Computers

What to do when your PC freezes or locks up

Illustration file picture (REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files)

Illustration file picture (REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files)

It happens to everyone at some point. Without any warning, whether you’re working on an important project, browsing aimlessly or trying to beat your high score on Solitaire, your computer suddenly freezes. You wiggle the mouse, click the buttons a few times, tap some keys on your keyboard – and get nothing. Your 21st century piece of technology is as useless as a pet rock. What do you do next?

Restart

OK, this step is obvious. But don’t pull the power plug or flip the switch on the power strip. Instead, press and hold the computer's power button for 5 to 10 seconds. This will restart it with less disruption than a power loss.

There are a few things that can happen next. Let's look at the three most typical ones and what you should do next.

1. Computer starts fine

If the computer starts up fine, back up your important information immediately in case a serious problem is on the way. If you don’t, you might find yourself scrambling through more complicated ways to get files off a dead computer.

Then use the computer as you normally do, because it may not freeze again. Find out why a restart often makes problems disappear. But if the computer does freeze again, keep reading for more steps to take.

2. Computer asks you how to boot

While restarting, the computer might say there was an error with Windows and ask if you want to start normally or in Safe Mode. The first time, choose to start Windows normally. Then back up your data and keep using the computer.

If it freezes again, choose to boot in "Safe Mode with Networking." Then use the computer and, if it doesn’t freeze again, the problem is probably software. If it does freeze again, it could be software or hardware. Keep reading for tips to investigate both.

3. Computer freezes again immediately

If the computer freezes again immediately after you reboot, whether in normal mode or Safe Mode, then the problem could be software, but it's probably hardware.

Now we're going to look at some ways to find the cause and fix it.

Basic software troubleshooting

An occasional or consistent computer freeze could be the result of a program acting up. Use the keyboard shortcut CTRL + SHIFT + ESC to open Windows' Task Manager, then select the "Performance" tab. In Windows 8.1 and 10, you might need to click the "More details" link at the bottom of the Task Manager to see it. Click here for more Task Manager tricks that you should know.

Start using your computer as you normally do, but keep an eye on the CPU, memory and disk categories. If the computer freezes, and one of these is really high, then that could be your answer. Make a note of which area was really high, then restart the computer and open Task Manager again. But this time, choose the "Processes" tab. Sort the list by CPU, memory or disk, whichever was really high the last time the computer froze, and see what process pops up to the top of the list as the computer freezes. This should tell you what software is acting up, so you can uninstall or update it. Learn how to unravel what processes tell you about your programs.

You might also have hidden software, such as a virus, that’s causing problems. Be sure to run a scan with your security software to see if there’s something that shouldn't be there.

In cases where your computer freezes during startup in normal mode but boots OK in Safe Mode, the problem could be a program that's loading during the boot sequence. Use a program like Autoruns to selectively disable the programs that begin at startup and see which one is causing the problem.

If your computer is freezing during startup no matter what, and it's at the same point, then the problem could be corruption in Windows, or a hardware problem. A quick way to tell is to grab a Live CD for another operating system, such as Linux Mint or Tails, and boot with that.

If the other operating system boots OK, then you're probably looking at a problem with Windows, and you may need to reinstall. For those using Windows 10 (and 8), it has a Refresh/Reset feature that's supposed to return Windows to a factory state. It's under Settings>>Update and recovery>>Recovery. If Windows is having trouble starting, it should pop up a Recovery option during boot that includes this, or you might have to use a disc.

If the non-Windows operating system has trouble, too, it's time to look at your hardware.

Basic hardware troubleshooting

A computer that freezes both in normal mode and Safe Mode or with another operating system often indicates a problem with your computer's hardware. It could be your hard drive, an overheating CPU, bad memory or a failing power supply. It also might be your motherboard, but that's rare.

Usually with hardware problems, the freezing will be sporadic at the start and increase as time goes on. Or it will trigger when the computer is working hard but not when you're doing more basic things. Fortunately, you can run some checks to see if that's the case.

Use a program like CrystalDiskInfo to check your hard drive's S.M.A.R.T. data for signs of impending failure. A program like SpeedFan can tell you if your computer processor is overheating or if the voltages are fluctuating, which might indicate a problematic power supply.

If you want to go more in-depth, you can grab a diagnostic CD like FalconFour's Ultimate Boot CD. It has plenty of other tools for checking out your computer, including MemTest, which puts strain on your computer's RAM to see if it's working OK.

Learn about more signs that your computer could be close to dying. If your computer is still under warranty, you'll want to contact the manufacturer or seller. But if it’s an older computer, you’ll need to decide if it's less expensive to repair or replace it. Find out at what point you should just cut your losses.

On the Kim Komando Show, the nation's largest weekend radio talk show, Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today's digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com. Kim also posts breaking tech news 24/7 at News.Komando.com.