Why Does My Computer Restart When I Plug In A USB Device?

A reader has an issue with USB devices. Specifically, their system sometimes restarts when they plug something into a USB port. On a scale of one to "that's not good", we're a lot closer to the right side than the left, but there a few tricks they can try to hopefully get a little relief.

My computer probably shouldn't be randomly resetting, right?

Lifehacker reader LichelMaforge writes:

"For years I've been building PCs. They have all worked pretty flawlessly, but they also generally all have this one minor flaw: Sometimes and very seldomly when I plug in a USB device it seems like I'm shorting out the system and it reboots. Help me figure out why!" 

I'll admit, this one has me scratching my head a bit. My absolute first guess would be a hardware issue — especially since you mentioned you build PCs. (I'm not knocking your skills, but perhaps there's something going on inside your case instead of inside your operating system.)

However, the irregularity of the resets also points me away from hardware issues; I feel like you'd be seeing this problem a lot more if something was shorting out or you had a faulty USB port or connection.

Before I get into troubleshooting, make sure you try different devices and different USB ports. It's possible that a power-hungry USB device is somehow creating a crash when connected to a particular port, either just by itself or when if it's also plugged into, say, one of your case's front-panel ports alongside a number of other devices.

A few hardware suggestions to start out with

A few Lifehacker readers have already chimed in with my first big hardware suggestion: revisit your system's guts. Make sure that your motherboard is correctly installed on its standoffs; triple-check your wiring (especially your power supply-to-motherboard and USB-headers-to-motherboard); and make sure there's no strange wiring, debris, or who-knows-what that could potentially cause some kind of short.

"It might be your motherboard shorting against the computer case. Make sure that you have standoffs installed, if needed, and that you don't tighten the screws that hold the motherboard in place too tightly."TuxRocks

"Make sure you're using the proper risers (standoff screws) on the motherboard."Ethereal

"I actually had this same exact issue with a PC I built in 2002! I never figured out what caused it, but it only affected the front USB port, so I taped over it, never used it again, and the problem never came back."bwong2

(Put that third suggestion in the "last resort" column.)

Once you're done giving your motherboard a quick peek — moving around a few wires or removing and re-connecting your USB headers — also consider hitting up your motherboard's manufacturer to check for a newer BIOS to download. It's possible that the manufacturer has identified some USB-related problem and fixed it in an update.

The next time your USB problem pops up — assuming it does, if your quick look at your motherboard hasn't fixed the issue — you can get a little crazier with your troubleshooting. Try unplugging all of your system's cables and reconnecting them.

Remove and reseat your graphics card, RAM, and hard drives. (You probably don't need to bother with your CPU, but if you want to be thorough, that's all you.) Clear the CMOS by unplugging your system, popping out your motherboard's battery, waiting a few minutes, popping it back in, and powering up — then resetting any BIOS settings you previously customised.

If you still can't fix the problem, you can always try to get around it. Pick up a PCI Express USB card, which should hopefully at least give you a way to connect USB devices to the rear of your computer sans issue. It's also possible that your power supply is to blame for some of this, but that's a more expensive replacement, a larger weekend project and an idea that might not actually fix your issue.

The same is true for your system's case — if you've been using the same ol' chassis for all of your builds, perhaps something is wrong with its front-panel USB headers (assuming you experience these random resets when using them).

Is software to blame (again?)

It's possible that some Windows issue is to blame for your random USB-based restarts. For this, I point you to the same batch of tricks I suggested in last week's Tech 911 column:

  • Check device manager for anything strange when you're plugging in a device that causes these resets (if that's the case / you even have a chance to check).
  • Consider firmware updates for whatever device it is that creates these random resets (if they're isolated to a single device and if that device even has firmware updates available).
  • Unplug all of your devices and try uninstalling all of your Universal Serial Bus controllers. Restart your PC, and Windows should reinstall its drivers for these.

Like I said, I don't have many software suggestions for this strange issue, as it sounds like a hardware problem more than anything else — I hope.


Comments

    IMO the clue would be in his comment 'I've built several systems and they also generally all have this one minor flaw' .. In other words, this is not an isolated issue, it has happened over several different computers and builds? That's very odd. I would suspect this is not an OS issue, as presumably he's upgraded several times over the years, so I'd be looking at him either buying the same USB port from the same manufacturer or reusing them... Nothing else makes sense.

    I had that problem a few PC generations ago. Apart from the suspects which this article comprehensively covers, I will also be investigating the power supply. It turned out that in my case it was the power supply which was insufficient for my rig. Whenever I would plug a USB it might work correctly if the overall load was still within what the power supply could manage. As soon as I connected something power hungry in my USB, my system would reboot.

    I have the same problem with an external cloning hdd dock. Everytime I plugged the usb lead into the pc it rebooted.
    After noticing a slight tingling when I touched the metal shield on the hdd dock usb lead, I dug out the multimeter.
    The shield on the hdd dock was at 100v ac relative to the pc usb shield.
    Its down to a poorly electrically isolated chinese made power supply.
    Plugging the hdd dock usb lead into the pc before turning the dock power supply on sorts the problem in my case.

    Good suggestions in it especially checking for shorts. These tips are in addition to the article in case you couldn't find something.

    Sometimes and very seldomly when I plug in a USB device it seems like I'm shorting out the system and it reboots.

    I'd be trying to replicate the issue, or work out a common denominator. Like (as the article suggests) is it the same device every time? Or the same type of device? eg: Do USB sticks *always* work fine, but a USB printer sometimes causes the crash? Or maybe it's devices that are all from the same manufacturer?

    If it's a single device that points towards that particular device being faulty (at which point you could test it on other PCs). If it's multiple similar devices (only printers) then I'd tend to think it's a driver issue. If it's different unrelated devices then I'd look at hardware faults in the mobo or case.

    Similarly, how long has your PC been running at the time when it crashes? Is it only if you've had the PC running for say 2 weeks without a reboot, or does it happen regardless of whether the PC has been on an hour, a day a month? If it's only after the PC has been on for a long time (weeks/months) then I'd start looking at Windows problems. Hate to say it, but even these days Windows can get unstable if you leave it on for months.

    Also similarly, might be worth trying to figure out whether you're using specific software when the crashes happen. Especially if it's software that interacts with the hardware, like monitoring/tweaking software (eg: Asus AI Suite, Corsair Link, etc). I've noticed weird issues on my PC when I try to run both AI Suite and Corsair Link at the same time. Probably because they both try to lock up devices at the same time.

    Finally, I'd consider power issues. Are you confident that you have a reliable PSU that supplies enough power for the system?

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