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Overheating is the most common cause of random crashes in an old machine. If that's not the case, there are a few more things to look at.

My computer freezes. I can't find anything wrong with it. Maybe upon start-up; maybe in the middle of something. I have enough memory and I'm not running hot. It's nine years old. I've tried everything recommended and it still freezes. Guess I will just have to live with it?

In this excerpt from Answercast #34, I look at an older system that is randomly crashing. It may be time for a reinstall!

Just live with it?

Maybe.

Certainly, heat is the very first thing that I always think of whenever a computer starts crashing randomly. It is one of those insidious little things that a lot of people don't realize:

  • Their systems get hot.

  • The fans get blocked, or the fans don't even work, and the system simply overheats.

That's the kind of a thing that can cause your system to crash randomly – as well as simply crashing when it's working hard. If you're doing something CPU intensive, it will generate some extra heat (at that time) which could cause the system to crash, where it might not crash otherwise.

Software rot

If it's not heat, on a nine-year-old machine, the next thing that comes to mind is actually something that's referred to as "software rot."

Over the course of time, over nine years in your case, you've probably:

  • Installed some software;

  • Removed some software;

  • Cleaned some things up;

  • Changed some settings;

  • And done that a lot.

I mean, it's not something you're probably doing everyday, but what happens is that all of these changes to your system – over time – tend to destabilize your machine a little bit.

That's referred to as software rot.

It's not really something that's going wrong. In a perfect world, it wouldn't exist, but in a real world (the one we happen to live in), it does. It's one of those things that causes me (at least, every couple of years) to reformat and reinstall Windows. That let's me start with a clean slate.

It's basically like turning the machine back to nine years ago:

  • Starting it clean.

  • Installing Windows.

  • Installing all of the updates

  • And going on from there.

Rather than dealing with this nine years worth of incremental change, you now have a more solid, more current image of your system that could, presumably, be significantly more stable.

Instability over time

I know it happens; in my case, because I'm constantly testing software. I'll install software, I'll uninstall software – and if you do that often enough, this kind of thing can happen.

So, if you're certain that there's not a heat issue going on, then the very next thing that I would look into might be:

  • Backup your system, reformat, reinstall Windows, and all of your applications from scratch.

Yep, that's a bit of work, but that's the next thing that comes to mind.

Check the hardware

Finally, I don't know what kind of a machine you are running; but it might make some sense (if the machine's been moved around a bit in the last nine years) to:

  • Turn it off

  • Unplug it

  • Open it up (if you can)

  • And make sure that all of the removable cards like the memory cards, any expansion cards and so forth are all seated properly in their appropriate sockets.

That's one of the other things that can kind of, sort of happen over time, especially if a machine is moved around a lot.

Pull out a card, maybe clean off the contacts a little bit with a clean cloth of some sort, and then stuff it back in. Some people recommend using a pencil eraser to clean the contacts on a card. I'm not a big fan of that, but it is an option as long as you make sure that all of the little eraser dust falls outside of your machine... you're not doing it over the motherboard.

So those are the kinds of things I would look at.

  • Overheating is still on top of my list.

  • Reinstalling the system is something that I would seriously consider (make sure to back everything up first),

  • And finally, potentially, looking at some of the hardware that may have shaken loose over nine years.

Article C5570 - July 11, 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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9 Comments
Rahul
July 11, 2012 3:50 PM

"The fans get blocked".... you nailed it Leo. I have lost count how many PCs I have serviced in similar situation that has dust accumulation blocking air flow. Even a reduction on the flow will affect in spite of the fan rotating properly.

As the first step, I suggest open the pc and use a can of air to clean up the inside.

SkiddMarxx
July 13, 2012 8:41 AM

I would be interested to the criteria used to determine that the machine is not running hot.

After 9 years, a flaky power supply might be the culprit. It's probably one of the easier and less expensive parts to replace.

