Apps

Poll: What's the most common cause of system instability?

Bad RAM, failing hard drives, over-heating processors, poorly written drivers, application incompatibilities, and operating system bugs can all lead to an unstable computer. In your experience, which of these is the most likely culprit?

Bad RAM, failing hard drives, over-heating processors, poorly written drivers, application incompatibilities, and operating system bugs can all lead to an unstable computer. In your experience, which of these is the most likely culprit?

Note: I'm purposely omitting "user error" from the list. I want this poll to focus on events that are largely beyond the end user's control.

About

Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

51 comments
V
V

I haven't seen many malware or virus attacks, but drivers and software conflicts are the most frequent culprits. Bad installers. Uninstallers corrupt the registry or remove references to DLLs & COM components. Security software that won't behave with a competitors products. They are as evil as the sh*t that they protect us from.

Jaqui
Jaqui

after all, if they coded to the "Hardware is expensive" model instead of the "Hardware is cheap" model they would have to write far more efficient code and would see what the code is doing.

Osiyo53
Osiyo53

I voted "Malware" but was truly conflicted about choosing between it and "Software Conflicts". Finally selected Malware because the way I look at it is that you have INTENTIONAL Malware, and then yah have UNINTENTIONAL Malware. Unintentional Malware being, to my way of thinking, simply any kind of software that's poorly written or conceived in that it causes problems. Most times when I get a call from someone complaining about his/her system operating incorrectly, being unstable, I find that the cause is that deliberately created Malware has gotten into the system. Or the user has downloaded and/or installed some software that had no malicious intent in its creation, but it doesn't "play nice" with the OS or other apps. Examples of what I call "non-deliberate malware" that causes users to yelp, "Hey, something is wrong with my computer." 1) A user who'd installed several graphics and printing apps. Each had some different or "better" feature lacked by the other. So user liked to switch from one to the other. Unfortunately, some of those items didn't play nice together, a couple tried to seize control from others, etc. End result user would have system stall out and take forever to do something, and/or occassionally had a crash and burn. 2)User has numerous apps that he or she has set up, deliberately or unintentionally, to auto-launch on every boot up. With net result that each tries to suck up resources and priority time from the others resulting in ridiculous boot-up times. User finally grows frustrated and angry, I get a call. Often user claims he or she must have some kind of virus because his/her system did not have this issue before. I explain real problem, fix it up. But problem is likely to re-occur since it seems every app maker out there thinks his app is so important it should always autostart upon booting. And doesn't always inform user that it's gonna be configured this way upon installation. 3) Misc "Helper Apps". Oh Geez ! There are endless selections of browser add-ons, Office macros, VBAs, small utilities, and so forth meant, originally, to make life a little easier for the user. Which users install. But which have quirks, bugs, etc which cause unintended consequences. Which I have to contend with later when user yells, "Help !!!!" 4) Friggin AUTO-UPDATES !!! Some days I'd like to choke the person who came up with the idea. And it seems like every programmer in the world now puts an auto-update feature in his software. Problem is that sometimes the update is buggy. In which case I get a call from user, often complaining "I must have a virus, my app used to work just fine." Or maybe app developer just changed the interface, etc and user used to know what shortcut keys and/or mouse clicks to use by memory and habit. Now app works differently. I get call. User says, "Hey, it used to do such and such, doesn't do it any more." I, myself, often never use durned app. So I hunt around, and finally figure out "Oh, this is how you'd do that." User gives me blank stare and says, "Oh, sorry. BUT ... that's not the way it used to be done. How did that change? And WHY?" I just shrug and tell em to take it up with the app developer. Sometimes I feel like I'd like to slap app developers around a little and tell em to stop changing things just to change em. In order to give their apps a "new and improved" look. Hey, if it works, and yah have a lot of happy users, leave it alone !!! If yah just can't resist changing things around, give user an easy way to "revert" back to original look, feel, and usage. Users don't want to re-learn how to use your app every 6 months. They just want to USE it, that's why we call em USERS. Let em get stuff done efficiently and easily without having to muck around and waste time due to your "upgrades". And let's not forget the bandwidth issue. Where auto-upgrades sucks up bandwidth and processor time endlessly checking to see if new upgrade is available, and/or downloading same. Particularly onerous when it occurs during working hours when bandwidth is at a premium anyway due to high volume caused by folks actually trying to get WORK done. And if you're gonna include auto-updates, durn it, make sure you're server has adequate bandwidth and resources to handle the traffic you'll get when 100,000 users all have their systems trying to connect to you and do a download at the same time. Average user doesn't understand this, may not even be aware it is happening, just knows SOMETHING IS WRONG ... and I get a call. 5) Web based apps just SUCK! Just don't do it unless it is something trivial and unimportant. I can't recall how many times I've responded to a complaint just to find the issue is poor bandwidth or other resources on the part of the app server. Or server is down. Or someone has hacked the site. Or web based app developer has changed something in a Java app, servlet, other type script, or whatever and its buggy. Or developer now requires the newest, latest, and greatest version of whatever to be installed on the user's machine and THAT is buggy, or a resource hog, or user simply doesn't have that version and app developer doesn't do proper check and then send maessage to user, "Hey, yah gotta upgrade whatever to version so and so." Or its just a plain old case of user being in the middle of something and web connection burps momentarily and data is lost or corrupted. While I'm thinking about it, for the web based app developers ... learn to clean up the junk yah leave on user machines every once in a while. Okay? Gad I've come to hate web based applications. 6) Almost as much as I've come to hate app developers who keep making registry changes and/or additions ... and do it poorly. You suck. Whenever possible, leave the durned registry alone. Most times mucking with it really isn't necessary. It's almost as bad as when programmers used to all make up their own customized and tailored DLLs, and substituted them for original system DLLs of the same name in the system folders. Too often DLL worked fine with app developers app, but now had glitches when other apps tried to use it. Because their code was based on original DLL. Personally, in my own usage on my own systems, I have come to favor "portable apps" and use them whenever possible. Since doing so, I've had a lot fewer instances of "instability" in my personal systems. Okay, I'm done ranting. Actual hardware failures? Hardly ever happens, doesn't take up much of my time. Discounting the obvious. Coffee spilled on keyboard. Person drops laptop. User trips over cable, or mouse cord gets hung up on something and user gives it a good hard jerk out of frustration, etc. Besides those, usual cause of claimed hardware failure often isn't a hardware failure at all. User needs more ram. Or has so much junk stored on hard drive it needs cleaned up or a new larger drive installed. Had call call for assistance recently where I found that user had saved a copy of every durned email, voice message, video clip, and whatever he'd ever received for years. Add endless digital photo files (he's an engineer and takes a lot of photos of jobs sites, sites where jobs are planned, etc) and AutoCad drawings. Plus he'd been downloading music files, to include whole Cd's, for years ... so that he could listen to them while working. Had never deleted a durned thing. Finally his system slowed way down and I got the call. He said he thought maybe his hard drive was failing. I found the many gigs of old files. Most of which he'd never looked at or used in past several years. Most he didn't even remember what they were for. Got a lot of junk off his hard drive, cleaned and defragged. He was good as new. Enough from me. I'm too long winded.

