Calling Dave Bowman: My PC is officially insane

Of my two PCs, the lesser used is a Compaq running Win 2000 on 500 megahertz and 192 megs of RAM. No problems, until the last few weeks. Lately, the hard drive (processor) can be heard crunching data even when I haven’t touched the PC in 30-45 minutes.

It usually goes like this: the hard drive makes its data-crunching sounds like it’s processing data in one second spurts. After maybe 10 minutes of this, the processing becomes constant, as though it’s computing pi to the millionth decimal. This goes on for about 10 more minutes, and then everything stops.

I’ve run the newest updates of McAfee, SpyBot, and Ad Aware. I’m also running an updated Zone Alarm. Nothing wrong is detected. The PC seems to work well otherwise.

Any ideas on what’s going on?

Try closing all applications (including doing ctrl+alt+del and end-tasking everything but Explorer) and seeing if it still happens.

It might help to understand that your HD is where data is stored, consisting of a spinning disk of aluminum or glass with an electromagnetically controlled armature with a read/write head on it that sweeps across it. (This makes noise).

Your CPU (aka processor) is a small etched slab of silicon with no moving parts, and makes no noise at all whilst it calculates how much you owe the IRS this year.

So whatever is causing your problems is swapping large amounts of data back and forth from disk (the effect is called ‘disk thrashing’, and tends to be noisy) . If this happens when you’re doing something, it usually indicates a lack of memory, where the OS is trying to fake it by writing to disk rather than RAM. When it’s not being used… well, I’ve written a few hundred words to say “I dunno”. But perhaps it might help you figure out what’s going on. Do you have a particularly memory hungry screensaver (aka SETI@Home, that google thing, etc) running?

Did you check to see what programs are running when it happens by using ctrl-alt-del ?

This is a not uncommon behavior of MS Windows. Still, if it seems different to you it could be an indication of a problem. I would do the following:

  1. Run a a thorough scandisk (full surface scan) to make sure the hard drive is not failing.
  2. Is the hard drive getting full? Search for and delete temp files, uninstall unneeded programs, etc. Then run the defrag utility, whether there is plenty of free space or not.

Okay, I’m back…

To answer questions:

No, this “disk thrashing” (whatever) occurs when no application is running, no screensaver, just the usual desktop.

I have a 10-gig HD, with about 35-40 percent of it free.

DiskScan? Funny you mention this, tourbot, cause DiskScan gets stalled even after 2 hours of it trying to run.

I have defragged the system. No dice.

Despite my use of updated McAfee, SpyBot, AdAware, could this be a Trojan/hackware/spyware/etc?

Wild guesses are encouraged.

A scheduled task gone haywire? (In Scheduled Tasks, under Control Panel.) I once had one in Windows ME that somehow got corrupted into running every 5 minutes… but it would generally take longer than 5 minutes to run. End result: no more memory, and therefore a system crash.

Since this occurs when you aren’t touching the system, I’m guessing it’s the swap file. Microsoft operating systems like to periodically “optimize” their swap file when you aren’t doing much else with the system. If you want to see if this is really what is going on, you might try temporarily disabling the swap file and see if all of the disk accesses go away. You’ll want to re-enable it when you are done though.

You can also check everything that’s running in your system against this list to see if anything that doesn’t belong is in there:

You may also find some normal windows features that are enabled from the above list that you might want to disable.

You might want to check the task scheduler (in the control panel) to see if there is some scheduled job that is doing it.

Just a suggestion, but couldn’t memory leaks create a situation of insufficient memory to such a point as to cause the windows swap file to become uncontrollable by Windows. Let’s see we could call it an undocumented feature that lets you know a reboot is becoming essential.

Ok, when scandisk fails to finish this is a bad sign. Does it stop and show an error message or just freeze? You may have a bad hard drive. Is the drive formatted Fat32 or NTFS? (You can check by right clicking on the drive and selecting properties.)
Most hard drive manufacturers have diagnostic tools that you can download to test the drive, but I like Seagate’s Seatools. It has a generic diagnostic which works on non-seagate drives. I’ve never tried the online version. Try the Seatools desktop download. It will make a floppy disk you can boot from to test the hard drive.

Try running scandisk in Safe Mode. Also, check how many icons you have in your Quick Launch bar. Sound odd, but it is a known bug in Win98; if you have more that 5 or 6 icons in the Quick Launch bar, Scandisk may not run correctly.

It’s been a long time since I used Windows 2000 … does it have Indexing Service like WinXP does? In XP, when you go to “Find” or “Search … For Files and Folders” on the start menu, one of the preferences you can enable is to use the Indexing Service, which will make searches faster by pre-scanning the disk contents during idle moments (but alas, it’s not terribly smart on which moments it deems idle). It has caused a lot of disk chatter for me even when I didn’t think anything should be accessing the drive.

If there’s no Indexing Service in Win2K, or if it isn’t enabled, then heck, adding more RAM can’t hurt.