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Reboot or Power Down: Why Do So Many Tech Support Solutions Start with That?

It seems like every time I call the tech support line for my software, operating system, or even my broadband connection, the first thing out of the technician’s mouth is “reboot”. Or worse yet, “Power down for a while.” What does that have to do anything? And why does it work?

It does seem like magic, doesn’t it? The computer’s acting up, you reboot it, and poof, things are better again. At least for a while.

It gets even weirder when you achieve the same effect just by powering it all down and pulling the cord for a while.

A friend of mine once provided a nice explanation for the power scenario, and I can speak a little bit to the magical mess that is software.

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Turning it off and then on again is perhaps the most effective hardware troubleshooting technique known. Rebooting is similar with software. Both hardware and software can sometimes get into odd, unexpected states that only a complete restart from a known good state can resolve.

Turn it off and back on again

Healthy Computer Jerrold Foutz is a friend who’s an expert in the design of power supplies. Some years ago, he provided an interesting write up on unplugging the power as perhaps the single most effective electronics-troubleshooting technique.1

The topic came up in a discussion when I recommended power-cycling a router — unplugging it, waiting 30 seconds, and then plugging back in — as a way to resolve a connectivity problem.

The fact is, electronic components can get into odd states, and as Jerry points out, power-cycling the equipment forces the equipment to reset and restart from a known good state.

The same is true for software.

When in doubt, reboot

Complicated software (and what software isn’t complicated these days?) involves lots of things on your computer. The longer it runs, the more it impacts.

Memory is used, released, and fragmented. Same for the disk, as programs open, read, and write local and temporary files. And then there’s the hardware — video cards, networking adapters, mice, keyboards, other peripherals — all accessed continuously.

As a result, any of those (and perhaps all of them) can end up in states that can cause problems.

It shouldn’t be that way, of course, and the inherent quality of the software and/or hardware plays a huge role, but the bottom line is, it happens. Software can get confused over time.

And those technicians who ask you to reboot your device? They do so because it works more often than you imagine.

Starting over

A reboot restores all the software to a known state.

Power-cycling restores all the hardware to a known state.

Well, a mostly known state. Temporary files, installed files, registry changes, and more will remain. That’s why in extreme cases, a reformat and reinstall is a recommended solution for some computers: it returns even those things to a known state.

The router problem that started this discussion? Like many devices these days, routers are small single-purpose computers. Their internal memory tracks a variety of information relating to the network connections they manage.

The longer they run, the more likely it is something will create a problem. It could be hardware related, as explained in Jerry’s article, or something in its software, as I’ve outlined above.

In any case, I typically reboot my own router every few months.

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Footnotes & References

1: Literally unplugging the device. Leaving it physically plugged and just flipping a power switch instead often does not remove power from absolutely everything.

65 comments on “Reboot or Power Down: Why Do So Many Tech Support Solutions Start with That?”

  1. I retired a few year ago from a tv repair store. One of my most memorable puzzles was a tv that would work in my shop but not at the customers home. After two or three sessions at my store, the customer took the tv home and, on a whim, used a polarity checker on his ac outlet. Sure enough, the wiring was backward, neutral and hot were reversed. He corrected the wiring and it fixed his problem. He was kind enough to tell me about it. To this day, I dont understand how, with bridge circuits, reverse wiring could affect the power supply in the tv.
    But it did! Perhaps it could cause problems in computer products too.

  2. when I was a boy tv reception sometimes would improve if I reversed the plug. this works on radio too. Todaymost appliances and plugs are polarized to prevent the mismatch of wires. but wrong connections can cause a degrarded signal. From an Electrician

    • Many of the old TVs and Radios had a design called hot chassis. The internal chassis the held everything was actually connected to one of the power terminals. That means that the power and return lines to the outlet could bring in radio/TV signals into the chassis. Changing which one was connected could change the reception.

  3. Re: “reboot” or “turn it off”, how does “restart” differ from “reboot”?

    Restart typically means reboot.

    – Leo
  4. Leo, would you say a “turn-off” (where you use the Turn Off button, wait a few minutes while PC is shut down, and then power up again) is better than a mere “reboot” (where the actual shutdown period is very brief) in correcting some PC issues? Thanks.

