System crashes are most commonly are caused by hard drives, RAM, and power supplies. Before you replace any hardware or drive yourself crazy troubleshooting, give the system a once-over: Make sure all connections to all drives are tight, the power supply is firmly plugged in, and all cards and RAM boards are seated properly. Sounds obvious, but these are common problems.
If, after checking these connections, the system still won't boot, here are some other hardware options:
Hard Drives: Identifying problems on a hard drive before they happen involves a bit of voodoo. Luckily, most major manufacturers offer hard-drive diagnostic tools on their sites, and that's a good place to start. For another option, TACHtech Corp. offers a sprawling community site that includes a list of common manufacturers and their respective hard-drive utilities. Yet another option is to use SpinRite (discussed above) to run the hard drives through a series of checks to identify and correct issues.
If you suspect (or the disk check has confirmed) that the hard drive has bad sectors, then get all data off the drive as quickly as possible and install a new drive. While modern drives can work around bad sectors, new hard drives with enormous capacity are now so cheap, there's no excuse for not replacing a questionable disk.
RAM: The quickest way to check to see if a system's memory is working properly is to right click on My Computer, select Properties, and then click on the General tab. If you’ve confirmed that the RAM is seated correctly, but the amount of memory displayed doesn’t match up to what you believe you have installed, a more thorough test is needed.
One useful (and free) tool for doing that is the Memtest86, which can be downloaded and burnt as a bootable disk. This will do a very thorough check of the RAM in the system and will return pages of extremely detailed logs. Although Memtest86 may be overkill for basic troubleshooting, it’s certainly informative.
Power Supplies: Both sporadic crashing and a complete failure to power up can be caused by a power supply that's either going bad or is simply overtaxed. With power-hungry motherboards, drives, and audio/video cards becoming the norm, this is becoming a common problem. In general, you should be safe replacing any old power supply with a new one that supplies 350 or 400 watts. But check first with the manufacturers of the components you’re using for specific guidelines.
Full OS Reinstall Shortcuts
A full OS reinstall tends to be a last resort, although some users swear by a fresh install a couple of times a year! Getting the environment just right—with all applications, settings, and data back the way your customer wants—is the time-consuming part.
One alternative to starting completely fresh with a reinstall is using an application such as Norton Ghost to essentially create a clone of the hard drive. Though Ghost is overkill for people with just a computer or two at the home or office, it's worthwhile for system builders who are building many similar or identical systems. Ghost retails for about $70.
Another shortcut: Pull some of the system's configuration settings from an old restore point on the machine. For help with this, Digtalwebcast.com offers this tutorial, Windows XP Crashed? Here's Help. This article shows how to retain as much of the customized user attributes (profiles, applications, etc.) as possible. Be aware that this might not be the correct solution for you—especially if you suspect the system's Registry may be at the root of the problem. But the article might also save you some headaches the next time you want to start fresh with a clean install of XP.
If you followed the steps and advice in this Recipe, and you've visited the links and read through the articles I've recommended, you need never again be intimidated by the dreaded Blue Screen of Death.
PETER HAGOPIAN is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer who's been covering technology and music for more than a decade.