crash or become unresponsive. This may sound like a buzzing or a considerable slowing down of audio. Sound stutter may be an audio problem, or may be coupled with another problematic component part.
BSOD — The BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) is a notable indication of a PC crash. Comparatively speaking, a BSOD is the most helpful of the available PC crashes you could have. BSODs will often provide users with an error code, or error message, which will direct you towards a possible solution. The PC is then restarted.
Screen Shuts Off — Sometimes a PC will not shut down completely during a crash. Instead, the PC will continue running while the screen shuts off. A screen shutting off is very usually an error with the GPU. This does not mean that the GPU is broken or defective, but that the GPU cannot maintain its connection with the motherboard. It may mean that the GPU’s drivers are installed incorrectly, corrupted, or require a rollback. This assumes, of course, that your screen is properly connected and your connecting cables are in working order.
Unresponsive PC — An unresponsive PC is often the first indications of a PC crash. There are several versions, however, of an unresponsive PC. Some may consider a still mouse unresponsive, while others may be experiencing a complete lack of response — both audio and visual — from their PC. In any case, unresponsive PCs are definite indicators that a crash has occurred.
1.3 Most Common Causes for a PC Crash
PCs crash for many common reasons and with the right amount of patience and know-how these types of crashes are easy to fix.
Overheating — Overheating is possibly the most common issue. Overheating occurs when: PC components are under heavy load, there is poor air circulation in your PC case, PC fans are not working, and too much dust has collected in the PC. Cooling down a PC is a simple process, but does require that the case be opened and components cleaned.
OS Failure — OS files, for one reason or another, have a way of becoming damaged or missing. This may be due to a virus, malware, spyware, and so on. It may also be due to a simple mishandling of important files on behalf of the user.
Driver Failure — Driver failure occurs when a driver does not perform well with your PC’s hardware or with other installed drivers. This occurs for several reasons: the driver is defective and requires a hot-fix, was installed incorrectly, is not compatible with your version of Windows, etc. Rolling back drivers is a common exercise by PC technicians, and Windows even includes this function in the OS itself.
2. The Nitty-Gritty Troubleshooting
The act of troubleshooting is best conducted through levels of urgency, rather than specific issues. Some crashes are easily fixable, while others will require hours of troubleshooting. Likewise, some may occur monthly, while others occur daily.
Follow each section to ensure that you are acting in accordance with the severity of the issue. This is a general troubleshooting procedure. If one step does not work, continue on to the next.
2.1 First Crash
Restart Your PC — Seriously, restart your PC. If a crash has occurred and your PC is not restarting automatically, press and hold your PC’s power button to turn off the PC. Then, turn the PC back on. One of two events will occur; either the PC acts normally and the crash was a simple hiccup in the logical chain of command, or the PC crashes again.
Check Power Connections — If a PC component is not receiving power, or not receiving enough power, it will shut down. Before troubleshooting components, ensure that your components are correctly plugged to the power supply. Power connections are listed separately from others because it is easy to forget that components require both a connection to the motherboard and a connection to the PSU as well.
Check Input Cables / Internal Connections — Ensure that your input cables are in working order. This includes all connections outside the case, such as VGA and HDMI cables, as well as internal cables like SATA cables. Also, ensure that PC components are installed correctly. This includes the GPU (PCI slot) and RAM (RAM slot).
2.2 Problem Persists
WhoCrashed — Download WhoCrashed, a valuable tool for diagnosing Windows crashes. The program works by looking at your minidump folder. A minidump is a small file which holds information created by a BSOD. WhoCrashed reviews minidump files and provides a reason for why the crash occurred. Once open, click the Analyze button and read the results. WhoCrashed will not work for all crashes.
Anti-Virus, Anti-Malware, Anti-Spyware — Running a single anti-virus software will not do. I would recommend using three individual programs to ensure that your frequent crashes aren’t malware-based. Download and run these three programs in order:
Run full scans with each one (RKill does not have a scan settings). Then, download and run CCleaner. Continue doing so until all results come back clean. Ensuring that you have a clean PC is the first step in limiting extraneous variables.
