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Tech tips

What to do when your computer freezes or locks up

It happens to everyone at some point. You’re doing something on your computer, whether it’s an important project, some aimless browsing, or trying to beat your high score on Minecraft, and without warning everything freezes.

You wiggle the mouse, click some buttons a few times, tap a few keys on your keyboard and get nothing. Your 21st-century piece of technology is as useless as a pet rock. What do you do next?

Before freaking out and tossing your computer into the recycle bin, there are a few simple steps that you can take to try and get it moving again. You won’t even need to contact IT for help. Keep reading to find out how to handle a frozen computer.

Have you tried a simple restart?

OK, this step is obvious. However, some people think they have to pull the computer’s power plug or flip the switch on the power strip. Instead, simply hold the computer’s power button for 5 to 10 seconds and it will restart with less disruption than a complete power loss.

There are a few things that can happen next when your computer comes back on. Let’s look at the three most typical ones and what you should do next.

1. Computer starts fine

If the computer starts up fine, immediately back up your important information in case a serious problem is on the way. Otherwise, you could find yourself scrambling through more complicated ways to get files off a dead computer. Tap or click for the best way to back up critical data before it’s too late.

Then use the computer as normal until it freezes again, although it might not. If the computer does freeze again, keep reading for more steps to take.

2. Computer asks you how to boot

While restarting, the computer might say there was an error with Windows and ask if you want to start normally or in Safe Mode. The first time, choose to start Windows normally. Then back up your data, as detailed earlier, and keep using the computer to see if it freezes again.

If this is the second time your computer has frozen, choose to boot in “Safe Mode with Networking.” Try using the computer like this and see if it freezes again. If it does, you could be looking at either a software or a hardware problem.

If it doesn’t freeze again while in Safe Mode, it’s likely a software problem. Keep reading for tips to investigate both.

3. Computer freezes again immediately

If the computer freezes again immediately after booting, whether in normal mode or Safe Mode, you could have a serious software or hardware problem. However, it’s most likely a hardware problem.

Basic software troubleshooting

An occasional or consistent computer freeze could be the result of a program acting up. Use the keyboard shortcut CTRL + SHIFT + ESC to open Windows Task Manager and select the “Performance” tab. In Windows 8.1 and 10, you might need to click the “More Details” link at the bottom of the Task Manager to see everything running and if a program is using excessive resources.

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Start using your computer as normal, but keep an eye on the CPU, memory and disk categories. If the computer freezes and one of these is really high, that could be your answer. Make a note of which area was really high then restart the computer and open Task Manager again.

This time, however, choose 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 pops up to the top of the list as the computer freezes. This should tell you what software is acting up so you can uninstall or update it.

You might also have hidden software, such as a virus, causing problems. Be sure to run a scan with your security software to uncover something that shouldn’t be there. Tap or click for free tools to check if your machine is infected with a virus.

In cases where your computer freezes during startup in normal mode, but boots OK in Safe Mode, the problem could be a program that’s loading during the boot sequence. Tap or click here to make your startup process cleaner.

If your computer is freezing during startup no matter what, and it’s at the same point, the problem could be corruption in Windows or a hardware problem. A quick way to tell is to grab a Live CD for another operating system, such as Linux Mint or Tails, and boot with that.

If the other operating system boots OK, you’re probably looking at a problem with Windows and might need to reinstall. Tap or click here to find out how to perform a clean install of Windows.

If a non-Windows operating system has trouble too, then it’s time to look at your hardware.

Basic hardware troubleshooting

A computer that freezes both in normal mode and Safe Mode or with another operating system, can often indicate a problem with your computer’s hardware. It could be your hard drive, an overheating CPU, bad memory or a failing power supply. In some cases, it might also be your motherboard, although that’s a rare occurrence.

Usually, with a hardware problem, freezing will start out sporadic but increase in frequency as time goes on. Or it will trigger when the computer is working hard, but not when you’re doing more basic things. Fortunately, you can run some checks and see if that’s the case.

Thankfully there are free sites that can tell if you have a failing hard drive. Tap or click for six ways to check for a failing hard drive.

Another thing to check is the temperature of your machine. A program like SpeedFan can tell you if your computer processor is overheating, or if the voltages are fluctuating, which might be a problematic power supply.

If these DIY fixes don’t help and your machine is still failing it might be time to look into getting a new one. But first, if your computer is newer it might still be under warranty, in which case you’ll want to contact the manufacturer or seller. Good luck and happy surfing!

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