Computers can get overwhelmed from time to time. I'm not saying that computers can be overwhelming, they can, but that's not what this week's column is about.
What I'm referring to are the times when, for no apparent reason, the computer just stops functioning and you can't seem to do anything.
What most people don't realize is just how much stuff is going on in the background at any given time. Every part of the computer, from the keyboard to the mouse to the monitor, has a little program running in the background that is in charge of how that particular part functions.
And they all have to run together harmoniously.
I'm not talking about just a few little programs or drivers, there are literally thousands of things going on in the background at any given second and sometimes the operating system can get overwhelmed.
Frankly, I'm surprised computers even run at all without crashing after five minutes of up time.
I always have to smile whenever I hear anyone say, "I wasn't even doing anything and it just locked up."
Sure, you weren't doing anything, but the computer is still as busy as a one-armed paperhanger.
Consider this: even if you are just sitting there, hands completely off the mouse and keyboard, the computer is constantly (and I do mean constantly) looking at the keyboard and mouse for any change. It's also re-painting whatever's on the screen 60 to 70 times a second, checking to see if it's time to start the screen saver, listening to network or modems connections for incoming calls and more.
So even if you are not doing anything, the computer is still very busy just waiting for you to do something. And that's not even considering the hundreds of other things it has to do just to keep the desktop alive and stable. That's why your computer can sometimes become overwhelmed and freeze up.
So, what do you do about it when it happens? Let's go through a common scenario.
Let's say you are surfing the Internet and you click a link, the page loads and you start reading. You get to the bottom of the page and go to click somewhere else, but the pointer is just an hourglass and you can't click anything. Or, maybe the pointer looks fine (no hour glass) but still, nothing happens when you click.
What do you do then?
First, don't panic.
It usually doesn't mean the computer is messed up. It usually means that it got bogged down somewhere and needs a "little nudge" to get it back on track.
I usually try to get the computer's attention by trying a couple of different keyboard commands. I'll hit the escape key (usually at the top left-hand side of the keyboard) to divert the machine's attention from whatever it's stuck on. Sometimes this is all it takes, and sometimes not.
If the escape key doesn't change anything I'll try the old standard: CTRL +ALT + DEL (aka the "three finger salute") and see if I can access the task manager.
But, what if that doesn't work?
Another thing to try would be to reboot the machine. Just press and hold the power button until the computer shuts down, wait 10 to 20 seconds and turn it back on. After the machine restarts, things should be back to normal and you should have control of your mouse again.
I know powering off the computer is not the "proper" way to shut it down but sometimes it's the only way. If you can't click anything, how are you going to initiate a proper shutdown?
Occasional lock ups and other similar issues have given Windows a bad name, but I take it with a grain of salt. Knowing that there are so many other things going on in the background makes it easier to understand why your computer occasionally freezes.
Frankly, the same thing happens from time to time with Macs, too. I've seen it with my own eyes. The issue is really knowing what to do when the occasional lock up happens.
Sean McCarthy fixes computers. He can be reached at (888) 752-9049 or help@ComputeThisOnline.com (no hyphens).