Q. I have a computer that locks up when I first boot up for the day. It typically freezes, reboots, or ends up with the blue screen of death.
After stalling a few times, the machine works fine through the rest of the day. But then the same thing happens the next morning when I do a cold startup. At first I thought it was a hardware problem. But if it was, I’d expect to experience this problem all the time. I don’t. What do you think is happening?
A. Actually, I think this is a hardware issue!
I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that your PC is a few years old and has a traditional spinning-platter hard drive.
Here’s what I think’s going on. Each day, a mechanical drive starts out cold (at room temperature) but gets quite warm during normal operation. Over time, these heat-up cycles can slowly cook the drive’s lubricants, causing them to thicken and to literally begin gumming up the works.
A drive with lubrication issues can be balky when cold. The viscous lubricants can prevent the drive from reaching operating speed within a suitable time. They might also cause the drive heads to move poorly or sluggishly. Either way, the drive can suffer from timeouts and data errors, causing boot failures.
Once the drive warms up a bit and the old lubricants thin out, and the drive operates normally.
There can also be purely mechanical issues with older hard drives. The bearings and other critical parts eventually begin to wear, leading to some mechanical sloppiness. That can eventual cause data errors. Furthermore, different temperatures and situations might yield unpredictable drive behavior.
But you don’t have to guess whether your drives are in good or poor condition. A S.M.A.R.T drive utility (more info) can usually show you how many total hours a drive has been in use, how many bad sectors it has developed over time, how many soft (correctable) and hard (uncorrectable) data errors have occurred, and so on. The better utilities can also help you estimate how much useful life your drive might have.
Good, free/paid tools include:
If, as I suspect, your drive is at, near, or even beyond its reliable service life, your best bet is to replace it or to get a new PC — assuming the rest of your system’s components are also getting long in the tooth.
Either way, consider getting a solid-state drive (SSD). Not only are SSDs much faster than conventional drives, they also have no moving parts, which avoids all the wear-related problems inherent in mechanical devices (though the internal electronics of an SSD can eventually wear out, too, from repeated writes.).
In the unlikely event that it’s not a wear/mechanical problem with your drive — say, several SMART monitors all agree that your drive is functioning within normal parameters — then I suggest launching Windows’ Reliability Monitor app. The diagnostics tool is in all Windows versions.
If your cold-boot problem is somehow caused by a software issue, Reliability Monitor should help you pin it down. Look for the earliest errors logged during a failed cold-boot sequence. They are likely the root of an avalanche of follow-on errors — falling in sequence like dominoes — that ultimately lead to the failed boot. If you can identify and fix the root error(s), your boot problems will likely be solved.
But I really don’t think you’ll need that level of sleuthing. My bet’s on a much simpler diagnosis: Your hard drive is wearing out and needs replacement.
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