Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Using your computer's Power button improperly or pulling the plug can lead to serious data loss. I'll look at the right way to turn your computer off.

I have been having problems with the Power button on my computer which turns itself on and off. I have stopped shutting down my computer because I have difficulty turning it back on. I just restart it every morning, but I really don't like leaving the computer on all the time. If I were to cut the power to the computer and then plug it back in the next morning, would I need to use the on/off button and would I be damaging anything?

Yes, but you may damage your computer.

By just pulling the plug, you run a good risk of corrupting data on your hard drive and a very small risk of actually damaging hardware.

I'm not sure what kinds of problems that you're having with the Power button, but even that needs to be used correctly, or you could end up with ... well, you could end up with the very problems that you're seeing.

Use Start to stop

One of the earliest jokes about Windows was about the fact that you should use the Start menu to stop the computer.

Problem is, it's no joke.

Turn Off Computer in Windows XP

Turning off a computer is most definitely not at all like turning off a light bulb or even other moderately complex pieces of electronics.

Turning off a computer is a process. You might look at it as a process that starts with the Start button and ends with the computer turned off.

Shutdown button in Windows 7

What happens in between?

The short answer is lots of geeky magic – lots of important geeky magic. Programs are closed, files are saved, information that was kept in memory is written to disk, hardware is turned off in the proper sequence, and more.

When you turn off your computer, a lot of important bookkeeping and cleanup work happens as part of the process of shutting down.

Important bookkeeping and cleanup work that you want to have happen.

Sometimes the Power button is OK

Power Button

Here's where it gets confusing: sometimes, it's OK to use the Power button.

On some systems – in fact, many systems of late – pressing the Power button is more-or-less equivalent to using the Start menu to shutdown your computer.

What's important here is that you hold it down no longer than one second. If you're holding down longer, you're doing something else, which I'll talk about next.

But if you press the Power button for a short time and you can see the system begin its process of shutting down, then you're probably OK to continue to do that.

One caveat: the Power button may shutdown your computer properly. It may put it into hibernate or sleep. You'll have to check the Power button settings in the Control Panel to adjust that to be what you want.

Finally, if it shuts down immediately – *poof* – don't do that again. That's the same as pulling the plug, which is bad.

When it's NOT OK (but you may have to use it anyway)

If you hold the Power button down for five or 10 seconds until the computer turns off this is not OK.

That's like just pulling the power plug.

It completely bypasses the process of shutting down and can result in serious problems. If you shut down your computer this way regularly, stop it because you are almost literally asking your computer to corrupt the data stored on its hard drive.

The long-hold power-off functionality that's present in most computers is actually something that's implemented in hardware and is meant only as a last-resort solution in those situations when nothing else will work. In the hardware, it's actually implemented as almost identical to pulling the plug or removing the battery.

If you find that this is the only way that you can turn off your computer, then something is wrong. The Start menu approach should always work. If it does not - if, for example, your computer never shuts down - then that's a problem that should be resolved rather than risking data loss every time you force your computer to turn off.

Why unplugging the computer is bad

When you unplug your desktop computer, remove the battery and power cord from your laptop, or long-hold the Power button to force a computer to stop, you're doing so outside of the operating system's control. I was tempted to say "outside of Windows control", but in reality, this applies no matter what operating system you're running.

Even when you're doing nothing with your computer, it's doing something. In fact, it's often doing quite a lot.

Files are open, programs are running, the disk may be being accessed ... it's almost impossible to predict exactly what is running ... and therein lies the problem.

Let's say that a program is updating something on disk – it doesn't have to be something you're doing, it could be some other program like your anti-malware tools, the system indexing tools, or something else that's running on your machine. If you suddenly remove the power in the middle of that operation, then any of the following may happen:

  • Nothing. You got lucky and the writing actually completed, because it's so darned quick. This is probably the most common case, but it leads to a false sense of safety.

  • The file that was being written is incomplete. Depending on the program writing the file, this can be completely benign or show up as a major problem the next time that programs try to access that file.

  • The file system directory entry that locates that file on disk could be incorrectly or partially updated if that's what the computer was writing when you pulled the plug. This can be benign, but in the extreme case, it can actually render the file system corrupt and you can lose not only the file that was being written, but large numbers of other files on the disk. This is bad; very bad.

  • The disk drive could be interrupted in the middle of writing a sector of information to the hard disk media. That could result in CRC errors for that sector and nearby information in other files. This may require a CHKDSK /R to repair or in the worst case, it could even require more advanced disk recovery and maintenance. Fortunately, with modern drives, this is typically rare.

