Screeching Halt

illutration: Suzanne Allen

Q: When I've booted up my computer lately, it emits this horrific screeching sound for about two or three seconds—sort of like a pack of distressed monkeys is trapped in the motherboard. Is this a harbinger of terrible things to come or something I can eliminate with a few simple tweaks?

Distressed monkeys, you say? Jeepers, that doesn't sound good, as it could be a sign of imminent hard disk failure. Now, let's not jump to conclusions—weird computer noises can have a variety of causes, from misconfigured sound options to overtaxed video cards. But best to assume that Murphy's Law is in play here, and that your precious data will get fried rather soon. To misappropriate Juvenile's booty-centric sentiment, Won't you back that disk up?

Before you lose too much sleep, let's cycle through some of the non-catastrophic possibilities. Have you checked your audio properties recently? Sometimes when you play games or videos, the settings get automatically tweaked. Go to Control Panel and check out the Sound and Audio Devices menu, especially the Advanced tab under Speaker Settings. Make sure your chosen speaker setup is simpatico with the menu choice; if you're on Headphones, for example, but you're cranking out of desktop speakers, that could be a problem.

Have you purchased a new video card recently? They've been known to squawk a bit, and you might want to consider reinstalling the companion software. If the noise persists, contact the manufacturer and ask, "What's up, boss?" Believe Mr. Roboto, they've heard it all before. And why not take advantage of those 90 days of free tech support while you've got 'em, eh?

The other likely culprit is a malfunctioning cooling fan, though this tends to sound more like a click than a hiss. Some columnists recommend popping off your computer's cover and applying a drop or two of lube, but Mr. Roboto strongly advises that you don't risk it. Not only will you void the warranty, if you've still got one, but it's a bit trickier than, say, oiling a door hinge with WD-40. The good news is that fans are relatively hardy, and even if they do fail, heck, that doesn't corrupt your data.

No, the real tragedy, and perhaps the likeliest explanation for those distressed monkeys, is a hard drive about to go kaput. There are a couple of possible reasons, but it's most likely either some bad disk sectors or an aging bearing. Your eyebrows should be raised extra high if your drive was manufactured by IBM, as Big Blue's been vexed by some serious quality issues as of late—so serious, in fact, that there's a pending class action suit over the company's Deskstar 75GXP model (nicknamed the "Deathstar" by some clever wags). IBM drives are inside a variety of different machines, including Sonys, so don't think you're free and clear just because you aren't running a ThinkPad. Check your disk's properties; if the disk's ID starts with an "I," it's a Big Bluer.

At least there's a potential fix for the bad sectors issue: Go to your drive under My Computer, right-click for Properties, and go to the Tools tab. Make sure you check the box for bad-sector scanning. You might also want to attempt a defragmentation, which has been known to eliminate pesky clicking.

But if it's a messed-up bearing, well, that's the sort of physical problem that only super-geeks should try fixing. (It's also grounds for a free replacement, if your warranty's still current.) So as soon as you reach the bottom of this column, scramble to make sure you've got everything of value backed up. Obviously, the simplest way to do this is to burn everything to a series of CD-Rs. But that can be a pain if you've got tons of MP3s and other memory-hungry files—the clicking-and-dragging process takes an eternity. Given the low, low prices of external hard drives nowadays, it might be worth investing in one and stashing everything there. SimpleTech's SimpleDrive Deluxe (, for example, gives you 30 gigabytes of storage for under $200.

Also worth the money is PowerQuest's Drive Image 7 (, software that takes a snapshot of your hard drive's precise configuration. That way, when you fire up a replacement drive after your first one finally dies, you can boot up with Drive Image and restore things to exactly the way they were. Perhaps a bit pricey at $70, but you'll thank Mr. Roboto in the morning.

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