Tracking down and preventing unwanted reboots

Fred langa By Fred Langa

Unwanted restarts can be more than an exercise in frustration and wasted time — they can easily result in lost data.

Fortunately, there are only three main causes of unintended reboots, so finding — and controlling — them is usually not hard.

Updates: The leading culprits for auto-reboots

Barry Karas wants to prevent annoying self-restarts in Windows.
  • “I leave my computer turned on all of the time, even when I’m not using it. (The OS is Windows XP Home.) Occasionally, the system automatically reboots. How would I prevent that from occurring and not have the OS nag me to reboot?”
Piece o’ cake, Barry! There are only a few things that will cause a Windows system to automatically reboot itself.

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The most common reason is software updates that need to refresh applications or software components — usually apps that are in use or loaded into memory at the time of the update. This can include always-on system software and programs that start when Windows boots.
  • Windows Update is one source of such required reboots. But all versions of Windows let you control how and when Windows Update does its thing.

    In XP, open the Control Panel and click Security Center. At the bottom of the Windows Security Center dialog, under the Manage security settings heading, click on Automatic Updates and follow the instructions in Figure 1.

    Control xp's windows update
    Figure 1. In XP, choose the “Notify me but don’t automatically download or install them” option (circled in yellow).

    Vista and Windows 7 have similar steps: open the Control Panel, then click Security/Windows Update (in Win7, System and Security/Windows Update) and select Change Settings in the left-hand pane. Then follow the instructions as seen in Figure 2.

    Control win7/vista's windows update
    Figure 2. In Win7 and Vista, the option labeled “Check for updates but let me choose whether to download and install them” (circled in yellow) gives you the greatest control over the Update process.

    In all versions of Windows, these settings mean that you decide when to download and install updates so that any required reboots won’t interfere with your use of the computer.

    But Windows Update is only one of the things that can cause your PC to reboot itself, so you’re not done yet!

  • Non-Microsoft software updates (Apple, Adobe, Oracle/Sun, etc.) may also require reboots. The update process — and your ability to control it — varies from vendor to vendor. Your best option is to check the Help files for your third-party software to learn what controls are available to you.

    The other main reasons for a PC to self-restart are plain-old system errors. For example, a major software or hardware crash can trigger a spontaneous reboot.

  • Software-related crash/restart cycles have become wonderfully rare, especially with Win7, but they can still happen. If you suspect that a software flaw is the root of the problem, make sure all your programs are up-to-date and look for patterns in the reboots. Is the same software always running when the reboots happen? Try disabling any suspect software; if the spontaneous reboots stop, you’ve found the culprit!

  • Hardware-related spontaneous reboots are more common with older systems. One frequent cause is overheating due to a dead fan or because the guts of the system are encased in heat-retaining dust. Other times, system components simply wear out and can no longer operate within normal specifications.
If yours is an older system that’s never been cleaned internally, see my how-to article, “Getting the grunge out of your PC,” for information on getting rid of the dust. For more on keeping older systems running smoothly, see my Top Story, “Preparing Windows XP for the long haul.”

If your hardware is just plain dying — well, there’s nothing to be done except replace either the part or the entire system. Nothing lasts forever, and if one component’s going down, others are probably not far behind.

But with all auto-updates turned off, and with your system properly cooled and running as it should, you’ll most likely never be troubled by auto-restarts again!

DVD drive will not read original discs

Keith’s DVD burner can read only copied discs.
  • “I bought a Dell computer with a single optical drive — a 16X CD/DVD burner (DVD+/-RW) with double-layer write capability. From day one, my DVD burner did not read original discs, not even the Genuine WinXP installation disc.

    “I’ve gotten used to copying original discs in another computer and using only copied discs in the Dell. Somehow, that works.

    “I even tried to update my DVD software, but it says that no update is available.

