What To Do When Your PC Is About To Die (Part 1)

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PC “blue-screening” or mysteriously shutting down? Don’t panic – Darien G. helps you diagnose and solve common problems

If you can recognize the tell-tale signs that your PC’s health is failing, you have a good chance of being able to remedy the situation with little upheaval. The difficult part is recognizing where the problem lies, since it isn’t often obvious which component or part of the operating system is misbehaving. On these pages we show you how to identify some of the most common technical problems, and discuss how you can resolve them.

What to do when your PC is about to die

What to do when your PC is about to die

Software vs. hardware

When a computer isn’t behaving properly, the first task is to work out whether it’s the hardware or software that’s at fault. This isn’t an exact science, but a major clue is whether or not Windows throws up the notorious “blue screen of death”. If you see a blue error screen appear momentarily before your Pc restarts, it indicates that Windows detected a problem and was able to shut down the system in a managed way. This wouldn’t have been possible if, for example, your CPU or hard disk had abruptly failed – so the presence of the blue error screen suggests that your system has a software problem.

In this context, “software” probably doesn’t mean applications and games. Windows is designed in such a way that it’s usually impossible for regular programs such as these to crash the whole system. When we talk about software faults, we principally mean within Windows itself. Although the core OS is impressively stable, third-party device drivers are easily able to take down your system.

If your problem is a fault driver, you may be able to identify it simply by watching what happens when things go wrong: for example, if your computer crashes every time you try to change screen resolution, there’s a good change that your graphics driver is to blame.

The information shown on a blue screen may provide a lead too, but by default it doesn’t appear on screen for long enough to be legible. You can make it remain visible until you reboot by opening the System Control Panel item, clicking on Advanced system settings, choosing Startup and Recovery, and un-ticking the “Automatically restart” box.

The next time your computer crashes you’ll be able to read the information at your leisure: you may see a reference to a particular file such as ATIKMDAG.SYS or NVLDDMKM.SYS. You can look up this file on the web to work out what it is – in these cases, the letters “ati” and “nv” give strong clues that they relate to ATI or Nvidia graphics card drivers.

The blue screen can reveal useful information about PC crashes

The blue screen can reveal useful information about PC crashes

If it’s a dodgy driver that’s causing system instability, you have plenty of options. Check the manufacturer’s website for an updated version of the driver, as the problem may have been fixed. Alternatively, you can try installing an older version of the driver, either by again going to the manufacturer’s website or by right-clicking on the device in Device Manager and selecting Driver | Roll Back Driver. If you have the option, look for a driver certified by WHQL (Windows Hardware Quality Labs). This tells you that Microsoft itself has tested the driver on a wide range of hardware.

If switching drivers doesn’t help, it’s possible the driver failure is being caused by an underlying problem with the hardware. In this case, we’re afraid there’s no simple solution, short of replacing the device or, if it’s built into your motherboard, disabling it in the BIOS or from the Device Manager.

If your problem doesn’t appear to be as a result of a driver, or if you can’t isolate the cause, you can always use System Restore to try rolling back your PC to an earlier state and see if this solves the problem. The most drastic measure is to completely reinstall your OS. However, before resorting to this, try booting into a different operating system such as Ubuntu Linux (perhaps from a live CD if you don’t want to set it up semi-permanently on your hard disk). If complications occur here to then you know the problem isn’t specific to your Windows installation, so it’s time to shift your focus to possible hardware issues.

Memory errors

Sometimes Windows will crash with a blue-screen error, yet there won’t be a driver identified – or, perhaps, different crashes will report different filenames. In this case your underlying problem could be fault memory causing the operating system to try to execute impossible instructions or operate on invalid data, and to crash when it can’t.

Windows’ built-in memory diagnosing tool can help to establish if you have a fault DIMM

Windows’ built-in memory diagnosing tool can help to establish if you have a fault DIMM

Diagnosing this type of memory error can be difficult because, by nature, the error is intermittent. (On the rare occasions when a DIMM fails completely, the computer will normally refuse to start until it’s removed.) In fact, your best clue to a memory error is the seemingly random nature of the crashes your experience. If you suspect your RAM is playing up, you can test it by pressing F8 as Windows boots to access the Advanced Boot Options screen, then press Escape to see the list of operating systems available, use the Tab key to move down to the “Windows Memory Diagnostics” item and press Return. The standard test should take less than minutes if all is well – you can change the testing options by pressing F1 at the main test screen. You can also launch the Memory Diagnostic tool from the System Recovery options on a Windows installation DVD.

If the problem is a memory error, you may assume you simply need to buy new RAM. This isn’t expensive, so if you’ve been intending to upgrade anyway, you may as well consider this an opportunity to take the plunge.

However, you may not need to splash out on new DIMMs to restore your system to stability. We’ve often found that when memory modules appear fault, it’s because the BIOS is trying to run them above their rated speed, and they can’t reliably keep up. (This is a particular risk if you’re combining DIMMs of different types, a practice that enthusiasts often advise against for precisely this reason.)

To remedy this situation, check the frequency and timings of each of your DIMMs, either by examining the label or by looking them up on the manufacturer’s website. The former will be a speed, such as 1,333MHz, and the latter will be a series of numbers, such as 7-7-7-21. Then access your BIOS, disable automatic RAM settings and manually enter the correct settings. If you have lots of different DIMMs, choose the lowest quoted frequency and the slowest quotes timings – that is, the highest numbers. You won’t be extracting the maximum possible performance from every DIMM, but you may well find that, magically, you have a stable system once more.

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