jeff.allen
jeff.allen

We look after thousands of customers' PC's. Most calls have been "vetted" by their respective help desks, so we tend to only see hardware faults. Mostly motherboards - but only restricted to one manufacturer, followed by hard discs - of all manfacturers. But I must say, the cheaper the motherboard or hard drive, the more problems - for motherboards, mainly swollen caps.

sboverie
sboverie

All of the components of a computer can fail and at the same time cripple the OS. The most fragile part of any computer is the OS, it does not matter if it is Windows, Mac OS or *nix. The reason is that everything effects the OS. Just using the computer makes changes to the OS, the users adjust preferences that change the OS. A memory glitch at the wrong time can cause a change to the OS. Stupid user tricks like clicking on links that lead to malware make dramatic changes to the OS. Badly written applications or drivers also change the OS. Age is a big issue with an OS. The cumulative changes to the OS over time can cause the OS to become unstable. Reinstalling the OS generally helps, replacing or upgrading the computer works everytime to improve the OS experience. This is not an OS bug, this is the architechure of the OS that is missing the ability to self heal. Some OS can do some self healing, but the tools have to be launched manually. This is OS agnostic problem.

lmckinney
lmckinney

I have to go with software conflicts. In 8 years of being the primary tech for maintaining 60+ PCs, our confirmed hardware failures have been 4 bad HDDs, 3 fried MOBOs due to power issues, 1 failed PSU, and 1 bad RAM stick. Of the dozens of other trouble calls where the PC became useless due to: USB 2 ports reverting to USB 1 performance and refusing to recognize high-speed USB devices; or the installed printers suddenly stopped working, or MS Office refusing to launch, or optical drive trays opening and closing by themselves all day, the only fix that ultimately worked was to wipe the HDD and reinstall everything.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