Andy
July 13, 2012 9:28 AM

I've recently had trouble with my five month old laptop - it would crash completely and the only way to get it back was to hold the power button down. I went through all these motions, especially testing the memory because I would get the blue screen of death occasionally. Then I ran SpeedFan (http://www.almico.com/sfdownload.php) and attempted to do a SMART test but kept receiving read failures. I had been suspected that something to do with the file system was dodgey and I wasn't really suprised to find that 28 sectors were damaged after further testing. (At this point I should note that I do have a disability which means that I am quite heavy handed and I could well have damaged the drive myself - that's why I replaced it with an SSD)

Unfortunately, and I know what Leo will be thinking, I didn't have a recent backup and the drive must have been failing by the minute because it wouldn't boot up on the SSD when I cloned it so I ended up doing a complete reinstall of Windows 7. But on the positive side, it has given it the clean up it needed, I managed to rescue 90% of my files (the important ones), the laptops blistering fast with the SSD, and it's taught me a lesson - backup regularly.

PS I've also had a virus on the laptop that caused constant non-stop drive activity so I have no doubt that the virus would have contributed to the hard drive failing as well.

Strydrdenis
July 13, 2012 10:00 AM

Just a quick note to let you know that I always look forward to your Newsletter arriving in my mailbox. I'm an old time computer user and often help other people with their computer related problems.
I have always appreciated your way of of solving peoples problems and your ability to explain it in layman's terms.
Keep up the great work.

Bob D
July 13, 2012 10:27 AM

It could be disk errors during paging. For months, my machine occasionally got moody and stubborn, and Event Viewer occasionally warned me "I/O error during paging operation on disk 2". That's one step away from core memory failure, which in turn is one step away from
CPU failure. I followed the usual practice of ignoring the warnings, until the other (system) disk failed.

Chris Calvert
July 13, 2012 3:08 PM

Another thing that I have found with older PCs are hardware failures caused by faulty capacitors on the motherboard. not so much on laptops though. A capacitor is the small round cylinder shaped device found in some quantity mounted on the motherboard particularly around the CPU area. Have a look at the top of them and you will see what looks like an X etched on the top. If this X is bulging outwards in any way what-so-ever then your motherboard is shot. You will find that probably it is the same sized device on the motherboard (they come in different sizes) and you sometimes find that there can be anything from one or 2 up to a dozen all bulging. Sometimes the top has even ruptured and spilled the contents onto the motherboard. It can be only one device in the wrong place to cause errors. Errors are stopping, failure to boot, just errors while operating.
Now the failing devices can be replaced. It takes a while especially if there are several of them and it isn't always successful (about an 80% success rate). I find that this explains more problems with older boards than fans stopping although that also causes problems. I think that newish boards have a different designed capacitor and won't do it but that remains to be seen.

johnpro2
July 13, 2012 7:14 PM

My computer was rebooting intermittently with "Blue screen".
The 9 year old key board right arrow key was sticking esp when playing games.Replaced keyboard & now ok.
Jp

robert gourlay
July 14, 2012 5:11 PM

I recently worked on a friends desktop, they had a sata hddrive put in by a tech. and when they took it home the comp. would start and run but as soon as they went to do any work on the machine it would shut down. I replaced the power supply now the machine runs perfectly.
So also check the power supply as the psu in store bought comps. are usually cheap ones, yours is an old machine if you have put in a new hddrive this could be the problem

Frank
July 15, 2012 1:14 AM

Overheating is definitely one of the "usual suspects" one must consider, yet it is not the most obvious. My laptop had been randomly powering down due to overheating until it received a thorough cleaning.
Then I installed a very simple program - CPU Thermometer - and monitor it regularly. When the temperature gets well above the normal 50C (117F) degrees, I know there is a problem. In such case I look at Process Explorer to see if a process is "out of control" and if yes, I terminate the process. (Lately it has been Adobe Flash Player 11.3 running wild.)
At any rate, I am wondering why the computer hardware, or Windows, is not "smart" enough to know when there is a dangerous overheating issue, and provide a warning to the user prior to shutting down the system. It does it well in the case of low battery, so why not in case of overheating?

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