Why Do I Have To Reboot My PC So Often?

Why Do I Have To Reboot My PC So Often?

It’s the moment every PC owner dreads — you’ve installed a new program and your computer informs you that you’ll have to reboot before you can run it. Why does that happen so often even in 2010?

Even if you don’t often install new programs, you’ll inevitably encounter reboot requests when your system downloads software updates. On Windows machines, this is supposed to happen once a month on Patch Tuesday (the second Tuesday of the month), though Microsoft often issues “out-of-band” updates for major vulnerabilities. Macs don’t have such a regimented schedule, but still receive regular updates for bug and security fixes. Linux is more variable, but platforms like Ubuntu which also manage application updates will have updates available almost any time you check.

In the area of updates, no platform is entirely immune from the reboot curse (though my own experience is that Linux pulls the trick pretty rarely). Windows cops the brunt of the criticism in this area in part because its popularity mean more people are aware of its foibles. Security researchers and criminals also spend more time trying to identify flaws within the platform, which in turn means updates can be more frequent. Macs don't have the same degree of rebooting insistence, but it's certainly not the case that they are reboot-request free.

But whatever the frequency, why does it happen? The standard answer goes something like this: installers and system software updaters often need to make changes to core operating system files, and they can't do that while the OS itself is in use without impacting on its stability and on programs that are already running. Rebooting lets the changes get made in a safe way without interfering with active tasks. (It also lets system security processes monitor changes to system files to ensure that unauthorised changes aren't made.)

Ideally, you'll always be asked before this happens and be given a chance to defer if you're busy. That said, Windows in particular has a nasty habit of force-installing updates at 3am in the morning without checking if you mind and then presenting you with a rebooted machine that has lost half your work the next morning. We've offered guidance before on how to disable this, but we don't recommend deferring updates indefinitely -- they're a vital and free part of keeping your system secure. We also don't recommend leaving your system for any period of time without saving any work-in-progress files.

Despite improvements in technology, there's no obvious end in sight for the reboot cycle. Microsoft itself has sometimes argued that well-written software shouldn't automatically require a reboot, especially if it follows guidelines for development on newer platforms such as Windows 7.

Yet although it has unrivalled access to Windows code, Microsoft appears to have difficulty practicing what it preaches, and its own software is often amongst the worst offenders, even when it is designed for quite trivial tasks. (The screenshot on this article is a reboot request from the latest version of Windows Live Essentials, for instance.)

Rebooting on Windows 7 is generally a much speedier process than on earlier versions, which can make the process less painful when it does happen. That said, if there's one thing guaranteed to make a reboot feel slower, it's an "Installing update 1 of x" message.

As computer usage moves increasingly into webapps and cloud interfaces, the notion of needing to reboot may seem more and more arcane. However, technology hardly ever runs smoothly, and I'd be very surprised if any device I own doesn't need some sort of restart (forced or otherwise) at some point in its life. In that context, being warned it is about to happen seems like positively good manners.

Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?


  • I think the Windows Live Essentials reboot is only for when your upgrading from the Beta. I had no such request when I installed it for the first time on my laptop, but it asked for a reboot on my desktop which had the Beta installed previously.

    And I don’t think it’s a big deal to have to reboot when upgrading/installing a Beta version. That’s the price you pay for using pre-release software.

  • Other than Windows Updates I’ve found that most software packages that request reboots work perfectly well without them. It’s like they’ve just hardcoded that dialog into the setup code irrespective of whether it’s needed or not.

  • A lot of software requests a reboot to ensure that a service in the background starts with the OS. This is often the case with AV as it has a kernel-level service that has to start with windows.

    I have noticed recently that on Win7 you can install nvidia drivers, WITHOUT rebooting, which is awesome. Glad someone finally figured out how to modularize drivers in such a way that they can be loaded and unloaded on demand.

    • Not sure if you realize this, Since plug and Play, most drivers have always been able to load and unload on demand.

      NVidia have always had start-up items installed with the drivers and have defaulted to (like many other software) reboot to complete installation.

  • One thing about Ubuntu is while it updates often, only a few of them require a reboot.
    When this happens, the shutdown icon in the top right of the screen turns red, and you can just calmly ignore it for quite a while (no irritatingly obvious pop ups or messages appear) and then just shut down the computer in the natural course of events. There’s no “updating updates 1/32” or anything when you boot up next, it just starts normally.

    Incidentally, there’s this thing called Ksplice which apparently allows Linux servers to have their kernel (core OS) updated without a single restart. It seems to be available in the Ubuntu Software Center but I haven’t tried it out.

  • Well… Real operating systems like UNIX anany derivative (Ubuntu, Mint, Fedora,openSUSE, Mac OS X Snow Leopard) are by far a better solution with less “reboots”!!!

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!