You take my life but I take yours too You fire your musket but I run you through So when you're waiting for the next attack You'd better stand there's no turning back. The bugle sounds and the charge begins But on this battlefield no one wins The smell of acrid smoke and horses breath As I plunge on into certain death. The horse he sweats with fear we break to run The mighty roar of the Russian guns And as we race towards the human wall The screams of pain as my comrades fall We hurdle bodies that lay on the ground And the Russians fire another round We get so near yet so far away We won't live to fight another day. We get so close near enough to fight When a Russian gets me in his sights He pulls the trigger and I feel the blow A burst of rounds take my horse below. And as I lay there gazing at the sky My body's numb and my throat is dry And as I lay forgotten and alone Without a tear I draw my parting groan THE USER______________________________-.

mark.johnson
mark.johnson

It's a mechanical problem - loose nut between the keyboard and the operator's chair.

reinhart.lucas
reinhart.lucas

In my 7 years working in the IT related field it has most commonly been software conflicts such as plug-in related software and printer drivers. I'd say that malware comes in second followed by hard drive failures

dband
dband

Were not a choice but often cause instability. Most often it's something recently installed or updated. Sometimes it's a cheap power supply or flaky motherboard.

12312332123
12312332123

I couldn't pick one because they pretty much all apply equally in my experience.

JackOfAllTech
JackOfAllTech

Malware wouldn't get on the PC without a user, users install software without thinking about conflicts.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

Age. Which encompasses the rest of the list.

wanttocancel
wanttocancel

For me it's either a failing hd or mobo and I primarily think that's due to users mishandling their computers. Many use them as something to stack things on and don't properly maintain them.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Users - clicking on every link in every email. - trying out every tip and trick they've ever heard about to make their malware-infested PC run faster.

Fregeus
Fregeus

I often see problems due to bad configurations. I would put that as the number 2 reason, if not number 1. TCB

Wally Bahny
Wally Bahny

Isn't Malware within an user's control? I mean, they had to do something to install it.

kwolf
kwolf

I am sure we have all noticed that over the years as hardware has become less expensive, programs and apps as well as the OS all have grown to be bloated and extremley inefficient in code execution. Gee, could that cause unstability (sarcasm intended) ha!

Ken Wolf
Ken Wolf

Have to admit you nailed it pretty good with that! I have to agree with 99%, if not 100% of what you said. "Give 'em Hell" A common issue I have run into more than once that can cause system instability is a full Temp folder. One that has a large amount (100's) of files. Empty out the Temp folder (either or both C:/Temp and %System%/Temp). Also 1000's of temporary Internet Files and folders can be a cause of instability.

rweber
rweber

I have a network of about 150 PC's. Each week I have to replace either a motherboard or Power supply because of the Capacitors leaking. The companies that use cheap components (and me for buying cheap parts)are to blame. However I don't have a budget to use high end equipment. It is impossible here in India to source power supplies that don't use these cheap components. Power supplies are particularly bad as the problem presents itself as random reboots, applications crashing or machines stopping half way through a boot up, just to name a few. The only offending components are the capacitors with a X pattern on top. Its not just cheap parts either, in my previous role we used ONLY IBM desktops and every one of them had this same problem... leaking capacitors after about 1 - 1.5 years almost 24 hour use. (This was in an ISP help desk office) The unofficial news from IBM was that someone from a capacitor manufacturer resigned and stole a semi completed formula for the capacitors and then sold it to another company... don't know how true that is though.

Forum Surfer
Forum Surfer

You should advance past desktop support. I always lied to the end user and told them "the hard drive crashed" or the "motherboard died" or some other excuse. Then I would just take the pc, reimage it and bing it back the next morning and tell them I replaced the deffective part. My helpdesk ticket would say otherwise, but run of the mill office pc's hardly ever have actual hardware issues. High end graphics or gaming pc's are prone to memory and power supply failures albeit not very often.

TechInsider
TechInsider

It's drivers guys. Hands down. Video drivers in particular (XP and Vista) cause massive issues. Thx Windows Update. -Lee

Tank252ca
Tank252ca

Drivers for me as well. That's why I chose software from the list. In 20 years of computing I have seen few hardware failures and have been able to avoid virus and malware infections, so instability usually arises from a software update. Typically with software that ties directly into the kernel like drivers, AV software and firewalls.

hcgriffith
hcgriffith

I have a professional tester from Innoventions (hoping I don't get flamed for the reference) which is great for finding heat related or voltage sensitive failures. But at least 80% of failures are corrected by lightly rubbing the DIMM connectors with a pencil eraser (versus the harder ink one) and following up with an alcohol wipe with a cotton swab. As memory voltages went down, the instances of 'fingerprint failure' went up by a huge amount. Now if I could just figure out why someone would touch the contacts in the first place....