Disable Non-Essential Startup Programs — To continue minimizing extraneous variables, disable all non-essential startup items. Windows Task Manager provides a simple and easy to use interface for controlling startup items. To access the startup menu, right-click on your task-bar and select Task Manager. Click on the Startup tab and begin disabling items by double-clicking them. The startup tab will not show essential startup items, so feel free to disable them all. Programs like CCleaner also have a startup function to configure startup programs. For in-depth startup program analysis, the official Microsoft Autoruns tool allows users more access to the running applications on a PC.
Thus far, we’ve been dealing with general PC crash issues, associated with common issues and mistakes. If problems persist, it is no longer due to general PC issues.
2.3.1 Analyzing Hardware Issues
Overheating Troubleshoot — Overheating is simple to diagnose. If your PC is overheating, take measures to cool it down immediately.
HWMonitor is an impressive, accurate software, which tracks the voltage and temperature readings of your computer components. If any of the components within your PC are above 80–90C on idle — not under heavy use — take measures to cool it down. The main cause of overheating is dust buildup, which can also render fans unusable and lead to even more crashes.
GPU Stress Test — The best way to see whether your GPU is causing a PC crash is to stress test it. Stress testing will put heavy stress on your GPU, causing it to work harder than usual. If your PC shuts down during gaming, it’s a good idea to check the stability of the GPU.
Furmark or Unigine: Valley are great stress-testing programs. During the test, ensure that your PC is not overheating. If your PC shuts down due to these tests, and your GPU is not overclocked, the GPU may be the problem. If that is the case, either under-clock your GPU or update/roll back your drivers.
CPU Stress Test — CPU stress tests are like GPU stress-tests. CPU stress-tests test multi-tasking (among other things) rather than graphics ability. If shutdowns occur when you are using several programs or are rendering files, your CPU may be the issue.
Prime95 or RealBench will stress-test your CPU extensively. CPU stress-tests are different from GPU stress-tests in that CPU tests often take longer to complete. A thorough CPU stress-test will take several hours to complete.
RAM Stress Test — RAM stress-tests test memory errors. RAM errors will lead to frequent shut downs unless the whole RAM stick is replaced. Windows Memory Diagnostic (WMD) is a windows program which checks for errors associated with your RAM.
Open your Start Menu, type in windows memory diag, and click on the Windows Memory Diagnostic tool to run WMD. WMD will check for memory errors itself, and only requires a restart to run. Memtest is a better memory test than WMD, but requires an external USB drive to download. You must also change your BIOS boot order to run Memtest.
Disk Drive Error Checking — Hard disks, which is where your OS and programs are stored, wear down over time. They may also be defective. Disk drive errors may lead to frequent shutdowns, especially if shutdowns occur for no particular reason.
To scan a disk drive for errors, locate your disk drive (annotated as the C: drive or similar). Right-click the drive, select Properties, click the Tools tab, and click on Check under the Error checking category. Your PC will then restart. If this scan comes up with any errors, your crashes may be caused by your hard drive.
2.3.2 Analyzing Software Issues
OS Troubleshoot — If your PC ceases to start up, or crashes despite being idle, there may be something wrong with your OS itself. To prevent or recover corrupted OS files, Windows comes equipped with a system file checker. The System File Checker command will make Windows check, repair, and replace damaged system files. Open the start menu and type in cmd. Right-click on the cmd.exe program as select Run as administrator. From the elevated command prompt window, type sfc /scannow and let the program run. It will scan and repair all damaged system files.
If your PC is not booting at all, create a system repair disc or USB to re-install Windows. Luckily, Windows installations will often create a backup version of Windows named Windows.old. This backup version will save the documents and programs on your previous copy of Windows.
Driver Troubleshoot — Before rolling back drivers, check WhoCrashed to see if your minidump scan hails any results. You can check individual drivers by opening the Start Menu and typing device manager. Select the Device Manager. This is where you can find all drivers installed on your computer. Double-click on a category and right-click the device. Select Properties and then Drivers to check which driver is installed for which device. In the same window, there are two particular choices to note: Update Driver and Roll Back Driver. Update Driver will scan your PC and the internet for driver updates, although this feature is rarely effective. Instead, type in the name of the product with the added drivers tag to search for new drivers. If your drivers are up to date, try installing an older version of the driver. This option should be present in the driver website.