    Yes. Turn off removes power from many of your computer’s components, putting them in a more definitive initial state. In worst case situations “pull the plug” is also included, because on some computers turning off doesn’t actually turn off absolutely everything.


    • Turning off a computer definitely doesn’t turn everything off on your computer in many cases. I’ve had the LED lights on things plugged into USB ports stay lit when the computer is shut down. I even had one computer which would turn itself on automatically a while after shutting down.

      Other than that computer that turned itself back on, simply running the shutdown procedure was enough to fix most problems. To deal with the computer which turned itself back on, I plugged it into an extension cord with a power switch and turned it off after shutting down the computer.

    • Never, EVER unplug a computer again it’s still on — those are your instructions, Leo, not mine! — because doing so can cause data corruption. Instead, first shut down the computer, so that it exits all applications and writes all pending data to disk in an orderly fashion, and then unplug it!

  5. Read your article with interest, surely you must advice to “CLOSE DOWN” computer in the normal way first NOT just turn OFF and unplug. As I was advised always close down before you unplug computers.

    • I’ve noticed that pressing the power button on most modern computers doesn’t cut the power. It starts the proper shutdown procedure. To bypass that and kill the power requires holding the power button a number of seconds. Don’t do that unless all else fails or else you risk losing data.

  6. Yep. From the link: “Using the off/on switch or normal software shutdown will cure more than 90 percent of the problems, but not all of them. After turning off the computer, you need to pull the plug from the wall…”

    You can set the power button on most PCs (my experience through Win7; YMMV) to politely shut down the computer, so do that or the software shutdown, then pull the plug.

  7. I’ve worked on mainframe computers for over 35 years and we are *not* in the habit of turning them off and then back on in order to make them work. That applies to the various IBM, SPERRY-UNIVAC, and RCA mainframes that I have worked on.

    Imagine, if you will, what chaos would ensue if real computers acted like this – banks, brokerage firms, governments would all just shut down until the re-boot was completed.

  8. Keep in mind that the PC’s power profile (under screen saver) has settings for what happens when you close a lid on a laptop. It also has settings for what happens when you press the power button. It may be set to sleep, hibernate or shutdown and if it is set to other than shutdown, you will not get the benefits of a restart or even a logoff (will not go back to a known state- the problem will still be there)

  9. I work in the field of electronic security. One of the problems we encounter is induced power surges. Microprocessors and transistors are DC devices. These surges can and do shut down systems which dont have computers running them.

    When a lightning strike occurs the air is filled with static electricity which is why UPS systems exist for when you get a power fail or brown out. Very often power surges affect electronic devices and cause static or “hash”. This can be in the form of an AC surge. If the computers microprocessor detects such a surge it will shut down, ditto any device which has a microprocessor.

    As surges etc are momentary occurances removing the power makes the problem go away, the device will in effect forget the problem and restart. There’s no memory of ther problem in ther CPU etc so it starts up again. Thats why a restart as opposed to a shutdown and reboot are different. The problem could still be present.

    Surges or induced AC can be simply caused by having a mains power power cord tied up with a VGA cable or a mouse cable. The AC field around a 230vac mains cable can be anything up to 1 metre ( 3 feet in old money ) around the cable in any direction.

    Surges and spikes can occur simply by switching on a light or another electrical device. Computers being the little darlings that they are have many devices which can “hang” in the same way as if they had be hit by a surge or spike.

    So restarting from “cold” i.e. power down and restart is very often the only way to clear the problem. The big concern of course is that it actaully hasnt fixed the problem, just merely ignored it for the time being. It will happen again.

    Whatever you do don’t bundle mains cables with periferall ones, keep them apart and never coil cables, you are just making a large electric coil.

    Keep it clean and tidy !!

    • The MAIN problem with power induced errors is what is called a “flipped bit”. Computers are very DUMB devices. All they know is the difference between a binary 1 and a binary 0 – basically a switch that is either on or off. Depending on the circuitry, the difference between a 1 and a 0 can be a matter of a fraction of a volt – 0 is 0 volts, and 1 is 5 volts, for instance, in a TTL circuit. So what is 2.3 volts? – or 2.6? These can be called ambiguous states – and interference can cause a bit to either be “ambiguous” or “flipped” Flipped is when what should be a 0 is read as a 1 because the voltage caused by the interference made that bit go high enough to no longer be “ambiguous” – and it was mis-read.

