Have You Tried Re-booting It?

That’s probably the most common suggestion I make when offering support and advice to my computer clients. But where does the phrase come from? What does it mean?

Dr Martens boot (showing bootstrap)“Booting” or “bootstrapping” is a contraction of the phrase “To pull oneself up by the bootstraps”. Bootstraps are the tags on boots that help you get a better grip on them when pulling them on (see image). The phrase doesn’t refer to pulling your boots on: it refers to actually lifting yourself up by pulling on your bootstraps. This is clearly an impossibility (akin to trying to raise yourself off the ground by pulling your hair upwards). The term “booting” or “booting up” has been in use since the 1950’s in relation to the starting up of computers. The cynical among us may think it appropriate that the very process of getting a computer started has taken on a name derived from something that’s impossible!

What Does It Do?

When a computer is started, a tiny piece of “hard-wired” code is run that then invokes other processes. These processes then invoke others and so on, until all the bits and pieces of software required for the computer’s operation have all been made ready.

The reason that this boot process is necessary is that very nearly everything that is software (drivers, operating system, programs, data) is unavailable when the computer is first switched on. It has to be loaded into memory to be useable. Everything in memory is then lost when the device is switched off. So, the entire process of loading it into memory has to be performed whenever the computer is switched on and that process is initiated by running the one piece of code that doesn’t have to be loaded into memory before it can be run. That piece of code is the “boot code”, and “booting up” means starting everything off by running that boot code.

So, it’s not hard to move on from there to understanding that “re-booting” means “to boot the computer again”. In other words, the entire contents of memory are emptied and everything is loaded back into memory by initialising the boot sequence again.

Why Re-boot?

The most common reason for re-booting is that something in memory has started to misbehave and it can’t be rectified in any other way. For instance, if a program “freezes” (ie becomes unresponsive to commands issued via the keyboard, mouse, or trackpad), it may be impossible to do anything other than re-boot.

In days gone by, another common reason for re-booting was that the computer got slower and slower without actually freezing. This was caused by programs taking more and more of the available memory and then not returning that memory for use by other programs. This is much less of a problem these days. It is now usually possible to run a Windows PC or a Mac for many weeks between re-boots without any noticeable loss of performance.

How Do You Re-boot?

The best way to re-boot is via a “soft re-boot”. This means issuing a command to the operating system, telling it to close everything as if switching off, but then to run the boot process again. This is the preferred method since there is less likelihood of any damage being caused to data files (eg word processing documents, or spreadsheets) that are open at the time of re-booting. This is because all programs and data files are closed in the normal way, in an orderly fashion, before the re-booting takes place. If you start a soft re-boot and the process doesn’t complete, then it may be necessary to perform a hard re-boot. Always try the soft one first.

On a Windows PC the soft re-boot is initiated by clicking on the “Start” button and then looking for “restart” or the restart option of the “close” action (depending on the version of Windows). On a Mac, click on the apple in the top lefthand corner of the screen and then click on the “restart” option.

The power switch on a Samsung RF511 laptopA “hard re-boot” is needed if the computer has become so unresponsive that you can’t perform a soft re-boot. All computers – Macs as well as PCs – can be switched off by depressing the main power switch on the computer and holding it down for five seconds. The computer can then be switched on again in the normal way. But be warned – a hard re-boot is quite drastic. Since the programs weren’t closed in the normal way they may behave unexpectedly when re-started and data files could be corrupted. Only ever perform a hard re-boot when a soft re-boot won’t work.

Other Devices

It’s not just Windows PCs and Macs that need re-booting. Routers often need a re-boot. In fact, re-booting your router should be the first thing to try if your internet connection fails. There is no standard power switch on a router so re-booting is best achieved by pulling out the power cord for a few seconds and then re-connecting it. It may then take a minute or so for the router to boot up and (hopefully) re-connect to the internet. Mobile phones sometimes need re-booting as well. If all else fails, remove the battery, replace it, and switch on again.

There is a rather sardonic myth that computer support consists of just three tactics – the three “R’s” – Re-boot, Re-install, Reformat. As a computer support consultant I’m bound to say that that’s a tad simplistic, but there’s no doubt at all that “re-boot” is by far the most common thing to try first when your computer goes wrong. But please try a SOFT re-boot before resorting to a hard one.