Before you start
Objectives: learn about typical errors that cause Windows to stop working, which are the typical causes of those errors, and how to deal with those causes.
Prerequisites: no prerequisites.
Key terms: system, errors, memory, problem, device, hard disk, application, hardware, message
Types of Errors
When working with Windows, we will sometimes experience errors, lockups, and system crashes. Sometimes our Windows system will simply freeze. We can’t use our mouse and we can’t type. This can be caused by a variety of different things. Sometimes this is caused because some application is using 100% of our CPU, so our system can’t do anything else. In this case the error is simply caused by an over-utilized processor or otherwise busy system. Many times, with Windows this will resolve itself if we wait a few seconds or minutes, but sometimes it won’t. If we have a specific application that stops responding, we can use Task Manager to end or stop the application. If waiting or closing an application doesn’t help, we will have to manually power down the system and bring it back up. We have to hold the power button about 4 seconds to manually power our computer down. This will usually fix the problem.
The second type of problem that we can encounter when using Windows on a PC is a spontaneous reboot. We work on our PC and all of a sudden the system just shuts down and restarts. Sometimes the cause of this will be a bad power supply, but the cause can also be a software problem. Many times the problem is a bad device driver. It can also be caused by overheated hardware.
One other error that we should mention here is the Blue Screen of Death (BSOD), sometimes also called a stop error. A BSOD occurs when a severe system error happens, and Windows can no longer continue to function. This error stops all processes and shows a blue screen with the description of the error.
Common Causes of Windows Errors
There are thousands of different possible causes for computer errors to occur. It’s dependent on which version of the operating system we’re using, on what kind of hardware is installed in the operating system, what kind of device drivers we’re using, and what applications are installed. So, here we will mention some general causes that we should consider when finding a resolution.
First possible cause is the bug in the code. It could be a bug in the operating system, in an application, or in a device driver. Software is almost never absolutely perfect. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the need for updates for our Operating System, application, or device driver. When it comes to devices, errors can be also caused by incompatible device driver.
The second cause could be a corrupt or missing system file. This can be difficult to track down because not every system file is used all the time. But, when that corrupt system file gets used, then the errors occur. As long as we don’t use that file, everything works good.
Another cause for system errors can be overheated hardware. We’ve got components inside of our system that generate a lot of heat. Those components are CPU, hard drive, video board, an expansion board, or the motherboard itself. All those devices carry a static charge, so they attract dust from the air that circulates through the system. This can be big problem, because that dust acts as an insulator. It inhibits the flow of heat from the particular devices in the PC. That can cause a particular device to get overheated. Overheated hardware doesn’t work properly. If our computer works when we first power it on, but then starts to freeze after we start to play a game or start to use a lot of applications at the same time, this could indicate the heat problem. Our fans will start to spin at highest speeds, but they won’t be able to cool down our CPU and the whole system. If we notice that our fans are constantly spinning at high rate, we should check for too much dust inside the system case. A noisy fan might also be caused by rubbing cable or bad bearings. In that case we should replace the fan before it stops working.
Windows errors can also be caused by a bad or failing hard drive. Hard drives are mechanical devices, and as a mechanical device, hard drives just wear out over time. The point is that all hard drives will eventually fail after a certain amount of use. When this happens we’ll start seeing reboots, lockups and many other different errors. A clicking noise from the hard disk is a sign of a failing drive. In that case we should move data from the drive as soon as possible.
Another thing that will cause Windows errors, and will sometimes cause Blue Screens of Death, is bad memory. Memory is completely an electronic device, made up of capacitors and transistors, etc. Usually, it’ll last longer than the hard drive. Memory has sensitive electronic components inside of it, which can be relatively easily destroyed. That means that memory locations inside of a memory module can go bad. When that happens, we can end up with a Blue Screen of Death when Windows tries to read or write to a bad memory address. If we keep getting a BSOD or some other error message on the screen, with the same memory address in the error message, this usually means that we’ve got a bad memory in our system. Besides hard drives and memory, every other failing device can also cause system errors.
When troubleshooting, first we should gather all the details about the error and the conditions in which that error occurred. Some errors, like Blue Screen of Death, will give us an error message. We should copy the reported information. For other types of errors, a Windows Reporting feature will try to send a message about the error to Microsoft, and we should allow that. If known information about the problem is available, we will receive the solution steps that we can take to solve the problem. We should also check our Event Log for details about the error. Usually something will be there, but not always. Sometimes the Event Log won’t have enough time to save the event in its database. Next, we should also note which applications were running and what the user was doing when the error occurred. Also, we should also note all installed devices and their driver versions.
Sometimes there actually may not be a resolution for some of mentioned errors. It may be things that are out of our control, such as a bug in the Operating System. There’s nothing we can do until our Operating System vendor supplies a patch that fixes the problem. But, for some errors there are some things we can do. First, we should always install the latest Operating System and application updates. The next thing we should do is update our device drivers. The best resources to get latest updates is the Internet.
When troubleshooting specific problems for Windows Operating System, we can go to Microsoft’s website and use their knowledge base to track down a resolution to the problem. The best thing to do is to enter the text of an error message that was displayed on the screen into the knowledge base search field, and we’ll probably find the right document to help us solve the problem. For other applications and device drivers we should go to the application or device vendor’s website and check for a resolution to the problem. In general, we should get used to using the knowledge bases on the different websites. They can be very helpful. Google is also great to get information about our problem. For example, if we simply copy and paste the error message into Google and hit search, more than likely we’re going to find a solution to the error. That’s because other people probably have had the same problem, too.
When it comes to hardware, we should start with recently installed or updated hardware. If necessary, we should remove the new component and see if the problem goes away. We can check that the cables are plugged in, that there aren’t any bent pins, and that cards are properly seated in expansion slots. We should check status lights on components, it they are available. Also, we should make sure that our cooling fans are working, and that our devices aren’t covered with dust. Vacuum cleaner or a can of compressed air usually helps here. Remember, dust creates an insulator that heats devices up, and that could then cause problems and shorten the life of the components. If we see smoke or smell something burning, we should shut off the system immediately to prevent damage or hazards.
When it comes to our hard disks, we should run a thorough Scan Disk on a regular basis. Scan disk checks a disk for bad clusters and attempts to recover data from them.
To check our RAM we can use RAM testing tools. A memory test moves data into and out of each available memory address checking for bad memory addresses. Windows Vista and 7 includes a memory tester in the recovery options. We can also enable memory checking in the BIOS, if we have that option. It will take longer for our computer to boot, but this might help us find bad memory locations.
Various errors can cause our system to freeze, to reboot or can cause the BSOD to show up. Errors can be caused by bugs in the code, corrupt or missing system file, overheated hardware, bad or failing hard drive, bad memory module, or any other failing device.