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Keeping Crashes To A Minimum

By Charles Connell, Globe Correspondent, 10/28/99

It is 3:00 a.m. You have been working for six hours on an important presentation, which is due at 8:00 a.m. Everything you need is in your laptop. Then, the computer stops working. None of the keys do anything. The mouse won't move. And you forgot to back up your work. Your only option may be to shut off the computer's power, turn it back on, and retype the presentation -- hopefully by 8:00.

Anyone who has spent much time using a computer has experienced this scenario firsthand. Why does it happen? And, more important, what can you do to prevent it from happening again?

When you use a computer, there are two pieces of software working together. The first is the application, such as Microsoft Word or Lotus 1-2-3. This software gives the computer the capability to do your work: text editing, spell checking, numeric calculations, etc.

The second piece of software is the operating system, such as Linux or Windows 98. The operating system runs everything on the computer that is behind the scenes: accepting input from the keyboard, sending data to the modem, storing information on the magnetic disks, etc.

Operating systems also control how and when applications run, and prevent them from bumping into each other.

For a computer to keep running smoothly, both the application and the operating system must work correctly. Since both are software products, they can (and do) have numerous bugs and limitations. An application can stop responding if its program code has gone into an infinite loop, or is trying to do something that cannot be done.

Operating systems can get stuck for many reasons, such as writing garbled information to a disk, allowing two applications to interfere with each other, or sending bad instructions to some part of the computer hardware.

To prevent your computer from locking up at a crucial moment, the following steps usually are effective.

1. Use stable, well-tested software. Buy software from major manufacturers, who have created previous versions of the same product. The first release of a software product often has many bugs, but the fifth release is usually quite reliable. Windows 98, for example, is a high-quality product, because Microsoft has been fixing problems in Windows since 1990. Besides stability, newer versions of software products also are more likely to be compatible with other recent software. The latest web browser from Netscape, for instance, works more reliably with the newest features built into many web sites.

2. Once your computer is working well, leave it alone. Resist the urge to install the latest hardware options, such as a faster processor, or tinker with the operating system's control panel, such as memory settings. If you want to try these activities for fun, do them on a separate computer reserved for experimentation.

3. Use one application at a time. In theory, modern operating systems allow you to perform many operations at once. In practice, computers are less reliable when a lot of complex software is vying simultaneously for the operating system's attention. You are asking for trouble if you print a document from Lotus WordPro, while checking your e-mail at America Online, while inserting a game CD. The overlapping demands on the operating system are likely to expose its bugs and limitations that a single application will not uncover.

4. Don't rush an application. When you become proficient with a software package, it is possible sometimes to type three or four steps ahead of the computer. In Microsoft Word, for example, you can print a long document, then (while still printing) reformat the paragraphs, and (while still reformatting) start to type a new paragraph. In the same way that too many applications can trip up an operating system, too many overlapping commands can trip up an application. Allow one operation to finish before typing the next.

Sometimes, in spite of these precautions, your computer will still freeze or crash at the worst time. The best defense against this inevitability is to make backups early and often. As soon as you start a project, save the files to the hard drive. Resave your work every 10-15 minutes by pressing the SAVE icon in your application. For important projects, keep a backup copy outside of the computer, and refresh this backup every hour. For really important projects, keep a backup in another building. Then, no matter what happens at your house or office, you have a good copy of the big presentation.

(Note: This is the text of my article, as submitted to the Boston Globe. The published version was edited slightly.)

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