The blue screen of death — or BSOD — is always an unwelcome sight. BSODs appear when Microsoft Windows encounters a critical error it can’t recover from, requiring a reboot and possibly resulting in lost work.
A blue screen of death is the worst type of error a computer can experience, unlike an application crash, which doesn’t bring down the whole system. A BSOD is the result of low-level software crashing — or faulty hardware.
What Causes Blue Screens of Death
Blue screens are generally caused by problems with your computer’s hardware or issues with its hardware driver software. Standard software shouldn’t be able to cause blue screens — if an application crashes, it will do so without taking the operating system out with it. Blue screens are caused by hardware problems and issues with low-level software running in the Windows kernel.
A blue screen occurs when Windows encounters a “STOP Error.” This critical failure causes Windows to crash and stop working. The only thing Windows can do is stop the computer and restart it. This can lead to data loss, as programs don’t have a chance to save their open data — ideally, programs should continuously save their data so a blue screen of death or other type of error won’t result in data loss.
When a blue screen occurs, Windows automatically creates a “minidump” file that contains information about the crash and saves it to your disk. You can view information about these minidumps to help identify the cause of the blue screen.
Windows Restarts When a BSOD Appears
By default, Windows automatically restarts the computer whenever it encounters a blue screen of death. If your computer is restarting for no apparent reason, it’s probably blue-screening.
If you would like to see more detailed error message whenever a blue screen appears, you can disable automatic reboots on BSODs from the Windows Control Panel.
Viewing BSOD Information
This information is also available in the Windows Event Viewer, where blue screen messages are scattered among application crashes and other system log messages.
If you’re a developer looking to debug the memory dumps, try Microsoft’s powerful WinDbg debugger.
On Windows 7 and newer versions of Windows, blue-screen information is also displayed in the Action Center. If you experience a blue screen, you can open the Action Center and check for solutions. Windows will analyze the BSODs and other types of errors your computer has experienced before giving you any information it has about fixing the problem.
You can often get more information about a blue screen error by searching for the specific error message — like “Driver_IRQL_not_less_or_equal”, for example. Windows 8′s new blue-screen message encourages you to perform a web search for the error message to learn more.
Useful Tips for Dealing With BSODs
BSODs have a variety of root causes, but these tips will help you deal with many blue screens:
- Use System Restore: If your system recently started blue-screening, use System Restore to roll its system software back to a previous state. If this works, you’ll know that it’s likely a software problem.
- Scan for Malware: Malware that digs deep into Windows and gets its hooks into the Windows kernel at a low level can cause system instability. Scan your computer for malware to ensure buggy malicious software isn’t causing it to crash.
- Install Updated Drivers: An incorrectly installed or buggy driver can lead to crashes. Download the latest drivers for your computer’s hardware from your computer manufacturer’s website and install them — this may fix BSODs caused by driver problems.
- Boot Into Safe Mode: If your computer is blue-screening every time you turn it on, try booting into safe mode. In safe mode, Windows loads only the essential drivers. If a driver you’ve installed is causing Windows to blue screen, it shouldn’t do so in safe mode. You can work on fixing the problem from safe mode.
- Check for Hardware Problems: Blue screens can be caused by faulty hardware in your computer. Try testing your computer’s memory for errors and checking its temperature to ensure that it isn’t overheating.
- Reinstall Windows: Reinstalling Windows is the nuclear option. It will blow away your existing system software, replacing it with a fresh Windows system. If your computer continues to blue screen after this, you likely have a hardware problem.
A computer in proper working state shouldn’t blue-screen at all, but no software or hardware is perfect. Even a properly functioning computer may blue screen on rare occasions for no apparent reason — possibly as the result of rare driver bugs or hardware issues.
If your computer is regularly blue-screening, you have a problem. If you encounter a blue screen once every two years, don’t worry about it.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 05/21/13