My keyboard is frozen. The mouse won't work. The computer is locked-up. The darn thing “crashed.”
Those situations still frustrate computer users, despite new versions of Windows that are supposed to be much more stable and reliable. Windows is the operating system - the master control program - used on more than 9 out of 10 PCs.
In the early 1990s, PC operating systems were so fickle that computers seemed to misbehave every few hours. Frequent freeze-ups were just a normal part of the personal computing experience. Macintosh computers, by the way, always have been much more stable than Windows because they use a different operating system.
Nobody knows how often PCs using newer operating systems like Windows 98, Windows NT 4.0, Windows Millennium, or Windows 2000 lock up. Personal experience with several of those operating systems, and reader comments, suggest that freezes remain a headache.
People still using the older Windows 95 or Windows 3.1 can expect more frequent freezes. The new Windows XP, which will be available in the autumn, promises greater stability and may finally close the crash gap between Macs and PCs.
What's to be done when the inevitable occurs and your PC freezes?
First, recognize the difference between routine nuisance freezes and freezes that may signal a more serious problem, such as an impending hard disk crash. A newer computer that freezes several times a day may have an underlying hardware or software problem. Check with the manufacturer's technical support hotline.
PCs also have a built-in program, ScanDisk, that can diagnose and fix some hard disk problems. To run it, click on the Windows Start Button, and then choose Programs, Accessories, System Tools, and ScanDisk.
The second step: Just wait a minute or two. The computer may not be hung up. Rather, it may be too busy doing something in the background, and can't respond immediately to keystrokes or mouse clicks. It may be saving a big file, for instance, or printing a complex document.
Such delays are especially common in older computers. They often have slow central processing units (CPUs) that can't keep up with demands, or smaller amounts of random access memory (RAM).
The third step: Hit the Escape key a few times. It is labeled “Esc,” and may untangle the system.
Fourth: Try the “magic key” combination. Press the keys marked Ctrl, Alt, and Delete at the same time, and hold them down for a second.
With newer versions of Windows, the magic key combo produces a screen that lists programs currently running. One of those programs probably is the culprit.
If Windows can identify the offender, it will note “not responding” next to the program's name in the list. Highlight the renegade program with a mouse click, and select End Task to stop the program.
Unfortunately, End Task itself sometimes freezes. The computer may flash an option message - wait a few minutes for the system to untangle itself, or restart the system. Sometimes the system will become available after a short wait. Usually, however, the only solution is to restart the computer.
First try to restart by clicking the on-screen restart button, or hitting the Ctl-Alt-Delete combo again. If that doesn't work restart the computer by either touching the restart button or the on-off button on the system unit.
Even Mac computers get hung up every now and then. The “magic key” combo for Macs is “command option” and “escape.”
Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. Email him at email@example.com.