They Told Me My PC Crashed – What Does That Actually Mean?

From the viewpoint of a user:

It started out as a normal working day. I stopped for coffee on the way in, grabbed a Danish too, as long as I was already at the coffee shop, and went to the office, sat at my desk and turned my computer on.

Nothing. Not a peep, a beep or a click. A few seconds later, a strange looking screen apparently written in some long-lost alien language had some reference to a missing operating system. Yikes!

Immediately I called our IT Support desk and told them about the weird language on the screen. The voice on the other end said just one word.


This is not what I wanted to hear. Support went on to say that a tech would be over as soon as possible to deal with this. In the meantime, take a break.

10 minutes later, the tech arrived, did a quick check and confirmed what I had said. He looked me straight in the eyes and said those terrible 3 words:

“Your computer crashed”.

He unplugged the whole thing and took it away, apparently to be returned to its alien homeland. A replacement would be installed later today, but until then I would not have any access.

So what does that all mean? I heard no crash-like noises, no screeching of tires or squeal of brakes. But we’ve all heard that term sometime. I wanted to know exactly what that meant besides simply telling me that my computer was now a boat anchor.”

The phrase “computer crash” seems to come from the early days of computer hard drives, which spin like hyperactive records and have magnetic sensors that float just barely over the surface, literally closer than the width of a human hair. If a problem occurs that causes that sensor (they call it a “head”) to actually touch the surface of the spinning disk, the disk and probably the head are both destroyed. The head “crashed” into the spinning disk which makes the computer fail. The term stuck.

Since then, the term has expanded to cover just about any situation where the hardware or the programming do something that makes the computer unusable. So now you have a “program crash”, a “drive crash” and a “memory crash” along with a slew of other “crashes”.

Even though our technology is amazingly powerful, it is surprisingly fragile. A tiny error in a program, maybe a misplaced comma or incorrect formula, can cause a program to do completely unexpected things. A slight pause in power can turn a spinning disk that contains all of your data, your pictures of the last 10 years, your tax returns and banking information, into a useless and unreadable device.

If this happens, you might not be totally out of luck. If a program went wild and caused your PC to “freeze”, you can probably shut down and turn it back on again. More often than not, you will be back in business. Then you just get rid of the offending program or call the support line. Sometimes, restarting does not help. If that happens, you’ll need to get with your support person right away.

If your hard drive has failed, the data might be recoverable. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it might be expensive. Recovering data from a crashed hard drive can cost anywhere from $500 to thousands. Whether or not you go that far depends on how badly you need that data. Even if you do spend a few thousand dollars to recover the data, there is no guarantee that it will be intact.

Did someone say “backups”?

So that’s what a “crash” is and what you can expect if it happens to you. Take a few minutes or more to find out if you are prepared for this potentially business-ending event!

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