      Another problem is a “shift”
      This is a “timing” issue where the “clock” of the computer is interfered with and it “misses” a bit – so it is reading the wrong bit. Hexadecimal is “base 16” – so each “word” is made up of 16 logical bits. If the “word” is supposed to be 1100110011001100 and it slips a bit, the word becomes 1010101010101010 – which is a TOTALLY different “word – and the next one is ALSO wrong. Some programming can determine when the code is corrupted and “retry” – based on what is called a cyclic redundancy check or CRC code.
      The only way to cure some of these issues is to remove all power from the system to reset EVERY bit to a known state – then restart.
      Another problem is a “stuck bit” or a “hang”. This is a HARDWARE problem, generally – where a device – whether a memory cell or a “gate” or “counter” or “register” sticks due to overheating, static electricity charge, or device deterioration (leaky capacitance, high or low resistance, etc).
      Sometimes rebooting or powering down will temporarily “unstick” the bit allowing the device (computer) to function again – at least temporarily.

      • I really appreciate your through explanation of the hardware issues. Even among educated software engineers this is territory out in the fringes. Well done!

  10. Yesterday I had a problem with my NEXTBOX (Cable TV): The screen went blank; couldn’t put the power off from the remote or the power button on the box. I unplug my it and reconnected it. It reboot itself; and everything was find.

  11. i have my PC tower, printer, TV and cable box all hooked up to a surge protector power strip which is plugged into an outlet connected to a wall switch. every night i turn off the wall switch. according to this article i`m doing a good thing. am i right?

  12. Just to confirm Mike’s comments, while clicking ‘Restart’ does re-boot the computer, you should ‘Shutdown’ and wait e.g. 30 secs before re-starting to properly clear memory.

    Does the advice to ‘remove the power cord’ mean that some parts of the machine are still powered even when turned off?

  13. And of course there is the opposite issue.
    I shut down, turned off power supply, and unplugged.
    Then opened the desktop’s case, and noticed almost no dust. I blew some air around with a vacuum cleaner, anyway.
    Closed the case, repowered, and restarted.
    No ethernet.
    Restarted again, and ethernet returned.
    Maybe humidity was too low, and static hit the ethernet circuitry.

  14. This is one of the best reasons to just get in the habit of turning your computer off when you’re done working for the day.
    Why wait for trouble to happen?
    Many a self inflicted computer problem has been caused by people troubleshooting problems that could have been easily solved with a reboot.

  15. R Taylor: Yes, sadly there is no shortage of LICENSED electricians who do, indeed, fail to properly follow NEMA polarity for wiring installations. I’ve encountered that so much and for my own onsite work, I’ve had to carry my own self-made adaptors to overcome those mistakes.

    Which leads me to Lou Bush’s comment about why it can still affect equipment, even with isolation transformers, bridge rectifiers, AND forced ground. You already know that simple 120v AC is not necessarily 0v at neutral, and 120v at maximum. It could “float” from 5v neutral to 125v maximum and still be 120v AC. Because of that potential shock hazard, equipment today must be force grounded at neutral. That solves the shock hazard, but if there is still a long distance for the true ground, audio and video can still pick up a “ground wave” from a wiring reversal and be introduced into the equipment by the chassis ground, bypassing the transformer and bridge circuit. In fact, lifting the ground will often remove the problem, although it does violate the safety aspect.

  16. @Ken R. …yes the power cord must be detached from most desktops in order to completely remove all power usage. My PC has 3 USB ports that stay hot even after I have turned the PC off.
    Unplugging your power cord for a minute or two allows the residual power to drain from the system.

  17. And for a laptop, you need to disconnect the battery. Even more important really since any users just put the laptop into sleep mode! It will be interesting to see how Windows 8 copes with more sleep and less shutdown !

  18. I get a good number of systems that come that have a power issue and when power cable is disconnected for a while the system boots clean and works ok for a time.
    I find this to be caused by generic or cheap build PSU’s. I put it down to dirty voltage and these cheaper PSU’s cannot feed clean stable voltage to the components.
    When ever I build a new system or replace a failed or faulty PSU I always install a good quality one.
    They might be more expensive but are much better in the long run as they deliver clean stable voltage to the components so you get better performance and longevity from the system overall.
    I also suggest for folks who use the PC a lot or for work to invest in a UPS with surge protection.

