How to Diagnose a PC that Crashes, Freezes and/or Blue Screens

We created this guide to help train and be used as a reference for our new technicians. It’s a bit simplistic for our experienced techs, but it may be skimp over details for less technical people. What we're trying to say is - everyone is at a different level of device troubleshooting. Nevertheless, we decided to post these online in case they can help you. Some companies closely guard their diagnostic processes and call them 'trade secrets'. We think that’s silly, so we posted them online.

Diagnostic Flowchart

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Causes:

Commonly: Bad OS, Bad HDD, Viruses, Bad Drivers, Bad RAM
Also Possible: Bad Motherboard
Rare: Bad GPU, Bad BIOS Config

Pre-Testing notes:

If the problem is caused by software, the solution is typically a reinstall. It’s sometimes possible to troubleshoot the issue down to a particular driver, security patch, windows update, corrupt registry file, etc. but this is typically time consuming and unnecessary. Once it’s diagnosed down to the software level, it’s usually irrelevant what specifically caused the problem because a OS reinstall always fixes it.

Diagnostic Procedure:

Run a hard drive test. If the HDD is bad, replace the hard drive and reinstall Windows on the new drive. Backup the data from the old hard drive first if necessary. Follow all standard protocols for a reinstall with data.

If the hard drive is fine, test the RAM (memory). Frankly, this step is optional because RAM rarely goes bad, and when it does fail it typically makes the machine not turn on instead of generating errors or crashes. If the memory is bad, replace the bad RAM chip. Did that solve the crashing? If not, it could be coincidental. Continue down the checklist.

[Advanced] Some error messages are specific, others are generic. Do you get a specific error message that you can solve? Does the error message indicate either a specific driver or hardware component is bad? If yes, try that. But be warned, this rabbit hole could be never-ending, so don’t go down it too far.

Do the crashes seem virus related? If so, run a virus scan. If the scan reveals viruses – remove them. However, keep in mind that plenty of “working” machines have viruses so this may not be the underlying cause of the issues you’re seeing. In addition, even if the viruses are the underlying cause, removing them might not fix the problems they have already caused. So a virus removal is a worthwhile step if the error messages look virus related, but won’t always resolve the problem.

Reinstall the Operating System. This should fix the problem. In rare cases, the crashing may persist. If it does, rest the BIOS settings and try a different HDD (even if it tested good), then a different motherboard and/or GPU.

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Disclaimers and notes

Diagnostic procedure: For each of the Commonly and Also Possible causes listed above, run a diagnostic test to see if this is the underlying cause of the problem. If the diagnostic test fails, it should indicate this is the cause of your problem. Most of the time, you should only check for Rare problems if you have thoroughly ruled out all the Common and Also Possible causes of failure.

How rare are “Rare” causes? To put it in perspective, it’s more common for a tech to incorrectly interpret a diagnostic test or for a replacement part to also be bad, then for the machine to have one of the Rare causes listed. Nevertheless, these Rare causes are listed for reference when all Common and Also Possible problems have been thoroughly ruled out.

Simplified Guides: These diagnostic guides are designed to correctly troubleshoot 95-98% of issues. For simplicity, we assume a number of things that aren’t always the case. Some of these assumptions are listed below:

  • The tech ran the correct diagnostic test and interpreted the results properly (techs aren’t perfect)
  • All replacement parts in use are fully functional (replacement components can be bad too)
  • A single issue is responsible for the underlying problem (not always the case)*
  • The problem isn’t intermittent, it’s constant (some problems present intermittently)**
  • The diagnostic test is 100% accurate (nope – test accuracy varies)***

These assumptions aren’t always the case. In a typical repair shop however, time is a limited resource. These guides are simplified specifically to catch 95-98% of problems to maximize a tech’s output. If technicians spent time 100% diagnosing every repair job, the cost of a device repair would be unaffordable.

Instead, when this guide fails to produce an accurate diagnosis, repair shops rely on the skills of senior technician to troubleshoot complex issues and use their experience to solve complex problems. Senior technicians can apply knowledge of things like which diagnostic tests to re-run, the likelihood of a replacement part being bad based on the type of part and vendor that provided it, the likelihood of multiple failed components for each reported problem, and experience with the specific model that allows them to be aware of common failure points with that model.

*It’s possible that multiple hardware components can fail at once, or that a hardware component has gone bad previously but isn’t showing symptoms and isn’t the underlying cause of the reported problem. For example, hard drives common develop bad sectors, but a computer can still function with a failing drive. So if a hard drive test fails on a machine that isn’t turning on, the bad hard drive should be replaced but is not likely to be the cause the underlying power problem that’s stopping the device from powering on.

**It’s also possible for problems to be intermittent. Many diagnostic tests involve trying a potential solution and seeing if it fixes the underlying problem. If the underlying problem is intermittent, this can make the problem significantly harder to diagnose.

***Not every component has a straightforward diagnostic test, and not every test is 100% reliable. For example, hard drive SMART and sector tests are both fairly reliable, but in 1-2% of cases they will pass when a hard drive is actually failing. In addition, most motherboards cannot be directly tested at all. Diagnosing a machine as a motherboard failure typically involves ruling out every other component that could cause the issue. Advanced techs can lookup motherboard schematics and test power flow through a motherboard with a multimeter, but in practical applications this procedure is too time intensive to be used for most repairs.  

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