e.m.chambers
e.m.chambers

Malware is the worst. I know the experts say you just have to visit a website to get driveby malware now. But the interesting thing I see is that the same people get malware and have instability over and over again. And if you look at their browsing, they have downloaded screensavers, games, music, looked at lots of photos of actors, sent and received a lot of instant messages, etc. A lot of people use their computers every day, keep them updated with antivirus and antispyware and have no problems.

mypcbroke
mypcbroke

Most malware today is about making money, keyloggers, fake malware scams etc. They have gotten pretty insideous in there methods to get computers infected. Links in web pages can be infected without the owners knowledge. Look at the detection times reported here http://www.kaspersky.com/viruswatch3 How does the average user even know if a site is legit? There are sites that offer malware for sale with a EULA and 24/7 tech support. Just google "malware for sale with a EULA" It is no longer a game, it is big business. There also exploits aimed at out of date Java, Flash, MS Office etc. It is a lot of work to keep those all up to date.

GNX
GNX

The user. The over educated. They seem to be scared of their PCs for some reason.

Bill Detwiler
Bill Detwiler

Users do have some control over malware getting onto their machines, but I wanted to avoid user mistakes, like deleting the Windows directory or editing the registry.

stubbs_k
stubbs_k

Here in Florida we have numerous lightning storms. power surges are a huge culprit for causing electrical spikes and damaging systems even with surge protectors connected. Just plug in a voltage meter to your electrical socket and monitor the voltage for a day. The voltage can range from as low as 60 to over 140 volts. Computer systems can't operate at this range of variance.

mypcbroke
mypcbroke

Vista should have been on that list....but moving past that, previous comment suggested people had to 'actually do something' to get the malware. Yes, turn on the computer these days. I work for a major security software vendor and the bad guys have become very good at the game. On the other hand, there are a lot of good products to combat it. Lots of people know how to drive a car, not many can change a transmission.

Jaqui
Jaqui

I just bought an ancient laptop yesterday, pentium 75MHz with 16 mb ram. it is actually faster in responding to mouse clicks than the p4 @ 2 GHz. windows 95 on the older one, Mandriva 2008.1 on the p4.

Osiyo53
Osiyo53

All sorts of old trash files can muck things up pretty well. The reason I tell folks to run Crap Cleaner from time to time. But back to the idea of UNINTENTIONAL malware. Caused by poor programming/scripting and planning. As I logged onto the web page to look at your post (and others) my web browser hung up and froze. Whole system became unresponsive, etc. Faulty hardware? Nope. A Virus? Nope. Another bug in Windows? Nope. Darn idiot Flash script on the Tech Republic site to run an advertising video. Something about it is buggy. System reported it was eating up all the resources on my puter and making things SLOWWWWW. Usually I have Flash player turned off but had turned it on while watching some training stuff on an educational site hosted by a vendor we do business with. I should remember to turn it off when not specifically needed since it has torqued my jaws many a time due to this or that site having faulty scripts, inadequate bandwidth to serve up the datastream, or whatever the case may be. Well, I'm off to send a note to the vendor about his training stuff. He (they, actually) seem to friggin like to have their faces and voices online and viewed by people ... a LOT. Since all their educational/training stuff is in video format. Geez, yah gotta sit there and watch and listen to them practice their acting lessons and put on their best STAR material performance. When what yah really want to do is get down to business and learn the useful technical details. 30 minute video to tell yah what could have been printed on a page or two, with pictures, and read in two minutes. Regular printed page (PDF, whatever) would have been better. Then I could study at my leisure and copy locally to take with me on my laptop for later reference. I've noticed that it seems everybody wants to be a movie star. Or so it seems. Will make a big production out of making a 10 to 30 minutes video ... to tell yah how to do something that they could have accomplished in 2 or 3 written paragraphs and a couple simple drawings. And the written paragraphs and drawings would have been clearer, more easily studied, and easier to refer to in case of future need. I'm getting tired of the video this and video that thing. Especially when speaking about someone trying to pass on technical info to someone else. I keep having to play the video through once, back it up and restart it several times so I can make sure I understood exactly what instructor said and meant. Then launch my note taker and step through video again, stopping time to time to make notes ... So I don't have to watch the friggin video again in the future just to refresh my memory about an exact number, command line script, or whatever. Egads !!!! LOL .... okay, done ranting. I won't mention the laptop one of my nieces brought over the other day, with Vista on it. Vista is dog slow enough without her having put 4 Virus detector/cleaners on it, setting it up to autostart 16 different apps (including 5 different IM apps), she had auto-update turned on for everything, only had 2 gigs free on a 50 gig hard drive ... because she downloads and saves EVERYTHING (mostly music and endless pictures taken by every friend she has ever had) AND she likes to hang around those social networking sites ... where one routinely and regularly picks up malware, adware, viruses, and whatever else. I told her that I should spank her for being an air-head. Whipped out the UBCD4Win CD, got rid of the nasties on her system, managed to rebuild her registry ... well enough (one of the bugs she caught somewhere wiped out the current and backup copy of her registry, fortunately several months back when I found out she was socializing on the sites she did ... Facebook, etc ... I copied her whole hardrive to archive), then spent a couple hours cleaning house on her laptop. Her Vista stills runs dog slow ... but regular Vista dog slow instead of what it had been doing ... up to the time her registry got wiped out (which is what caused her to come see me even tho she knew I was gonna chew her out). I told her to stop being as dumb as some of the office people I deal with.