  19. I turn off my power strips to all my computing equipment at last once a week for an hour or more. If I’m having glitches anytime the first thing I do is power off and reboot. 95% of the time that takes care of it.

  20. @Ken R
    There are sometimes parts of the machine receiving power when the machine is off and it’s still plugged in. This is often visible in the form of LEDs that remain lit when the power is turned off. I’ve had the LEDs in devices plugged into the USB ports stay lit after powering down the machine. That indicates the USB ports are still receiving power.

  21. The very fact that most varieties of PCs have “SOFT” switches points to there being degrees of residual power present, when apparently switched “OFF”.

    Take my Tower PC, after connecting mains to it, I simply press the built-in SOFT Switch to BOOT it.

    However, unlike a lamp or similar, I do not press that “SOFT” Switch when allegedly “switching OFF”.

    I simply select “Power Down” or similar; and never touch that SOFT Switch at any point.

    So there must still be power somewhere on the PC, as pressing that SOFT Switch restarts it.

    It is more complex if one has to press and hold-down that switch, when the PC will not shut-down conventionally.

    But all those variants do point to having to unplug the power cable and/or switching off “at the wall”, to completely remove the power from a PC; and in the case of Laptops etc, the battery has to be disconnected, as others have stated.

  22. Yes, ditto this advice from Leo. There are so many little things that could have gotten “out of kilter,” you may as well begin your diagnostic/repair procedures with a reboot and/or a power cycle.

    I learned this the hard way once as Windows simply would not start. I rebooted several times and eventually even restored all my Windows-related directories, but to no avail.

    Frustrated, tired, and wondering what to do next, I gave the whole thing a break, meaning I just shutdown the system and stepped away for a while. A short time later, although I had no new ideas other than possibly re-installing the OS, to my tremendous surprise and relief, Windows simply started right up as if nothing had ever happened, and I never experienced that elusive problem again.

    So, what I learned from this: Particularly since a cold start (power cycle) is so easy to do, if a simple reboot doesn’t do the trick, then consider cycling the power. Even if it doesn’t work, since it takes just a few moments, you might as well try it.

  23. One additional note to the comments above. Sometimes a reboot is needed when the system has downloaded loaded and partially installed an upgrade package. Many have systems set this function to auto and forget that our computers are doing things in the background.

  24. I’ve been told to shut down, disconnect the power cord and press the Start button, which discharges capacitors and flushes persistent caches. When I disconnect and press Start, I notice a tiny blip of lights, which means that something is still charged up.

    I have no idea whether this works, but it’s easy and Cuddnt Hoit.

  25. As a technician, I’m trained to start with the simplest possible solution first. Faced with the prospect of reinstalling Windows from scratch, having to back up all the data, and get all the icons “just right” for some of my very very picky clients, I will have them turn off the computer. A common technique to ensure this happens is to have them check that the “power cables aren’t loose”. Turn off the computer properly, unplug the power from the wall, blow on the prongs to remove any loose dust that might have gotten on it, then plug it back in”. Is it working now? Great. Call me back if it happens again.

  26. Glen said:
    “i have my PC tower, printer, TV and cable box all hooked up to a surge protector power strip which is plugged into an outlet connected to a wall switch. every night i turn off the wall switch. according to this article i`m doing a good thing. am i right?”
    I do likewise at home and work with no ill effects. I am an electronic technologist for 3 decades.

  27. I have had two different laptops (a Toshiba and a Dell) become “unbootable”. Nothing seemed to get them to turn on.

    In both cases the solution was to remove the power cord and battery for a couple of minutes, then press and hold down the power/start button for 15 seconds or so, then reassemble and start up again. It worked.

  28. Here at work we have a SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition system). Periodically the two servers on the system will hang and stop working and the only solution is to reboot them. I’ve been told by my IT support that “servers” should not have to be rebooted. Do “servers” have the same hang-up problems as computers and require the periodic “reboot”?

