Monthly Archives: July 2010

My Computer is Making a Noise… What is it?

Recently a client of mine brought up the fact that a computer seemed to be making a loud humming noise, and had assumed the hard disk drive was working harder than usual for some reason. Truth is, it’s the computer fans that were making the noise.

Whether a desktop or a laptop, all personal computers have at least one fan, used to create air flow while the computer is operating, to prevent overheat. In a desktop computer, one might find up to 4 or even 5 fans, all dedicated to provide air flow to different parts of the computer.

Not everyone knows that computers nowadays have different temperature sensors at different internal components AND also are able to speed up or slow down the fans speed depending on the temperature reading of said sensors. In some cases a fan is off until the related sensor reaches certain temperature and then it turns on. So when the temperatures inside a computer raise, whether it is because the ambient temperature is high or because the computer is working harder than usual, the fans speeds will raise. Most users will have noticed this at one time or another, and many describe it as the computer “seems to be racing”. This in itself is not bad – higher fan speeds when the computer gets hot is an appropriate response. But it might be a sign of something else if it’s happening too often.

As covered in this article, computers that have not been cleaned internally at regular intervals tend to get hotter. If by design your computer does not have sufficient airflow and is in an environment that gets hot, plus does not get cleaned regularly, chances are it might overheat and thus reduce the normal lifespan of its internal components.

What to do?

1. Make sure your computer internals are dust free.

2. relocate your computer as needed to provide good airflow. It is not a good idea to have a desktop computer in a closed cabinet with little or no airflow.

3. Depending on the situation, it might be a good idea to provide an external fan to force airflow around a computer that is getting poor or no airflow.

4. Keep the room temperature from getting too extreme.

5. There is software that can monitor the sensors’ readings in a computer and alert you if the temperature goes above a certain level, so you can take action before overheating ruins your computer. An expert should be able to install and configure such software.

When in Doubt, Restart

Perhaps the most basic computer troubleshooting principle, I find it generally under-used. My guess is there is no understanding of why or how the principle works. So here goes:

Those avid readers who have followed my articles will know that the data stored in the primary memory, where data used by running programs is temporarily stored (RAM), will not survive a “restart” (the process of shutting down all programs and reload the operating system into memory). In other words, it’s a way of resetting all information accumulated in memory, including errors normally accumulated when running programs.

An educated estimate would place the probabilities of a restart resolving whatever odd behavior your computer is exhibiting at 50%. So before you go trying to troubleshoot the problem, before you call your computer guy, before you do anything else, when running into unexpected erratic behavior with your computer… restart!

One last thing. There are two different levels of restarting in Windows. One is to actually select the “restart” button. That will restart the computer without completely shutting it off. The other one, more thorough, consists of selecting “shutdown” wait until the power is completely off, waiting 30 seconds, and turning the computer back on. Without getting into the technicalities of why, if you use the latter method it’s a more thorough reset, and it is therefore more effective.

And I guess I lied, THIS is the last thing: When your computer “freezes” (is unresponsive to mouse or keyboard commands) a forced shutdown is in order. Some computers have a “reset” button that will force a restart. Try that first if your computer has it. If it doesn’t have it or does nothing when you press it, press the power button and KEEP IT PRESSED for about 5 seconds. No matter how frozen or unresponsive, that will force a computer to shut off. Beware: that is only to be used if the computer is otherwise unresponsive, because shutting it down that way will not go through the proper shutdown procedure, and all unsaved information will be lost, and every now and then there is a chance of file corruption. But if the computer is frozen it’s the lesser of two evils.

Solid State Drives: Pros and Cons, and a Don’t

First of all, what the hell is a “Solid State Drive”? (SSD) It’s a storage device, similar in function to your hard disk drive, although not in structure. So like your hard disk drive, it stores programs and files to be used by the computer on demand.

OK so now for the structure. Your typical hard disk drive consists of several rigid platters on a spindle that are read and written by magnetic heads that hover close to the platters. Hence, “hard disk” drive. The solid state drive has no moving parts and it would be best compared to the USB flash drive (a.k.a. thumb drive) that has become so popular in recent years. The main difference is the solid state drive is bigger and has more capacity. So instead of moving parts, it has circuitry to hold the information. Thus, “solid state” drive.

Knowing the above, the pros are evident: No moving parts mean a much higher shock resistance, which is especially key when it comes to portable computers. Also because of the way the data is stored, the access time is much faster. This is more important than you might think if you’re looking for performance. A computer is only as fast as its slowest component. It would not be an overstatement to say that nowadays that slowest component is the storage device. So by speeding that up, one is improving the overall performance of the computer. And last but not least, the added bonus of no spinning noise from a solid state drive.

Now for the cons: as with all emerging technologies, price is higher than your traditional hard disk drive. Also lifespan is generally lower. And although this is being remedied, as of recent times solid state drives’ capacity is lower than what you can find in the hard disk drive market.

One important “don’t” for those who have them: do not run defragmenting software on them. Because of their structure, there is no advantage in doing so, and it only increases the wear level of the drive, thus shortening its lifespan. And remember that in later operating systems like Windows Vista and 7, there are automatic defragmenting tasks scheduled to run in the background, so make sure you disable those as well. (N.B.: There is some controversy on the particular subject of solid state drive defragmenting. The statement in the above paragraph is the commonly accepted one, but Diskeeper, a software company specializing in storage performance technology, claims improved benchmark write times figures in solid state drives that use Diskeeper’s proprietary defragmenting technology for solid state drives.)

See my recent article on the performance test results with a new solid state drive installed in my laptop.