Picture this: you’ve recently received a new assignment from your boss. You need to research the effects of blogs on SEO and you need to create a presentation by Monday.

You spend hours surfing the internet and gathering facts and statistics for your project. You’ve typed up copious notes on your computer, and you’ve even started practicing your presentation in your bathroom mirror.

You’re so close to finishing your assignment that you can almost taste it. You envision your coworkers’ amazement and your boss’s praise for a job well done. But just as you click to run your presentation program, your computer flashes and presents you with a blue screen that says:

“A problem has been detected and Windows has been shut down to prevent damage to your computer.”

If you have a Windows 8, the wording may be a little different:   

“Your PC ran into a problem and needs to restart. We’re just collecting some error info, and then we’ll restart for you.”

Neither phrase is ideal, however. In either case, your computer has the Blue Screen of Death.

What Is the Blue Screen of Death?

While your individual scenario may be a little bit different than the one described above, the blue screen of death (as it’s jokingly called), is a common computer error. Unlike an individual application crash, the Blue Screen of Death brings down the whole system. It often requires a complete reboot and may even result in hours of lost work.

Why Do You See a Blue Screen?

The Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) can occur for a variety of reasons, though it’s typically the result of problems with your computer’s hardware or issues with a hardware driver. Standard software doesn’t usually cause blue screens or system failure.

BSODs occur when Windows encounters a “STOP” error, which causes the system to crash. When this occurs, Windows creates a “minidump” file that supplies information about the crash, which it then saves to your disk. You can later view this information to identify the cause behind your BSOD.

What Happens Next?

Despite its rather frightening name and appearance, the Blue Screen of Death can often resolve on its own. Your computer should automatically restart after encountering a BSOD, and though you might lose any unsaved information, your system itself should remain intact.

Windows Starts Normally

If your computer starts normally after a BSOD, you should take a few steps to ensure that a BSOD doesn’t happen again.

  • Undo recent changes. If you installed a new program or piece of hardware, it’s possible that the change to the system caused the crash. In this case, use a system restore to undo recent system changes, or consider using a roll back device driver to switch to a version of your system prior to your most recent driver update.
  • Install anti-virus software. Malware can dig deep into the Windows kernel and cause system instability. Keep your anti-virus software running regularly and install new updates as they become available.
  • Clean your components. Everything inside your computer generates heat, which can cause components to become unstable and crash. Make sure your computer’s fans spin properly and ensure that the vents, grates, and filters remain unhindered by dust, hair, and other debris.
  • Defragment your hard drive. Every time you save a file or install a program, your drive becomes a bit more fragmented. The fragmentation slows your drive and it can pose problems for your operating system. Regularly defragmenting your drive may help prevent future crashes (though this does not apply to solid-state drives because they store data differently).

And don’t forget to save frequently. While you might not be able to prevent all BSODs from happening, you can minimize data loss by backing up your drive.

Windows Does Not Start Normally

Unfortunately, in some situations the crash can interfere with your computer’s ability to start normally. Perhaps your computer managed to reboot, only to crash and show the blue screen yet again.

In this case, you need to take careful note of what’s causing the STOP error. Write down the error code on the screen, then do an online search for ways to resolve that error. Depending the severity of the problem, you may have to use a different device to find the answer.

If you don’t have time to note the code on the screen, you can still access the Windows Advanced Options Menu by pressing the F8 key during start-up. You can use the menu option to disable automatic restart (giving you time to write down the code), or you can also use the menu to perform a system restore.

When to Call IT

If you can’t pinpoint the problem with your computer, if you feel uncomfortable performing a system restore, or if you’re worried about losing a lot of data, don’t hesitate to contact an IT technician to help. He or she can diagnose the cause behind your blue screen of death and find ways to keep your system running smoothly.