Frozen Desktops

Troubleshooting a frozen desktop is frustrating and requires much patience. The common culprits include 1) hardware and 2) video drivers.

A frozen desktop is a common reason why some people forsake Linux distros. The reason implies the freezing issues are experienced only when using Linux. This nominally implies software is the problem rather than hardware.

Some things to consider:

A common recommendation is review the system logs. Sadly, with most desktop freezing issues the logs will reveal nothing.

Another common recommendation is to try different desktop environments. Once in a blue moon this succeeds.

Even more severe of a move is trying a different distro. Once in a blue moon this succeeds too.

One trick is to temporarily change usage habits. For example, for a few days forego streaming videos or playing music tunes. Sometimes this is difficult to do, especially if the computer is used for remote employment, but perhaps the freezing is not desktop related but limited to a specific piece of software.

Not always obvious but verify the latest BIOS firmware is installed. Generally most people need never touch the BIOS, but when a system behaves as described then updating the BIOS firmware is a reasonable step.

Sometimes there are operating system firmware packages that need to be installed in addition to the base video driver package.

When a desktop freezes the first step is try to toggle to an alternate console. Learn to do this before a freeze. The common way to toggle to an alternate console is with the Ctrl+Alt+Fx keyboard shortcuts, where x is 1 through 6.

An “old school” trick was to use the Ctrl+Backspace keyboard shortcut to kill the entire X process and drop to a console. This is a sledge hammer approach and often is destructive by not saving currently open files, but can avoid rebooting the entire system. On many systems these days that keyboard shortcut is disabled. If necessary learn to restore that keyboard shortcut. With no open files test the keyboard shortcut to understand what happens under normal conditions. If this shortcut succeeds then the problem is related to the desktop and not the system or drivers.

Keyboard shortcuts usually function fine during normal usage, but commonly a desktop freeze means the keyboard and mouse become unusable. The question then becomes whether only the desktop has frozen or the entire operating system.

Being able to determine whether only the desktop or entire system has frozen requires a way to externally monitor the system.

A ping test from another computer might reveal whether the system is still functioning. A port scan map with nmap might reveal if the system is functioning. Another test is attempting to access the system with SSH.

If the system responds to a ping test and can be accessed through SSH then that observation implies the problem is desktop related, which usually means video drivers but also could mean the display/login manager or something in the desktop environment. If a ping test fails and SSH access is impossible then presume the entire system is freezing.

A helpful feature of using SSH is the system logs can be monitored in real-time with tail -f. Often the logs will not reveal anything during a desktop freeze. Using tail -f also can be used without SSH — open a terminal window and some tabs and tail the logs while using the desktop. A challenge with local monitoring is often the keyboard becomes unusable during a freeze. If only the desktop is freezing and not the entire system then SSH will still allow access to those logs.

Intermittent hardware issues are difficult to troubleshoot. Commonly these issues are heat related although not always. Power supplies are known for this kind of behavior. Aging capacitors can drive anybody crazy. RAM sticks can behave in inexplicable ways.

Commonly the traditional first test with RAM is running memtest overnight. On systems with at least two RAM sticks, some troubleshooting is possible by temporarily removing one stick. Another trick is swapping the sticks and slots.

Troubleshooting power supply issues is challenging without a replacement power supply.

Heat related issues can cause GPUs to misbehave. On-board GPUs seldom experience heat related issues because on-board GPUs do not use as much energy as discrete GPUs.

With old systems sometimes the thermal paste between a CPU and heat sink will go bad and that will cause heat related issues. Replacing the thermal paste is not difficult but watching a few videos will help learn the basic steps.

Anybody who has been around computers for a while has battled freezing systems. Freezing systems are just no fun at all.

Posted: Category: Usability Tagged: General

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