Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Why does IT always tell me to restart my computer? And why does that work?

Today I'm going to reveal one of the most mystifying secrets of the IT Help Desk.  Why does restarting a computer fix 90+% of the issues?

Everyone knows that it works.  Some of the least tech-savvy people I know still will ask "Have you tried restarting it?" every time someone has a problem with a piece of technology.  It was even a running joke on the BBC TV series "The IT Crowd."

So why does it work on everything from your desktop computer to your smartphone, router, television, or alarm clock?

A computer's programming was designed and tested in a specific environment.  The programmer tried to think of every scenario possible to test the programming and eliminate bugs, but it's impossible to account for all the variables that may crop up once the program is released to the public.  Even though the program worked flawlessly on development, when you have it running on a different network, in a different time zone, at a different temperature, or with other programs running simultaneously, sometimes things go wrong.  It's like when you're trying to solve a maze in a puzzle book, sometimes you get stuck in the middle, and it's easier to erase everything (I hope you used pencil!) and start over than to backtrack and figure it out from there.

That's essentially what restarting your computer does.  It's like when you take a nap to clear your head.  Restarting the computer clears out all the temporary storage (usually called RAM, but that's another article) where the computer keeps up with what it's been doing lately.  After a restart this storage is nice and clean and ready to begin it's work fresh.

IT people know that your computer probably just has a small glitch in a program that could probably be fixed without restarting your computer, but it's much easier to tell you to restart your computer than to figure out what minuscule thing went wrong with your program.  We're fairly sure that a restart will probably clear this error out and allow you to complete whatever task you were trying to do.  It's a generic fix for most problems that takes 5 minutes instead of us always jumping to the 20-30 or more minute specific fixes that would otherwise be necessary.  It saves us time, and it gets you back to what you were doing faster.

And now you know why Tech Support's first question is always, "Have you tried restarting it?"