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HTG Explains: Why Does Rebooting a Computer Fix So Many Problems?

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Ask a geek how to fix a problem you’ve having with your Windows computer and they’ll likely ask “Have you tried rebooting it?” This seems like a flippant response, but rebooting a computer can actually solve many problems.

So what’s going on here? Why does resetting a device or restarting a program fix so many problems? And why don’t geeks try to identify and fix problems rather than use the blunt hammer of “reset it”?

This Isn’t Just About Windows

Bear in mind that this soltion isn’t just limited to Windows computers, but applies to all types of computing devices. You’ll find the advice “try resetting it” applied to wireless routers, iPads, Android phones, and more. This same advice even applies to software — is Firefox acting slow and consuming a lot of memory? Try closing it and reopening it!

Some Problems Require a Restart

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To illustrate why rebooting can fix so many problems, let’s take a look at the ultimate software problem a Windows computer can face: Windows halts, showing a blue screen of death. The blue screen was caused by a low-level error, likely a problem with a hardware driver or a hardware malfunction. Windows reaches a state where it doesn’t know how to recover, so it halts, shows a blue-screen of death, gathers information about the problem, and automatically restarts the computer for you . This restart fixes the blue screen of death.

Windows has gotten better at dealing with errors — for example, if your graphics driver crashes, Windows XP would have frozen. In Windows Vista and newer versions of Windows, the Windows desktop will lose its fancy graphical effects for a few moments before regaining them. Behind the scenes, Windows is restarting the malfunctioning graphics driver.

But why doesn’t Windows simply fix the problem rather than restarting the driver or the computer itself?  Well, because it can’t — the code has encountered a problem and stopped working completely, so there’s no way for it to continue. By restarting, the code can start from square one and hopefully it won’t encounter the same problem again.

Examples of Restarting Fixing Problems

While certain problems require a complete restart because the operating system or a hardware driver has stopped working, not every problem does. Some problems may be fixable without a restart, though a restart may be the easiest option.

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  • Windows is Slow: Let’s say Windows is running very slowly. It’s possible that a misbehaving program is using 99% CPU and draining the computer’s resources. A geek could head to the task manager and look around, hoping to locate the misbehaving process an end it. If an average user encountered this same problem, they could simply reboot their computer to fix it rather than dig through their running processes.
  • Firefox or Another Program is Using Too Much Memory: In the past, Firefox has been the poster child for memory leaks on average PCs. Over time, Firefox would often consume more and more memory, getting larger and larger and slowing down. Closing Firefox will cause it to relinquish all of its memory. When it starts again, it will start from a clean state without any leaked memory. This doesn’t just apply to Firefox, but applies to any software with memory leaks.
  • Internet or Wi-Fi Network Problems: If you have a problem with your Wi-Fi or Internet connection, the software on your router or modem may have encountered a problem. Resetting the router — just by unplugging it from its power socket and then plugging it back in — is a common solution for connection problems.

In all cases, a restart wipes away the current state of the software . Any code that’s stuck in a misbehaving state will be swept away, too. When you restart, the computer or device will bring the system up from scratch, restarting all the software from square one so it will work just as well as it was working before.

wireless-router

“Soft Resets” vs. “Hard Resets”

In the mobile device world, there are two types of “resets” you can perform. A “soft reset” is simply restarting a device normally — turning it off and then on again. A “hard reset” is resetting its software state back to its factory default state.

When you think about it, both types of resets fix problems for a similar reason. For example, let’s say your Windows computer refuses to boot or becomes completely infected with malware. Simply restarting the computer won’t fix the problem, as the problem is with the files on the computer’s hard drive — it has corrupted files or malware that loads at startup on its hard drive. However, reinstalling Windows (performing a “Refresh or Reset your PC” operation in Windows 8 terms) will wipe away everything on the computer’s hard drive, restoring it to its formerly clean state.

This is simpler than looking through the computer’s hard drive, trying to identify the exact reason for the problems or trying to ensure you’ve obliterated every last trace of malware. It’s much faster to simply start over from a known-good, clean state instead of trying to locate every possible problem and fix it.

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Ultimately, the answer is that “resetting a computer wipes away the current state of the software, including any problems that have developed, and allows it to start over from square one.” It’s easier and faster to start from a clean state than identify and fix any problems that may be occurring — in fact, in some cases, it may be impossible to fix problems without beginning from that clean state.

Image Credit: Arria Belli on Flickr, DeclanTM on Flickr

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 10/15/13

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