jeff.allen
jeff.allen

Re: "It is impossible here in India to source power supplies" Aren't you in Australia? Anyway, that "X" on the caps is a vent, it is made like that to allow the gasses etc to vent out on top of the cap rather than build up pressure and "blow" the can off the top. I heard the "unofficial" story as well, but via Dell.

iShango
iShango

This has been the most common cause of instability on all of my home PC's , many of the desktops in the corporate I work for (second to Malware until we locked them right down) and in the servers we run (especially poorly written printer drivers from corporate vendors who should know better). Nothing will destablise the kernel more than a poorly written driver that injects itself in to the kernel. And it can be exceptionally difficult to get rid of them .

dallas_dc
dallas_dc

I have had computers become outdated and need replacement, but I have had very few actual hardware failures to cause problems. Even with up to date AV software, the computer can get junked up with stuff that is sucking up resources and bandwidth. I had to wipe the drive of one computer and start over due to a trojan that was installed when the user clicked on a video attachment sent by a friend. Wasted a lot of hours trying to clean it. The best I could do was to save the data. When the video was clicked, a prompt came up asking to install a flash update or something.

aandruli
aandruli

Lots of software install keys they don't really need and often when software is uninstalled it leaves a lot or orphan keys in the registry. Sometimes these keys are called inadvertently and cause the system to be very very unstable. Also the common practice of rolling out desktops via a master image gives you desktops with lots of registry keys used in the initial build but not needed for user deployment.

RNR1995
RNR1995

The PSU is the most under appreciated, overlooked part in a computer. I too was guilty of this at one time

Wally Bahny
Wally Bahny

I've never had any malware because I'm not dumb enough to click on links in e-mail or on websites I do not trust. (Read the link path before clicking.) If users were able to control themselves and not click on links for p*rn, warez, or other "free" crap, they wouldn't have malware either. P.S. Antivirus and Antispam are not necessary if you are careful while on the Internet. All that is necessary is an active, inbound firewall.

Ken Wolf
Ken Wolf

considering the foot print of 95 vs Mandriva (althouUpgh I really like Mandriva). Actually my favorite MS OS is Win98SE. I was running that until about 2 years ago when I switched to Linux (currently Sidux)

Jaqui
Jaqui

just like windows is. don't use either myself. :D

Tig2
Tig2

I feel your pain man. I truly do. RE: that Flash problem here on TR. They have had some issue that I believe has been fixed now. People who commonly use both Flash and the site found that some ads drove the computer nuts. I'm on a Mac using Safari and the tolerance for Flash mess ups is pretty low. I was able to abort the scripts pretty quickly. As you are one of many who prefers to not use Flash, you may never see this problem again here. While not a regular occurrence, things do sometimes happen.

rmiller
rmiller

Facebook and Linkdin are notorious for these types of malicious "accidental" malware attacks on users.

Wally Bahny
Wally Bahny

... and I do have anti-virus on my computer, I'm just saying that it's not something that is completely necessary.

mypcbroke
mypcbroke

Just a firewall? It might work for you...most users aren't at a level that you and I are. Trust me, my job is to fix what they break. I don't like to tip-toe through the internet and I KNOW they don't, I would rather depend on a good AV product. With my highend machines and a low impact, good protection AV product like Kaspersky, I go where I want quickly and don't panic about where I browse. Most regular users don't know what to do to be careful. Kinda like seatbelts and airbags in cars, never want use them but sure glad you have them when something goes wrong...

RNR1995
RNR1995

I used to agree with you, but there are too many legitimate sites that are now compromised. I have had too many good users get nailed by some stupid piggy back spyware when thy clicked on a legitimate link. Or my good users have turned bad!