When Is It Better to Restart vs. Shut Down Your Computer?

Don't do anything until you read this. Your computer will thank you.

There are some who believe there’s nothing that can’t be fixed on your computer by shutting it down and starting over. That may be a stretch, but truly, the shutdown option has always been seen as a cure-all for technical difficulties. Is it really that simple, though? And can a restart create the same system magic?

The case for shutting down

Anh Trinh is the managing editor at Geek with Laptop, a site that helps readers gain knowledge around all kinds of tech subjects. She explains that shutting down a computer is a way to power down all processes of the machine. “It’s very similar to a restart but with the exception that your computer won’t turn back on again until someone powers it up,” she explains. “This is especially useful if you plan to leave your computer for a while.”

Shut down isn’t what it used to be

People with newer computers may experience a different kind of shutdown these days, according to ProPrivacy digital privacy expert Ray Walsh. “Although many people assume that a shutdown is a more comprehensive way to ensure that all processes are killed, the reality is that since Windows 8, this is a fallacy,” he says. “In older versions of Windows, both ‘shut down’ and ‘restart’ did exactly the same thing in terms of shutting down processes. However, since Windows 8, a new feature called Fast Startup has altered this considerably.”

How has that changed things, exactly? “Shutting down a Windows computer actually creates a deep hibernation file that the PC later leverages to allow for Fast Startup. A restart, on the other hand, completely kills all processes, clears the RAM, and clears the processor cache,” he explains. “This is why a restart is the preferred method when completing a new install or uninstall and why a computer restarts during Windows Operating System updates.”

And just so we’re clear, forcible shutdowns are a different story entirely.

What about Macs?

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“A Mac is a Unix environment in which everything is cleared during both ‘shut down’ and ‘restart,'” Walsh explains. “This makes both ‘shut down’ and ‘restart’ identical in that all processes, cache, and memory will be cleared, giving the machine a complete refresh.” In other words, there’s no real difference between a shut down or a restart for Mac users. This means most of the information that follows applies to PC users only unless otherwise stated.

If you’ve got a Mac, check out these 15 things you didn’t know your Mac laptop could do.

Which situations call for a restart vs. a shutdown?

“When you’re installing new software or hardware, you’re going to need to restart your computer. This will shut off all processes so that the Kernal can be reestablished with the new software or hardware in consideration,” says Shayne Sherman, CEO of TechLoris. For those who aren’t aware, the Kernal is a part of the operating system that manages memory and CPU time. “This is also what you want to use when you’re having problems with your computer, since this will kill all processes and restart them.”

Does this vary between Macs and PCs?

Yes, this is different for Macs, according to Walsh. “Due to the fact that a Mac always clears everything during a reboot, Mac users will always clear their machine when they restart or shut down,” he adds.

How often should users be performing a restart?

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“Most IT experts recommend doing a restart at least once every two to three days to permit Windows to clean up open files, get rid of temp files, and update itself,” Walsh says. “This ensures that deleted files and other assets are removed from a PC’s cache and aren’t left hanging around, potentially causing security or privacy issues.”

For a little more information, this is how often you really should be shutting down your computer.

How often should users be performing a system shutdown?

“Shutting down a computer is a more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly way to leave a PC unattended,” Walsh explains. “Leaving a PC in sleep mode results in some power usage by the RAM and from the storage of open files and programs.”

Which option is better for battery life?

“A shut down is a deep hibernation that ensures that your computer is not wasting energy,” Walsh says. “A restart only momentarily turns the machine off to stop all processes, clear the RAM, and clear the processor cache. Thus, a shut down is better for power consumption and better for prolonging the life of the battery.”

Which option is better for security?

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This is one area where the answer is the same for both PCs and Macs. “Shutting down a Windows PC or Mac is considered better for security because it means that the machine is completely offline for the period of time that it is off,” Walsh says. “This removes the potential for that machine to be hacked and stops it from communicating with a command and control server if it has already been infected with an exploit.”

You’ll also want to steal these 18 secrets from people who never get hacked.

What about cold temperatures?

Believe it or not, temperature should be one of your considerations when deciding whether to shut down or restart. “The cold can be extremely damaging to batteries, which is why it is unwise to switch off a battery-operated device when it is extremely cold,” Walsh explains. “It is better to keep a laptop running rather than switch it off in a cold car.”

But that’s not the only reason to avoid a shut down in cold temperatures. “In extremely cold temperatures, it can potentially be unwise to turn off a computer abruptly, particularly if you have been performing intensive CPU/GPU tasks that have made the computer heat up considerably,” Walsh says. “This is because going from hot to cold quickly may adversely affect the PC’s microelectronic components due to thermal contraction.”

If you have no choice but to shut down, Walsh advises waiting a little while after the intense processes have ended; that will allow the internal components to slowly cool down first. “However, generally speaking, computers like the cold and will perform better in the cold, where they will not heat up as much performing intensive processes,” he adds.

How about hot temperatures?

“The biggest danger for computers is extreme heat,” Walsh says. “Anytime that a computer is exposed to extremely hot conditions, it is best to power it down and leave it switched off. Even a relatively hot office can potentially be highly damaging to a computer’s components if the computer is overheating. This will substantially reduce the life span of the computer and is much more of a concern than the cold.”

Now that you know when to shut down or restart, check out these 10 tricks to make your computer run faster.

Leah Campbell
Leah Campbell covers technology for Reader’s Digest as well as sites including Reviewed.com. She has a degree in developmental psychology and has written extensively on topics relating to infertility, dating, adoption and parenting. A single mother by choice after a serendipitous series of events led to the adoption of her daughter, Leah is also author of the book Single Infertile Female. She lives in Alaska.