2.4 Asking for Help
It’s virtually impossible to solve all PC crashes with one resource. The specific configuration of every PC is different. Even if the internal components of a PC, in the case of pre-built PCs, are the same, the possible combinations of software drivers and programs are immeasurable. That’s why you should always consider asking for help when dealing with PC issues.
For the best results, you should follow a certain protocol you should follow when asking for advice on a tech support forum. This protocol will allow even the most casual PC user to answer troubleshooting questions quickly and efficiently.
Use Your Five Senses — The process of troubleshooting a PC is fairly technical, and is often comprised of jargon concerning PC parts, drivers, network configurations, and so on. The most basic form of troubleshooting, however, doesn’t require any tech-speak. Simply describing what is occurring when a PC shuts down provides important information for an error troubleshoot.
For example, does the PC make any sudden noises before shutting down. Is there any particular item, program, or behavior, i.e. a trigger that causes the crash? Does the screen freeze before going blank? Are the fans in the PC whirring? These basic processes can narrow a PC technician’s troubleshooting to a defined list of possibilities. When asking for help, be as specific as possible and use your five senses to gain an exact reading of the situation before asking for help.
2.4.1 Preparing Precise Logs
Sometimes, precise logs are necessary to detail exactly what is going on with your hardware and software. System logs are technical accounts of your PC’s software and hardware state. PC technicians use these logs to parse out errors and issues in a system.
System Information Log — In your Start Menu, type system information and click the System Information program. This program allows users to check system information concerning hidden facets like BIOS version and Serial Ports and copy the information as well. Click on a subcategory, then Edit, then Select All, back to Edit and finally Copy. This will copy all the content in the page you are viewing. When starting a forum inquiry, copy and paste the first page of the System Information window, to offer others an idea as to the type of PC you’re using.
DirectX Diagnostic Tool — The DirectX Diagnostic Tool also provides a log with system information, and is more so directed towards sound and graphics card information. To check this information, open the Start Menu and type in dxdiag. Select dxdiag.exe and you should see your DirectX Diagnostic Tool (DDT). Click on Save All Information to save a copy of the DDT analysis to your desktop. This log contains a comprehensive list of most drivers, peripherals, controllers, decoders, and more present on your computer.
HWMonitor Log — HWMonitor provides an excellent log which records voltage and temperature readings, along with many other readings and system information. You can access this log by opening HWMonitor, clicking File, and then Save monitoring data.
2.4.2 Tech Support Forums
Outlets for Questioning — You can ask for help with troubleshooting in various online tech support forums. Some more notable examples are as follows: TomsHardware, HowToGeek, SuperUser, SevenForums (focusing on Windows 7), and TenForums (focusing on Windows 10). Less popular forums, which are no less effective, are Reddit’s /r/techsupport subreddit and Microsoft’s own Community forum.
These resources are effective because they are easy to use and assistance is often only a few days (if not hours) away. They also have an extensive library of questions which, more often than not, are similar to your own. If a question has been answered, it will most likely be labeled or tagged as Solved. This is commonplace for PC troubleshooting, so searching for the solution to a problem with the added solved tag will lead to better results.
We Wish You a Safe Flight with Windows
PC crashed are rarely total failures; PCs are made of components, and one failing or malfunctioning part does not mean you’re at a complete loss. One might assume everything from hackers to viruses. Luckily, most PC crashes are simply the result of out of whack drivers. Rarely do they warrant actual part replacements.
Nevertheless, experiencing frequent shutdowns can be scary. One might think their personal, or professional, work may be put at risk. Worse yet, frequent shutdowns may end up putting a valuable PC resource out of commission. Fear no more! With these resources, you’ll be able to troubleshoot, solve, and ask questions concerning PC shutdowns with the best of them.
Do you suffer from frequent shutdowns? Did this article help? If not, what’s the issue? Let us know in the comments below?