What's That Noise Coming From My Computer

That's usually how it starts. You hear an unfamiliar noise when you turn on your computer. Or, you may be working along and all of a sudden, your computer stops responding. Most people just ignore either one of these signs that something is amiss. They reboot or ignore the noise. And therein lies the biggest problem. If the user immediately backs up all critical data when these events occur, replacing the component (there's only a few components with moving parts on a computer the power supply fan and the hard drive are the two major suspects when odd noises occur) is just time consuming. But if the user fails to heed these signs, then the real fun starts. Recovering data from a damaged or corrupt drive is not for the faint at heart.

 The first questions I usually ask on a service call (I run a computer service company) is do you have current backups of all your data? When they say no (about 75% of the time), the first thing I do is either instruct them on how to backup or if I'm onsite I do it for them. Once there is a verified backup of data, the rest is easy.

 A qualified technician has about a 98% chance of retrieving data from a hard drive if there is no physical damage. A normal user with some help (info, tools, or both) has about a 90% chance. But depending on the situation, it can be very frustrating and time consuming.

 Soapbox on. Before I get into the troubleshooting aspects, let me impress upon you the importance of having current backups of all of your data. If you have current backups, no computer problem will cause you permanent damage. The best defense against computer failure of any kind is backing up your data on a frequent basis. The way I approach it is that if I've spent over an hour working on some project, I backup as soon as I finish. I'm lazy, I don't like to do anything twice, so I backup often. OK, I'll get off the Soapbox now.
 Depending on what you do on your computer (and what you store there like photos, movies, financial data, etc.) backing up is the best way to protect yourself. There are so many easy ways to back up these days there is absolutely no excuse for not doing so often. USB memory sticks and drives, DVD and CD writers (although there has been a lot written lately about both of these media not being reliable for more than 2 years), even 1.44 disks can be used if you have the patience and individual files can fit.

 My first choice is a USB drive since you can purchase a large drive for under $75 these days. Many come with one click software that makes backing up your data a snap. There are many ways to backup with incremental (to go back to a certain point in time) small backups daily and then a full backup weekly. But I digress since this article is about troubleshooting and not backing up data.

 Back to the strange noise coming from your computer. Two items to check first, the power supply fan and the hard drive. Both have bearings and spin at high speeds. You normally can determine if the noise is coming from one or the other. Replacing the power supply is not a big deal but can be laborious depending on your computer model and case design. If you're not handy with a screw driver and understand a little basic structure of positive and negative connections, take it to a local computer repair shop. It's not difficult but it is easy to make the wrong connection and you can fry your motherboard and everything attached if something goes wrong.

 So, you've checked the power supply fan and the noise is coming from somewhere else. There are several items inside the hard drive that can cause noise but I won't bore you with the details. Just suffice to say once the noise starts it's time for a replacement. Mean time failure these days is 3-5 years on most units. But remember that is based on some daily use value, so it can happen at any time.

 The easiest way to replace the hard drive is to buy the exact model, which nobody does since the price point constantly goes down. So instead of a 20 gig drive (that you never filled up), you go for the 120 gig replacement drive. Along with the drive is a CD that has the installation routine for most computers. You have to open the case (make sure the computer is not only off but the power cord is disconnected from the back of the computer) and remove the old drive, carefully replacing the connections in the same manner as the old drive on the new drive. There are only two, one power and one that connects the drive to the motherboard.

 Once you have the drive hooked up and the case back together you're ready to use the installation CD from the drive manufacturer. If your computer bios is set to boot off the CD (which most are since many don't even have a floppy drive any more) you boot up once and get an error (we need to have power to open the CD unit) and open the CD and place the hard drive installation CD in and close it. Now you reboot and the CD will usually boot up with a menu that allows you to configure the machine and often will ask you for your OS (normally WinXP) CD to start the installation. And therein lies the first possible snafu. You don't have your WinXP installation CD since your computer came with WinXP on the hard drive.

 Don't worry, it's a slow down but not an insurmountable problem. You now get to call or go to the website of your computer manufacturer and ask for a set of restore/install CDs. They normally will charge you 5-10 bucks for shipping but will gladly provide the CDs. Make sure you tell them your exact model of computer so you get all the correct video, sound card, and other drivers for your computer. This is very important!

 Most computer manufacturers have this down to a science and the CDs have everything you need. You simply boot on the first CD and the restore/install process is fairly automated with you just answering a few questions. This entire process takes about 90 minutes and don't forget that you need to install any applications that you installed after you bought the computer.

 One very important detail you need to address is to make sure you install Virus Protection software. Make sure you install this before you even connect to the Internet. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a computer hit within seconds of coming online, and if you don't have protection installed you get banged immediately. Also install any WinXP updates by going to the Microsoft website and clicking on Windows Update on the left side of the opening page. Let it do its magic and install all critical updates.

 Now you can copy back all of your data to your new hard drive and now you are back up and running. Now for all of you that are reading this article and have not backed up your data, go do it right now. You'll be very glad you did just in case disaster strikes.

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