Everyone's guide to causes, fixes, and recovering your files—
A computer crash is the most frustrating computer problem you'll ever have to deal with and to make matters worse they can appear out of nowhere.
There's nothing quite like the feeling of being in the middle of something important on your computer and then:
Bam! Your computer either freezes or restarts unexpectedly.
Here's the unfortunate reality:
A computer crash is just a fact of life for all PC users. But, the good news is that there are ways to fix and even prevent many of them from ruining your day.
What Is a Computer Crash?
A computer crash takes place when either of these two events happens within your computer.
- Your Operating System (OS) experiences a software error
- There is an error caused by a hardware malfunction
Generally speaking, hardware crashes are much more dangerous than most software crashes. Most software related crashes can be remedied with the right application of software code.
Worst case scenarios involve doing a clean install of the operating system, which wipes everything from the hard drive.
However, some hardware errors can't be fixed and can involve expensive repair or replacement.
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Signs of a computer crash
Crashes typically take place when your computer either freezes or restarts without warning. During a system freeze, your mouse pointer will stop moving.
Also, your computer can sometimes make a long, loud beeping sound if you continue striking the keyboard.
On the other hand:
When your system restarts after a crash, it may emit a brief beeping noise before rebooting.
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4 computer problems that look like crashes but aren't
Aside from crashes and freezes, other issues resemble a computer crash.
These problems are software-based and are usually not fatal to the life of your computer.
Sometimes programs can return what's called an exception.
An exception is an unexpected error that can result in a program displaying an error message but continuing to run.
Or, the program can crash by shutting down suddenly.
Here's the crazy part:
There may or may not be an error message.
It's not uncommon for many exceptions to take place during the installation of a new program, especially video games.
These errors can take place for a variety of reasons such as:
- Corrupted installation
- Missing files
- Incompatible hardware
- Malware protection software blocking the program
- No internet connection
If the program provides an error message, write it down and research it. Many times there are user forums and articles on what you can do to fix the exception.
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A hanging program is a lot like a freeze. However, in the case of a hang, only the program is affected and not the entire system.
During a hang, the program becomes unresponsive and does not accept any input from the user.
Here are just a few examples:
- Clicking on windows, controls, or fields with no response
- Clicking on the menu bar with no response
- Attempting to enter text with no luck
- Trying to close a window but it won't close
- Trying to switch to windows inside a program
Sometimes the mouse pointer can disappear, but most of the time it can still move.
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Malware, such as a virus, spyware, or some other unwelcome program, can cause program and system crashes.
Most of the time relatively harmless malware will slow your system down, sometimes producing unwanted pop-ups and notifications.
Here's something crazy:
Many pop-up viruses take the form of fake anti-malware programs that offer to "fix" your problem for a low introductory subscription price.
CC0 Creative Commons Image via Pixabay
In other words:
It's like the arsonist showing up to your front door offering to put out the fire he just started in your backyard for a small fee.
Malware infections can be hard to spot, depending on the type of infection. That's because not all malware wants you to know it's there.
And honestly, those are the nasty buggers that are the most dangerous.
"There are approx. 6,000 new computer viruses released every month."~Techspirited.com
Driver-related computer crashes are among the most common software related crashes most users experience.
A driver is a program designed specifically to interact with the user's operating system and a specific device.
Sometimes the driver can become outdated or corrupt, resulting in a computer crash.
Beware the Screen of Death
Of all the terms which give PC users chills, Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) is probably one of the worst.
After a computer crash, your monitor or laptop screen may show a bright blue screen.
Blue Screen of Death Image via adobestock_192851142
Written on this screen in white letters is a sort-of a technical explanation of why you're computer crashed.
These messages are designed to help the user determine what component, program, driver, or part of the operating system is causing the crash.
You see the message may give you the name of a file (most likely a driver) that caused the crash.
However, it can also give you a long line of code that may look something like this:
These codes mean specific things. However, they can also be caused by different things. Dealing with a BSOD can require a lot of technical know-how and patience.
Possible results of BSOD crashes
A BSOD computer crash can have several outcomes.
The crash could be the result of a bad program that caused something funky to happen with your RAM. Often, restarting and uninstalling (or reinstalling) the offending program can fix the issue.
Also, a good number of BSOD errors is caused by a faulty device driver. In those situations, you may have to go in and update the driver after your computer restarts.
Numerous free and paid driver maintenance programs will detect and fix bad drivers for you.
Hardware blue screens can be tougher to diagnose. That's because the BSOD won't come out and tell you that you have bad RAM or a failing motherboard.
Steps to fix BSOD caused by corrupted Windows files:
If your BSOD is caused by a corrupted Windows file, then there's usually going to be a message pointing to that specific system file.
Best case scenarios
Here are a few of the best case scenario fixes for a BSOD.