  29. About the time he went on sabbatical, Leo posted an article explaining that servers are nothing but computers dedicated to a specific task. You could probably do a search on Ask Leo to find the article.

    Servers are subject to the same type of hang-up problems as any other computer. How often they may need to be rebooted depends on factors such as their purpose, usage, and what programs they run.

  30. Strange enough I have a workmate who never switches off his laptop. For me, if I take mine from work to home, or from home to work, without switching it off completely, I get problems which can only be solved by shutting down and starting again.

  31. This applied to my Internet/clock radio which out of the blue would not recognize that it was plugged into an electric outlet. It fell back to the internal battery and after a period of inactivity the battery shuts the thing down. Long story short, all it needed was to be rebooted.

  32. I have a virus/malware called Phython27.DLL I’ve seen it comes with Uniblue\SpeedUpMyPC\ I’ve been on google which has answers plus downloads which i’ve carefully selected but i’ve tried them all, (system restore the lot). Nothing has worked and to make it worse it’s knocked out my firewall/Windows Deafender and as above systems restore along with Windows Updates email settings you name it. Any help would be very wellcome.

  33. I have a E Machines computer that is about 8 years old. It was originally programmed with Windows XP but a couple years ago it crashed and as I live in Mexico, I had it re-programmed with a Mexican version of Windows 7. It worked fine for a while, but after a while the internet wouldnt work on it. It connects fine for about 10 minutes or so then gets slower and slower and finally freezes up. I tried two different services and it made no difference. When I disconnect the internet it works fine for other functions such as typing, etc. Lately when I turn it on the screen is red as if like the old TV’s the blue and green color guns have gone out. My question is, what would be the problem and is it worth getting fixed or should I retire it to the scrap heap?

    • The screen is likely a hardware problem, and yes – replacing it is really the only option. Hard to say on the computer itself. That could easily be software. I’d be tempted to backup and then do a clean reinstall of Windows,

  34. I keep reading, and some of you say it here, that you must unplug the computer “from the wall.” HP said the same thing about recycling my printer. Why is this better than just disconnecting the power cord from the device, which is a heck of a lot easier (for me, anyway)? (Obviously, applies to non-battery-operated devices only.)

    • Power cord from the device is fine, assuming it’s just straight wire. If there’s a transformer or “brick” in the line, you want that unplugged to reset as well.

  35. Hi Leo – I am a long time subscriber/member/user/reader, whatever you prefer to call those of us who value your articles.

    BUT – I am frustrated by the fact that comments at the end of the articles are oldest first. This means that, taking this one as an example, the first ones I see are from 2005 – 15 years ago! They may not even be relevant where you have updated the article. Could you please consider reversing the comments so we see latest first?

    Many thanks and carry on the good work!

    • There’s no “right” answer to this. MOST websites do it in ascending order, as I do. If I changed it people that jump to the bottom for the most recent would be annoyed. I can’t win this one. Smile

      • “…I can’t win this one.”

        You don’t have to. Just create a web page control that allows the individual user to choose whether replies are displayed oldest-first, or newest-first (i.e., in ascending or descending order by date).

        Sheesh, Leo — did I really need to point out something so obvious…?

        • If it were as simple as adding such a control to my CMS, I’d consider it. Right now it’s a global setting, but not something that’s easy (at all) to set per-user preference. It also breaks caching (or at least doubles it). As I said, I simply went with the way that the vast majority of sites do it.

          So, even in not winning, I can’t win. Smile

        • All this complaining because someone doesn’t want to scroll down to the bottom of the page? This is a perfect opportunity to say “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. Yes, any change won’t be easy, will create new bugs, someone else will not like it, and Leo will be the loser again. Personally, I like having the old stuff to review. Sometimes I find that my thoughts about a topic have already been expressed a few years ago, or I’ve find some solution or words of wisdom in the old posts.

  36. I worked as a “Senior Tech” in several electronic and computer companies, before jumping to software to spend several more years as a software programmer/ developer. And with that, I and my co-workers often suffered from misconceptions about some of the problems we would run into.