Hopefully, you get the idea: just pulling the plug is a bad idea and should be used only as a last resort and immediately prior to resolving any underlying problem that required it be used.

Article C5345 - May 16, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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20 Comments
John
May 16, 2012 9:11 AM

It's a curse, but I always seem to spot typos instantly. 3rd sentence: I think you mean "very".

Excellent coverage of a very misunderstood topic.

Deb R.
May 16, 2012 9:25 AM

So, when my computer just sticks on the "shutting down" screen, then what? I have had to use the on/off button with a 5 second hold quite often. Computer restarts fine MOST of the time but a few times I have gotten the "computer was shut down improperly" message. When I try arrow up to Start in Safe Mode, I discover that the keyboard doesn't work. I have to let it start normally, then use the mouse to direct it to restart, then the keyboard works. What gives? (My one-year warranty is almost up, do I need to call HP?)

Probably. But what you just commented is exactly why I included as first in the "You may also be interested in:" section, this: Why does my machine take forever to shut down?
Leo
16-May-2012
Yeppers
May 16, 2012 8:43 PM

Leo, in Windows XP, how many ways are there to safely shut down or reboot the PC? I know of only (1) going to Start - Turn Off Computer, and (2) going to “Shut Down” in Task Manager. Is there any other way to safely initiate a shutdown or reboot? I’m asking in case my PC ever freezes up again. I use the power button only as a last resort as it is not safe for me (the PC shuts down immediately in my case). Thanks…

If your PC freezes then by definition all the "right" ways can't be accessed. They all involve running software that tells Windows to shut down. If things are frozen and nothing's running there's no way to do that.
Leo
16-May-2012
Ralph
May 18, 2012 8:23 AM

there is also a shutdown commmand from the command prompt
shutdown -s -f -t 0 usually always causes a shutdown.

Mike Castro
May 18, 2012 8:34 AM

I have one computer which will not shutdown, I press "start" then Shutdown, it does all the "saveing stuff on your PC" etc but then sits there forever. I leave it for 10 minutes and press the power button for longer than 1 second and it then switches off. It starts OK each time without the "windows did shut down properly" stuff. I cannot find out why this happens.

Mike Fasano
May 18, 2012 8:57 AM

When I worked for IBM, We left the computer on all the time. I have always left my computer on and have no problems.

SirTinLee
May 18, 2012 9:42 AM

I have had this same problem in the past and although I am not all that knowledgeable about computers, THIS IS WHAT WORKED FOR ME.
I used Checkdisk from the "run" link located on the start menu. Simple type in chkdsk /r (make sure to space between the letter "K" and the "forward slash") and then click "ok" A message will appear stating that the function can not be done at this time and giving you the opportunity to schedule checkdisk the next time you start your PC. So when the message appears, simply type in y and press the "enter" key on your keyboard. Shut your machine down (manually), wait 20 or so seconds, start your machine again, grab a cup of coffee or whatever because it takes awhile (the letter "r" stands for Repair) so let the program do its' thing. I can't say for sure if this will work for anyone else, but it fixed the exact problem on my PC with Windows XP Pro. Goodluck.

Lanfarm
May 18, 2012 11:10 AM

Read your answer on May 16: "If your PC freezes then by definition all the "right" ways can't be accessed. They all involve running software that tells Windows to shut down. If things are frozen and nothing's running there's no way to do that. " Then, what do you do? I get freezez all the time and have no choice but to power down. Need some magic! (or a new machine??) Vista

If you get freezes all the time you should look into and correct whatever is causing them. They can also cause data loss just as much as pulling the plug.
Leo
18-May-2012
Drew
May 18, 2012 11:23 AM

The OP stated "I have difficulty turning it back on", not shutting down! It might be a problem with the power supply.
Meanwhile, I would try using the Sleep command on the Shutdown menu because the power supply would still be on.