Fix it with CHKDSK
If you can restart your computer and log back into Windows, then you may be able to fix the problem within Windows.
The most common way to fix operating system file errors is a Windows utility called CHKDSK.
Here are the steps for accessing and utilizing CHKDSK:
- Press the Windows key or go to the Windows search bar near your start button.
- Type in "cmd" and click on the command line icon.
- Once in the command line window, type in CHKDSK C: /f
- If your operating system drive uses a different letter, substitute "C:" for your drive letter followed by a colon.
- It will then display the following message: "Chkdsk cannot run because the volume is in use by another process. Would you like to schedule this volume to be checked the next time the system restarts? (Y/N)"
- Press "Y."
- Restart your computer and allow CHKDSK to attempt to check and fix any problems with your system files.
Once the scan finishes, hopefully, your BSOD issue is resolved.
Worst case scenario
Unfortunately, this doesn't always work.
But you still have options:
Sometimes a BSOD computer crash can follow the installation of new hardware or software. Also, downloads, updates, and system configuration changes can also result in BSOD.
You can use System Restore to return your OS to the point just before the system change. However, this only works if your system made a restore point before the change.
If it did, then follow these steps to restore your system:
- When your system restarts press Shift + F8 while your system is booting up, just keep pressing this combination.
- Once you enter the recovery screen click on "See advanced repair options."
- Next click on "Troubleshoot."
- One of the first options should be "System Restore." Click on it.
- From there it will search for restore points.
- Select the most recent restore point and follow the instructions to restore your system.
If you experience a BSOD computer crash that doesn't allow you to boot into Windows, you've got a big problem. This means that the system boot files have somehow become corrupted or damaged.
Fortunately, there are several fixes for this scenario:
First try booting into the Windows Recovery Environment, which should be in a separate partition of your hard drive.
The Recovery Environment is created automatically whenever Windows 10 is installed on a system.
Accessing the Recovery Environment follows many of the same steps mentioned above directing you to System Restore.
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- After you restart your computer, press a combination of Shift + F8 repeatedly to enter into the Recovery Environment
- Then select "See advanced repair options"
- From there you'll need to select "Start-up Repair"
Once this is done, hopefully, your startup issues will have been resolved.
However, if not, your system may require more in-depth troubleshooting or a complete re-installation of Windows 10.
Can't boot into Recovery Environment
If for some reason you are unable to boot into the Recovery Environment, then you may need to boot from a Windows 10 USB or disk.
To create a Windows boot disk or USB:
- First, you'll need access to another computer and either a DVD or at least an 8-Gigabyte USB Flash Drive
- Next, you'll need to download the Windows Media Creation Tool
- Once the tool finishes downloading open the file
- It may take a few minutes for the tool to load
- When it finishes loading, click accept on the terms page
- The next screen will ask you if you want to upgrade the current PC or create installation media for another PC
- Choose "Create installation media"
- Select your language, then click next
- Next, choose either USB flash drive or ISO file
- If you select the USB file, it will ask you to select the destination USB drive from a list of drives
- After which, it will burn the Windows 10 installation media onto that drive
- Or, if you choose ISO file, it will download the ISO file, in which case you'll need to use a program like PowerISO to burn it to a DVD
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Once you've completed these steps and have your installation media ready, follow the steps in these videos, which shows more advanced boot recovery methods step by step.
The first video deals with the BSOD computer crash error message: "BAD_SYSTEM_CONFIG_INFO."
Note with the first video, the main directory represented as D:\ may be a different drive letter on your computer.
It's usually C:\ on most computers in America.
This video will show you how to rebuild the Master Boot Record and other files needed to boot into Windows 10.
This video will show you how to fix the /fixboot "Access is denied" error that you may run into while correcting the Master Boot Record.
When a Computer Crash Is Caused by Hardware
As mentioned earlier, a hardware related computer crash is one of the worst kind of crashes.
Many times these crashes are caused by things like incompatible new hardware or some other minor issue.
Other times they're caused by failing hardware.
Here are a few hardware issues that can cause a system-wide computer crash:
Overheating takes place when one or more components become too hot to function, resulting in a computer crash.
These types of crashes are atypical for most desktops but can be fairly commonplace with many laptops due to airflow issues.
When a laptop overheats, you may notice an increase in temperature if you touch the underside of the machine.
For desktops, it can be a little tougher to notice.
However, to know for sure if a component is overheating you'll need to go into your system's BIOS if it offers temperature monitoring.
Or, you can install a specialized program that will display the temperatures of components like your CPU, GPU, and RAM.
Check the internet to find the acceptable temperature range of the component that appears to have a high temperature.
Once you've found the overheating component, first make sure the system isn't clogged with dust. If it is, clean it out with canned air or pay a professional service to clean it out for you.