    So, a few comments on this subject and the comments:c
    1. Many/most/all(?) of modern electronics are “instant on”, so power is present even when the device is turned “off”.
    2. Software and apps on the desktop/ laptop are not all written by “profecient” people. Some carry sloppy habits with them from employer to employer. So “sloppy” programming can cause or aggravate problems with the computer operation.
    3. There was a rumor at one time that Microsoft “sorry Leo” discouraged the use of one command in the languages used for Windows and apps. That command was generally used at the end of an app, when it was about to close, and would return the allotted memory back to the Heap (the unused memory available for the use of the system and other apps). It wouldn’t take many calls to some subroutines or apps to reduce available memory to the point where the computer just doesn’t work.
    4. What ever happened to the on/off switch that used to be on the power supply? 🙂
    5. I’m typing this on a Kindle Fire HD8. I can’t seem to find out how to turn off the auto spell-check. Sloppy programming? Or deliberate sabotage?
    6. Does anyone remember a Grandma keeping blown light bulbs in the socket so the electricity wouldn’t run out on the floor? 🙂

    Talked enough.

  37. I learned the value of power cycling many years ago. I was working at a TV station as a maintenance tech. We had one of the early character generators. It developed a problem. We wound up on the phone with the factory for half a day but to no avail. They tried everything they knew. Finally, out of frustration, we decided to go at again in the morning. We turned the machine off for the night. In the morning we powered it back up. Presto! Everything worked perfectly from then on.

  38. I would like to verify what Leo (and others) have said, using yesterday’s experience. For a few days my Epson L3150 printer was playing up, printing one page then losing connection etc. Then eventually the computer couldn’t find the printer. Then no printers at all would appear (not even Windows 10 built-in pdf printer, just a completely blank list). Contacted MS support, but just as she started asking me questions about the problem, I realized I hadn’t tried a restart. So I said I’d try this first – and everything worked perfectly afterwards, problem solved! So, thanks for the reminder Leo.

  39. Yeah, I can see why some do some very basic stuff like reboot or power down and the like as… some odd years ago a older 36″ TV it was having issues (I don’t remember the exact issue it had at the moment) and simply removing the power plug, waiting a bit (maybe some odd minutes or longer), then plugging it back in solved it. I was surprised that worked which is why after that happened, every once in a while ill do a full power down (like unplug power, wait a couple of minutes or so, and power it back on) of certain devices I own for good measure to potentially minimize any odd-ball quirks from turning up.

    like on the PC, which I typically leave running 24/7, I power down and unplug it(or equivalent) and wait a couple of minutes every once in a while even though I typically just do a standard power down, wait maybe 10-20 seconds, and power it back on. but every once in a while ill power down and remove all power going to the computers motherboard (which I got connected to one of those power centers where you simply flip a switch and it’s like unplugging the device) and wait a minute or two and power back on.

    but I think when it comes to the very simple things to try, it just tends not to cross peoples minds to try because we just assume it’s never THAT easy. like I imagine some people when using a lawn mower for example, if the gas runs out, they tend to assume there is a real problem with it and that there being no gas in the lawn mower just never crosses their mind. hell, come to think of it, a somewhat of a similar thing happened when I was replacing a power-supply on my computer about 10 years ago… I replaced the dead one with a brand new one and went to power up and nothing happened and for a bit I was getting upset (like that sinking feeling that’s not the fix) and then I suddenly realized I simply forgot to flip the power switch on the back of the PSU to the on position and then everything was great. 😉

    another thing came to mind recently… my moms Samsung smart phone was acting up, like WiFi was out of whack (like it was disabled and could not turn on etc) and rebooting it did not seem to do anything as it was freezing etc. so I basically removed the battery from the phone waited some odd seconds and put it back in and it seemed okay for a little while but I think it was maybe 24 hours later or so it was acting weird again at which point I removed the battery and waited something like a few minutes and put the battery back into the phone and ‘so far’ the issue has not returned.

    another thing, but in relation to a simple reboot… when updating my GPU driver on Linux Mint not all that long ago now, while it updated, I did not yet reboot (so it was not fully into effect) and Steam would simply not load up. but after a reboot, everything was working fine again. but I kind of figured when I spotted the Steam issue that a reboot would most likely fix it since I knew the GPU driver update was not fully into effect.

    so I think for anyone who’s messed with electronics for a while there is a decent chance they might have stumbled into a situation where removing the power and waiting a while before plugging power back in fixed something or another.


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