Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for my weekly newsletter, "Confident Computing", for more solutions you can use to make your life easier. Click here.

How Do I Shut Down a Machine with No Display?

//
My computer is on an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), but its screen is not. When the power goes out and only the computer is running I have no way of seeing what’s on the screen, so I have no way to safely turn off the machine. Is there some way I can?

Honestly, that’s a tough situation unless you plan ahead for it.

The good news is that if you can plan ahead, there are several reasonable approaches to getting that machine shut down cleanly.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

Put the monitor on the UPS

I assume there’s some reason you can’t, but the simplest solution is to make sure the monitor is also plugged into the UPS. Then, when the power goes down, you’ll have both computer and screen running, and can see enough to shut down the computer properly.

The downside is that screens take power — sometimes a fair amount. When your computer is running on the back-up power supplied by the UPS, it won’t run as long, since the computer plus the monitor will drain the UPS’s battery faster than the computer alone.

UPSI have at least one machine in my basement configured exactly this way: I want to maximize its run time on battery backup, so I purposely don’t plug the monitor into the same UPS.

Remote access

My approach to that machine is to connect to it using remote access from one of my other machines.

I have my local network configured to stay running during a power outage by having my routers and access points on the UPS instead of, say, that extra monitor. Then I can easily connect to the machine remotely using a laptop — which, when you think about it, has a built in UPS by virtue of its battery.

The remote access technology varies. I use Microsoft’s Remote Desktop client, or Team Viewer, or some other kind of remote access tool. I’ve even done remote shutdowns via the Windows Command Prompt.

Mobile remote access

This is one I’ve done while away from home. I happen to use TeamViewer, but there are other alternatives as well. Using my smartphone, I can connect to my home PCs and do just about anything … including turning them off.

It’s not a solution for really using the computer for anything significant via your mobile phone’s small screen (though I admit I’ve done that, too, in a pinch), but it’s perfect for just hitting the Start menu and the Shutdown option.

This option, in particular, requires that your network equipment as well as the modem be on your UPS, so in the event of a power outage, your network keeps operating. (It also requires that whatever caused your power to fail did not also impact your internet connection.)

Let the UPS do it

Many, if not most, uninterruptible power supplies have the ability to connect to your computer via USB specifically for this scenario.

When the power fails, the UPS notifies the computer. Software on the computer — sometimes built into the OS, sometimes software that comes with the UPS — then decides what to do and when. Typically, you can configure a delay, so after some time running on battery, the software can shut down the computer cleanly on your behalf.

When all else fails

Unfortunately, if you’ve not prepared ahead, all you can really do is long-press the power button.

It’s definitely not ideal, but it’s marginally better than an unscheduled shutdown when the UPS runs out of power.

Podcast audio

Play

30 comments on “How Do I Shut Down a Machine with No Display?”

  1. “Remote Access”

    I use TightVNC to generally operate (and shut down) a desktop PC on my LAN. (Its primary function is as a file server to my other machines, so I don’t really have a need for it to have a monitor of its own). (File server duties, but on a Home Edition of Windows).

    I’ve always wondered about the security implications of using any kind of VNC software on my LAN though. Question is: Is it safe? What about unauthorised access to it from outside of my LAN?
    I am behind a router-based hardware firewall, but wouldn’t mind my concerns (if there are any) laid to rest.

    Anything I need to be concerned about?

    Many thanks in advance.

    • If you’re behind a router the only access you need to worry about are from other machines on your local network. If that’s a problem VNC can be configured to encrypt and require a password for access.

  2. On my desktop, pressing the On/Off button starts the Windows shutdown procedure. I can see a potential problem doing that without a screen as you can’t be sure it’s shutting down correctly, but I guess I’d know if everything got dark and quiet on the machine 🙂 .

      • I tried this in Windows 10 with a Word document in progress, my email client and web browser open.

        Ctrl + Alt + Del

        When I rebooted the computer, Word opened with the document that I was working on without loss of data. I opened the email client and all previously open emails were opened.

        The web browser (Firefox) is set to delete history when closed. When opened, the history had been deleted properly.

        • Some programs shut down properly when Windows closes. Programs which have changes which need to be saved ask if you want to save the changes. If you can’t respond, you can’t save the changes and the machine won’t shut down. A forced shutdown will close the programs without saving the changes.

  3. Leo,
    Reunning Windows 7 Pro. I figured if I press the Win Logo (on keyboard), then Right Arrow, Right Arrow, then U (for Shut Down, the underlined keyboard shortcut. Then Enter.
    Thanks,
    Jim

    • That doesn’t work on Windows 10, or at least, my Windows 10. But the problem is the same as with pressing the shutdown button. You can’t confirm if a program asks you to save the changes and you can lose a lot of data.

  4. isn’t the point of a UPS (for most people) is to buy you time too shut down your computer? If so, then option number 1 seems the simplest to me: plug the monitor into the UPS. The extra power drained from the battery with the monitor can’t be that significant for the time it takes to save your work and shut down the computer.

      • If you’re not able to get to your computer soon after the power dies, you probably won’t be in time to shut down the machine. And if you were away from the machine when the power died, I hope you closed all of your programs when you stepped away. It’s definitely a good practice to close all of the programs you are working on (not necessarily browsers, media players or other programs which consume but don’t create content) when you step away for an extended time. It can mitigate a lot of the damage in a power out situation.

        • That’s why I mention the USB cable. My UPS will tell my machine to clean shutdown if it’s been running on battery too long (similar to a laptop). Won’t save documents, but as you say, not only should you not leave with documents open, getting into the habit of CTRL+S every so often helps a lot as well.

      • If you’re concerned that the additional battery drain caused by keeping a monitor on the UPS will kill the UPS before you get to the machine, leave the monitor unplugged (or plugged into an unprotected source). When you do get to the machine, plug the monitor in for the shut-down steps.

  5. Why no mention of shutting down from a command prompt? My computers are set up with a keyboard shortcut to open a command prompt. (E.g., Windows-Shift-6 if it’s the 6th item pinned to the taskbar in Windows 7).

    Then you can type in shutdown with the appropriate options (/h or /s, etc.) to shut it down, all without seeing the screen.

  6. Hi Leo
    On my WXP through W10 with a lost screen display:

    Hold and press (r)
    That opens the command line
    Then type
    shutdown -f -s
    Press

    I did not notice this being mentioned.
    Programs are forced to close and then the computer shuts down.
    You are right: The best way is with a UPS and USB cable. I get several power hits or brownouts every day and the UPS takes over-double safety. That’s another topic.
    Thank you
    Theo

  7. Bottom line. To mitigate data loss, hit CTRL+S often. It saves your work in most programs. In any programs which have an auto-save function, set that time interval low. For example, I set my MS-Office to “save AutoRecover information every 1 minute”. Computers are fast enough now a days, you won’t notice anything slowing down during the save.

  8. I now use as many bits of software as I can which auto-save or better still work online, so that the change I just made is committed to the online store within seconds. Some especially examples :
    Notepad++ : even if you open a new window and paste in something, then power down, it recovers the data correctly
    (I actually cannot think of another piece of software that does this, but I think it should be the standard !)
    Google documents – occasionally struggles with poor connections, but I use this for most things now by default
    Microsoft office online – useful for specific formats where changing to different software will break something

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.