What causes the blue screen in Windows and can I fix it myself?
This question was answered on July 5, 2013. Much of the information contained herein may have changed since posting.
The fabled Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) that Microsoft would prefer you call a 'STOP Error' can be caused by a variety of issues.
Whenever Windows encounters an issue that will create serious instability that it can’t recover from, it will halt everything and throw up a blue screen with a myriad of codes and error messages.
In general, a BSOD can be generated by driver issues (software that controls hardware), failing hardware components, a hard drive that’s close to full, boot sector viruses or by bugs or conflicts in the operating system itself.
Troubleshooting a BSOD error can get pretty complicated, especially if they randomly appear and you can’t easily replicate the error messages. Intermittent computer issues are always to most perplexing because you don’t always know if the problem has been solved or it just hasn’t popped up yet.
Capturing the error code is the first step in determining which of the potential causes is at the root of the problem. Armed with the error code, a good understanding of the terminology in Windows and lots of patience, you can likely track down the culprit.
Microsoft has a list of 265 different bug check codes that can be referenced in the BSOD that might help you track down the source of the problem.
If you recently added new hardware, updated drivers or updated the operating system, you can start the troubleshooting by undoing what was recently done or by reverting to a previous configuration via System Restore.
This, by the way, is why I am not a big fan of programs that claim they can keep your drivers automatically updated. For the most part, updating drivers should be done to solve a problem, not just because they exist. Updating multiple drivers simultaneously (which is often what these programs do) is just increasing your chances for creating a problem that didn’t exist prior to the updates.
If you haven’t made any recent changes and the errors tend to be random, this could be an indication of a failing component in your computer. Unfortunately, this could be just about any of the hardware devices from the power supply, to RAM to blown or bulging capacitors on the motherboard.
In our shops, we always start with a close physical inspection of the motherboard to see if any of the capacitors have a bulge or other indications that they have malfunctioned. If you want to see what to look for, the Capacitor Lab website has a nice library of images of faulty caps.
Assuming that you have a software issue and overlooking this obvious sign of a hardware failure can cost you hours in troubleshooting time.
If the STOP errors pop up consistently when you first start your computer, you should restart the computer in Safe Mode to see if does boot properly. If it does, you likely have a driver issue; if it still blue screens, you have a serious operating system or hardware problem.
If you don’t know how to start your computer is Safe Mode, we have a video posted on our YouTube channel that walks you through the steps.
Also, if you’ve configured the BIOS on the computer to overclock the CPU, or any other customized settings, resetting the BIOS to the defaults could return the system to working condition.
Of all of the problems that a Windows user can encounter, the ‘BSOD’ is one of the most complicated and can easily be misdiagnosed because of the wide variety of causes, so if what I laid out sounds like rocket science, get some help!
About the author
Ken Colburn of Data Doctors on July 5, 2013