    “I called Dell, but I was directed to India. After listening to my experience, the tech was unable to help.”
Tech support is often a hassle. Most first-tier phone techs aren’t very technical and simply work from scripts that pick up on keywords the caller uses. I’ve found that stating the problem in the simplest possible terms sometimes helps. In other words, giving a support tech too much information can actually work against you!

Simply stating, “My DVD drive can’t read DVDs” might get you a better response than explaining that it can read copied DVDs but not originals (or that you think it might be the software).

But first, I suggest you open your PC case and look for obvious problems such as a loose or partially dislodged cable connecting the DVD burner to the motherboard. Check both ends of the cable.

If nothing’s obviously amiss and your system’s still under warranty, get on the phone and make a fuss until Dell sends you a replacement burner. A simple, emphatic “It’s never worked properly; it arrived broken” with no further detail might be all it takes.

But if your warranty has expired, you’re probably just out of luck. Fortunately, brand-new replacement drives aren’t expensive. A few minutes with your favorite search engine should turn up a boatload of similar drives starting at under U.S. $30 or so.

But by all means, try the warranty repair first. That’s what warranties are for!

Two techniques for user-proofing Windows

Vicki Smith wants to lock down public-use PCs.
  • “I’m thinking about installing Windows SteadyState, a free Microsoft program that is designed to return a PC to its pristine condition in shared computer environments.

    “We have four Vista computers for public use in a drop-in center, and keeping them clean and in working order is a nightmare. Just yesterday, someone was downloading something and ignored or canceled out the antivirus warnings.

    “Is SteadyState worth it?”
Yes, it is. In fact, Microsoft’s free SteadyState tool (download) is the easiest way I know to protect Vista and XP setups from unwanted changes. MS says it’s specifically designed for abuse-prone PCs “in a school computer lab or an Internet café, a library, or even in your home.”

This won’t affect you, Vicki, but SteadyState doesn’t work on Windows 7, and Microsoft says it’s not going to update the software to make it Win7-compatible. For more on this, see Yardena Arar’s April 8 Top Story, “Microsoft decision puts public libraries at risk.”

For Win7 boxes or for instances where SteadyState might be overkill, a simpler solution is to use a virtual machine (VM). For a discussion of using a VM as an alternative to SteadyState, see my April 22 column, “Two ways to make ‘self-healing’ Windows setups.”

My favorite free virtual machine software is Oracle’s (formerly Sun’s) VirtualBox (site). And, as with SteadyState, VirtualBox is free!

Pros and cons of ‘Search Everything’

New Zealander Pete Johnstone was one of several readers suggesting a free search tool in response to my July 1 item, “He hates Win7′s Search, wants alternative.”
  • “Fred, I have found a small free program called Search Everything that can be downloaded from a Voidtools page.

    “When first run, it takes a few minutes to catalog the entire PC. But once done, it will show any search results in a flash. It lists any file matching the search, from all drives on the PC, in real time as you type. It also shows what drive they are on and the containing folder.

    “If you have not seen it before, it is worth a look just for its speed. I do not use anything else now, as I can locate every possibility of every file I search for, including operating system files.”
Thanks, Pete (and everyone else who suggested Search Everything)!

It’s a fine tool, I agree. But Search Everything is designed specifically to find files by name. In contrast, a tool such as Windows’ built-in Search or (my personal favorite) Google’s free Desktop search (site) can find files by name and by content — by words or phrases inside files.

For example, Search Everything can quickly find, say, all files with the word rutabaga in the title. Google Desktop search can do the same, plus it can find any file that mentions rutabaga, turnip, Brussels sprouts, or the phrase veggies I don’t like anywhere inside any file.

I prefer the broad flexibility of the latter type of search, but it’s a subjective thing. Sort of like tastes in vegetables!

Have more info on this subject? Post your tip in the WS Columns forum.


Fred Langa is a senior editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He was formerly editor of Byte Magazine (1987–91), editorial director of CMP Media (1991–97), and editor of the LangaList e-mail newsletter from its origin in 1997 until its merger with Windows Secrets in November 2006.
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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.