Bob
May 18, 2012 1:57 PM

Leo,can u turn your pc off at windows task manager

Sure. Anything that tells Windows to turn off the machine is fine.
Leo
18-May-2012
Peter
May 18, 2012 3:09 PM

ie: Hello, to Leo. Regarding systems which '
freeze' ; my experience is, unplug the machine, and hit the power button a few times. (Discharges pwr from switching supply). Then, plug machine back in. Right after 3 leds flash on keyboard, hit whichever key accesses the bios; go to "Load setup defaults" or similar on your system. Save, exit, reboot. Also, check if your RAM is all the same manufacturer, same voltage, speed, etc. etc. In tweaking some systems, the RAM refresh rates, etc etc. must be slowed down, or set to MANUFACTURED SPECS.........if you knew electrically what goes on in RAM,...you'd be dumbfounded......Leo, also, checkout Ashampoo burning software.....not bad.....

daffey
May 18, 2012 6:48 PM

A couple of thoughts about powering off/on your system. First, Leo's observations are dead on, manual power off actions risk data corruption.
Second, regarding this and other on/off events. I repaired data processing systems for 25 years. More problems surfaced at power on, than during normal system operation. Power supplies tend to generate surges at power off and power on that can damage themselves as well as attached circuitry.
Also, unless your unplugging (as indicated) you are only saving a portion of the total power requirement of the system. That's because the PC/power supply is still looking for you to push the 'button' or perhaps a 'wake on lan' or other. If you looked into a PC, you'd see the switch lead(s) go to the mother board, not the power supply. I found on my machines (desktops) the saving was about half (50+/- watts)the normal 'quiescent' (115 +/- watts) consumption. Note that at boot and initial start-up, power usage was as much as 147 watts, but this fell off after they are on a bit.
So, are the risks of powering off worth the power savings, and convenience of immediate availability worth the savings? Personally, only if the 'off' is in terms of days, or due to thunderstorm threat (unplug power and communication lines).
For the environment, turn off one 60 watt incandescent lamp, or replace with a CFL, and your even!

Mitch MacKay
May 19, 2012 1:59 AM

My ON button wore out, fortuitously replaced by a guy who happened to have used parts, strictly a mechanical problem. To the best of my limited knowledge there is no other way to turn the computer back on regardless how it was turned off.

Frank H.
May 20, 2012 6:17 PM

Leo: Doesn't the "log off" have a priority anywhere before "shut down" is executed? I thought log off insured the waiting updates a
chance to download before shutting down the system.

Bonita
May 20, 2012 8:07 PM

This has never happened before, but today, as all Microsoft updates finished installing, computer immediately went into a reboot. Normally you get an option to reboot now or later, giving you time to close any open programs.

Ron
May 21, 2012 8:22 AM

Regarding the Power button problems mentioned. Why not add a UPS Backup power supply from a company like APC. I haven't purchased one recently so I can't say with certainty that they still include software for monitoring the PC's health and for dealing with power issues.

Theresa Hunter
May 21, 2012 10:35 AM

When my friends computer would no longer turn on I was asked to check it out and found that for whatever reason, the button on the outside no longer connected quite enough to turn it off. I opened the case and put a thick piece of double sided carpet tape on the end of the contact helping it to 'reach'. That has stayed on and worked for 4 years. Sometimes the problem is simple and mechanical.

David
December 8, 2012 11:58 AM

Ouch, Leo! I have this very problem - so I've sometimes forced the machine to shut down. Here's why and can you please suggest a way of resolving it? (Excellent website by the way. You knew that...)

I click 'Start', and press 'u' to turn off (from which position I would press 'h' for hibernate. But lately it takes more than a minute for the relevant option to appear (the box with three buttons in it, you know what I mean). Two options (even when there is nothing else I can

do because neither the mouse nor the keyboard operate anything) : 1) Press the physical Stop button. This bypasses the waiting and at least gets the thing off, but doesn't hibernate. 2) Ctrl+Alt+Delete brings up Task Manager from which I can, safely presumably, click 'shut down' and 'hibernate' which works perfectly well.

If I've clicked 'Start' and then gone through Task Man to get to hibernate, then coming out of hibernation takes a long time - then the box with three buttons comes up!

I've searched the settings for conflicting commands with no success. Lately it has become habit to use Task Man to hibernate. (This being such a slow computer I really do not want the hassle of having to wait for it to restart from Shut Down!)

Many thanks, Leo - David

connie
December 8, 2012 2:10 PM

@David,
Hibernate, and even standby, seem to be unreliable on some computers. I've experienced it on mine, and Leo has some articles on it as well. Maybe it would be better to skip hibernating all together, and just shut down and reboot your computer to clear the operating system each time.

Here's an article on that:
Are hibernate and standby easier on a computer than rebooting it from scratch?

Oldster
January 5, 2013 4:27 AM

sometimes the hardware start button won't start the machine. if i unplug it, wait a few seconds, then plug back in, the system starts. this is happening more frequently and is becoming a routine. it is almost like a capacitor is holding it off and i have to wait for it to discharge before the button becomes active again.

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