Is there any worse 21st century feeling than the realization that your computer has frozen? One moment you’re happily going about your day—checking email, listening to music, browsing Amazon, refreshing your Facebook page—and then everything stops. You slide your mouse across its mouse pad, desperate to catch that little arrow or finger moving across your screen. Alas, nothing. Now what?
Everybody, all together now: Have you tried rebooting?
From your company’s IT expert to your tech-savvy brother-in-law, everybody advises you to restart your computer, and for good reason: It’s free, easy to do, and it tends to weed out a ton of minor problems.
The best way to restart is to hold the power button for five to 10 seconds. This will allow it to restart without the disruption of total power loss. If your computer boots up without a problem, chances are good that the thing responsible for the freeze has resolved itself. Still, be sure to back up whatever important information you had open, in case a more serious problem remains.
If your computer freezes again during the start-up process, shut it down once more and disconnect everything that’s plugged into your computer. If it boots up OK without all the external devices you had plugged in, then it was probably one of those devices responsible for the freeze. From there you’ll want to consult the devices’ manuals for troubleshooting steps.
If it freezes up again while you’re running one or more applications, you’ll want to take one of the following measures:
If you’re working with a frozen PC, hit CTRL + ALT + Delete, then click “End Task” to force-quit any or all applications.
On a Mac, try one of these shortcuts:
- To stop a process, click Command + period (.)
- Open the “Force Quit Applications” window by pressing Command + Option + Escape
- Restart or shut down the computer by going to CTRL + Media Eject Key (which displays a triangle with a bar below it)
- Quit all apps and restart the computer: Command + CTRL+ Media Eject Key
If the issue is recurring—that is, if every time you open a certain application, your computer freezes—uninstall that app, as it may be incompatible with your computer.
If, however, your computer tends to freeze up at seemingly random times, then you’ll want a more definitive diagnosis of the problem. First, force-quit all applications, shut down your computer, and try one of the following:
- On a PC, go to Start > Accessories > System Tools > run the “System Restore” utility. Doing this will reset any registry issues without deleting any current files or personal settings since it’s possible an important document has been corrupted or deleted accidentally.
- On a Mac, restart in “Safe Mode with Networking.” Try using the computer like this for awhile to see if it freezes again. If it doesn’t, you’ve got a software problem. If it does, you could be looking at either a software or a hardware problem.
A software problem may be one of the following:
- Your computer contains hidden software, like a virus. Be sure to run a scan with your security software to uncover the little so-and-so.
- There could be a program that’s loading during boot-up, causing the whole thing to freeze up. Use a program like Autoruns to disable those programs that begin at startup and to pinpoint which one is causing the problem.
- You’ve got a CPU, memory, or disk issue. Use your computer as you normally would, but be sure to keep an eye on the CPU, memory, and disk categories. If your computer freezes again, and one of these three things seems inordinately high, that could be your answer.
Make a note of which area was high, then restart the computer once again and open Task Manager. Click on 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 is at the top of the list. This ought to tell you which software is acting up so you can either uninstall or update it.
If your computer is still freezing, and none of the above software problems apply, you’re likely looking at a hardware issue. With hardware issues, the freezing will come and go but increase in frequency over time. 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 be a problem with your power supply.
- If you want to go more in-depth, try a diagnostic CD like FalconFour’s Ultimate Boot. It’s got a slew of tools to check whether your computer is working OK.
With all these checks, be sure you don’t lose sight of the possibility that your computer is on its way out. If it’s new or new-ish, it may still be under warranty, in which case you’ll want to contact the manufacturer or seller. For an older computer, you may have to replace it.