Often, this is why many laptops and some desktops overheat.
Also, make sure that all your fans are working, sometimes fans can slowly lose speed and power, resulting in overheating.
Here's a video on how to prevent overheating in your desktop.
And now for fun, let's look at the completely wrong way to cool down your desktop.
I did mention that was the wrong way right?
Failing hard drive
A failing hard drive can also cause a computer crash.
With traditional HDD drives, if you listen to it carefully, you may start hearing scratching and scraping sounds indicating that the drive is dying.
However, with newer SSD drives, unlike HDD drives, there are no moving parts that can break, making them tougher to diagnose.
Here are four ways to diagnose a failing hard drive inside of Windows 10:
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1. Use the HDD or SSD manufacturer's tools
Some HDD and SSD drives will come with free downloadable software that can tell about the overall health of the hard drive.
To find the specific software for your hard drive you'll need the model number.
- First, press the Windows key and type in "Device Manager"
- Next, click on the Device Manager icon
- In Device Manager, click on the arrow next to "Disk Drives" to unstack the drives
- You should see the model number of your main drive
- After you get the number, go to the manufacturer's page and search for software related to your model
2. Windows CHKDSK tool
This is a built-in Windows tool that can scan your disk to find system errors and bad sectors.
It will then show you if you have any problems and if there's a bigger problem that it can't fix.
To get started:
- Press the Windows key and type in "this PC" to bring up your list of hard drives
- Right-click on the drive you suspect is failing and click on "Properties"
- Select the "Tools" tab and click on "Check Now"
- A dialog box will open up
- Put a check mark next to both options and press start
- Take note of any problems it could not fix for further investigation
3. Use WMIC
Windows management instrument command (WMIC) is another great tool you can use to detect a failing hard drive.
The program allows you to perform many administrative tasks, including checking the health of your hard disks.
WMIC uses the S.M.A.R.T (Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology) feature within your hard drive to provide a simple determination of its health.
Once its analysis is complete, it will return a message like "OK" or "Pred Fail" to give you an indication of the hard drive's health.
To get started:
- Press the Windows key and type in "CMD"
- Click on the CMD icon
- Type in "wmic"
- Type in "diskdrive get status"
- Results usually take less than a second
4. Use a third-party hard disk health checking tool
You can also download a third-party disk health checking tool that can give you more information than both WMIC and CHKDSK may provide.
You can find many great recommendations for the best hard drive testing tools by completing a quick search.
We recommend you search within the current year to find the most up-to-date utility programs.
5 symptoms of failing RAM
Failing RAM can lead to a computer crash as well as a host of other issues.
Here are five symptoms of failing ram to look out for:
1. Slipping performance
When you turn on your computer, and everything's fine, but you notice performance slipping throughout the day.
Within a few hours, programs and other features load within a snail's pace.
This kind of gradual deterioration of PC performance could be a RAM issue.
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2. A crash followed by BSOD
You experience a computer crash followed by the brief flash of a blue screen with white text just before your system restarts.
This behavior could indicate bad RAM.
3. Files become corrupted
Files, especially ones that you frequently access and save, become inexplicably corrupted.
RAM issues can cause this problem, which only gets worse over time.
Eventually, the file structure of your entire hard drive will start to slowly degenerate, and you'll no longer be able to boot your computer.
4. Computer freezes or restarts randomly
Your computer randomly restarts or freezes sporadically.
It may also reboot almost immediately upon opening your desktop.
5. Program install attempts fail
All attempts to install a new program repeatedly fail for reasons unknown.
Or, you try to reinstall the operating system, but keep getting strange error messages.
"The group of 12 engineers who designed the IBM PC was called 'The Dirty Dozen'."~Techspirited.com
Diagnosing bad RAM
To diagnose bad RAM, you can use the Windows Memory Diagnostic tool or a third-party program
To use the Windows tool:
- Press the Windows button
- Type in "windows memory diagnostic"
- Click on the diagnostic tool icon
- Select either the "restart now and check for problems" option or "check for problems the next time I start" option
As for third-party programs, there are a lot to choose from that may offer more in-depth analysis of your RAM.
Be sure to filter your search for only results from within the previous year for the best results.
Once you've established that your RAM is bad, you'll need to replace it with RAM that's compatible with your motherboard.
If you search "crucial system scanner," you can download free software that will scan your system and advise compatible replacement RAM.
You can elect to buy directly from the Crucial website or take the specs from their recommended RAM and search for modules by other manufacturers.
Image vis Screen Capture
Failing graphics card
When a graphics card starts to fail, it can cause visual stuttering, freezing, computer crash issues.
You may start to notice weird colors or see tearing while watching a movie or playing a game. Sometimes, strange shapes may appear on your screen.
Graphics cards can fail for a wide variety of reasons.
However, these are the most common:
- Dust buildup
If you start getting BSOD while in the middle of graphically intensive tasks like video games, movies, or video editing, then your graphics card might be failing.
In the case of a failing graphics card, the only remedy is to replace it.
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Failing power supply
A failing power supply is a problem that can be more of an issue for desktop users than those with laptops.
Laptops have a power adapter that connects to the computer and charges up their batteries.
However, you can use a laptop without a battery, but it does make your system vulnerable to sudden shutdowns if any connected power cords are disconnected.
A bad power adapter for a laptop will likely not charge a battery nor will it power the laptop.
On the other hand:
A failing power supply (PSU) for a desktop computer can be a different story. A failing PSU can wreak havoc on a desktop system before it finally gives up the ghost.
The two most common symptoms of a failing desktop power supply are:
- Sudden shutdowns
- Sometimes a burning smell
A sudden PSU-related computer crash can cause damage to your operating system, files, and computer's hardware components.
If you suspect you may have a failing power supply, the only realistic way to fix it is to replace it.
This could be a life or death tip:
Do not try to fix a broken power supply.
Power supplies are nothing to play around with. If your PSU is bad, replace it. Power supplies can be relatively cheap.
They're not the hardest component to replace in a desktop.
Failing CPU and motherboard
The rarest computer crash for computers (laptops and desktops) concerns a failing motherboard or CPU. Both components can cause frequent crashes and freezes until your system completely dies.
Here's the bad part:
There are not a lot of free options to test for a failing motherboard. Most experts recommend physically checking the motherboard for bulging or leaking capacitors.
This process may require a trip to your local PC technician if you're not comfortable with this task.
However, there is professional software you can purchase to test and diagnose hardware including your motherboard, but it's not cheap.
The good news is:
There are a variety of free and paid CPU testing programs out there that can tell you if your processor is going bad.
File Recovery After Computer Crash
After a computer crash, you may decide to buy a new hard drive or re-install over your current Windows installation.
In which case, you may want to recover your files.
The best way to do so would be to have a backup already set up on a separate drive that you can recover using a new Windows installation.
However, if you don't have a backup copy of your files, there is special software, some free and for purchase, that may be able to recover files for you.
If you search the term "best file recovery windows 10" it should pull up numerous results listing the top file recovery software.
Once again, for the most current results, filter your search to include only information published within the current year.
You can also elect to remove the non-bootable drive and connect it to another computer to access the files that way.
Here's a video showing how this is done.
Note: This video shows you how to recover data from a hard drive used in a laptop.
You may need to purchase extra equipment such as a hard drive enclosure for the type of drive you're extracting.
Desktop hard drive removal
The same principle applies to desktop computers.
The main difference is that you'll need to remove the drive from the PC case.
Here's a video with an example of how to do that.
Note: There are many different types of desktop cases which have different hardware configurations.
Some Desktops may require tools such as a Phillips head screwdriver. You may need to look up the best way to open your particular desktop case based on the desktop model number.
If you bought an HP desktop, you'd just need it's model number to find instructions on removing your hard drive.
If you built your desktop yourself, you probably don't need to read this part.
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Steps to Prevent a Computer Crash
There are several things that you can do to help prevent a computer crash from ruining your day.
However, keep in mind the computer crashes will happen from to time. The idea is to make them happen less frequently and be less severe.
One thing you can do to prevent a computer crash is to clean your desktop or laptop regularly. Preventing dust buildup can in most cases avoid overheating which can cause components to fail.
The cheapest way to clean is to use compressed air cans, or you can opt for more expensive plugged in electronic dusters.
For desktops, you want to make sure you open your cases once in a while and blow out any dust buildup.
Here's a video to show you how that works.
Here's a video with some cleaning tips for laptops.
Preventing software crashes
There are a few methods to help avoid many software related computer crashes.
You should search for the best antivirus, antimalware, and PC maintenance utility programs for the current year. These licenses for these programs can range in cost from about $20 to $80.
However, installing and then using one more of these programs daily can prevent a lot of crashes.
Best of all:
Many offer free versions that can still provide some protection.
Out-of-date drivers are one of the biggest culprits when it comes to instigating a computer crash.
With maintenance utility programs, the best software will also include a utility for updating drivers.
Why a Computer Crash Isn't Always a Bad Thing
A computer crash can be a useful diagnostic tool to let you know when something is wrong with your laptop or desktop PC.
While BSOD messages are scary, they can also contain a lot of useful info to help you fix problems in your system.
The worst thing you can do is ignore warning signs and problems like a computer crash or freeze.
The most important thing to do after a computer crash is to remain calm. Most crashes are only warnings.
You only have to investigate the issue and apply the correct solution, which is usually easier than you think.
Have you survived a computer crash and lived to tell the tale? Share you horror stories with us in the comments!