Published Mar 2, 2006

I barely made it through the day today. For the past couple of weeks, my laptop had been occasionally resistant to starting up, and today it finally showed it was serious, refusing to start all morning long. Anybody who has spent time with me knows I’m practically surgically attached to my computer. Well, midterms start Monday and I have little higher brain function without my laptop, so emergency surgery was required.

Folks, back your data up. I was lucky; no matter what happened, I had data no more than a couple of weeks old saved to a separate disk, so not everything would be lost. Two weeks is still a lot to lose and I’m going to move to weekly, not monthly, backups. I was also lucky that I was able to diagnose the problem and that I knew how to fix it and was comfortable with the steps. I nearly manged to lose access to all of my work just days before midterms. Bad news. I think I need a drink!

What Really Happened

For the technical in the audience, the story went like this. After being put to sleep, a press of the power button on my laptop would cause the power light to turn on, the disk activity light to flash once, weakly, and then the power light to turn off. Repeated presses of the button, running on mains only or battery only, nothing made the difference. A quick visit to Dell support suggested poorly-seated or failing memory or wireless card, so I reseated the memory and got the computer to restart. When the problem appeared I replaced the stick of memory I thought was failing and got a successful power-on again. Problem solved, I assumed.

But not so! Soon the problem returned, and no amount of memory swapping or re-seating would solve it. Finally, nothing would seem to do the trick. Then, on a lark, I put my head on my laptop and listened to the hard drive — and there was the magic sound, click click click click (the clicking is the key here — that means the drive is getting power, so it’s the drive that’s failing and not another part of the computer). That’s the sound of the read-write head on a drive trying to break free but not succeeding, a problem known as stiction. You see, a disk works a lot like a record player — the data is stored on a round platter, and read by a head on an arm that looks a lot like the needle of a record. Imagine that the needle got stuck to the record, unmoving; no sound would come out. That’s exactly what happens in stiction, except no data comes out. The vain clicking of the motor as it tries, but fails, to spin the platter and move the read-write head is a dead giveaway.

The only problem is, stiction’s rare these days, and really only seen on servers, for various reasons. The only explanation for seeing stiction on an 18-month-old notebook drive is insufficient heat dissipation leading to the drive’s mechanism overheating and sustaining damage — but in this case I know that happened to my computer. Windows failed to sleep after I closed the computer and put it in my messenger bag, and the computer was very hot to the touch (and out of battery) when I took it out of the bag hours later. I’ll just say that I can’t remember any time any of my Macs failed to sleep when asked to.

Anyway, so that was the problem. Fooling with the memory helped because the fix for stiction is to rattle the drive around — or even drop it — and work the head loose. Problem is, a disk that’s suffering stiction will fall victim to it again, guaranteed; eventually the stiction will be strong enough that the read-write head will be immovable. Then it’s time to throw away the disk or drop $300-$600 at rescue superstars DriveSavers to have them take the platter out of your disk and hook it up to their own read-write head and try to read off of it that way. Hopefully, I hadn’t used up all of the times the fix would work with the memory-swapping solution.

So I got a new hard drive at Best Buy, probably overpaying but then I got it NOW — and, frankly, I think I got a great drive. It’s not that the drive is super-special, although it’s a Hitachi Travelstar, which is a generally well-rated brand. No, the best part was the package that Hitachi put together. The box contained not just the drive but also an enclosure, USB cables, and drive cloning software. It was all set up so you could put the drive in the enclosure, hook it up to your computer, run the cloning software to copy everything from your old drive to your new drive, and then move the new drive to the computer and the old one to the enclosure (or, in my case, put it aside to throw away later, when the clone has been shown to be effective). This packaging made the whole job ultra-easy and, for just $17 more than the comparable Seagate drive, it was a great deal.

The software seems to have worked great, too, transferring all of my files - about 50 gigs — in just a few hours (I set it up to run while I was at school and came home to a completed transfer). So I’m back up and running, and am happy, but, folks, back up your hard drive. It took multiple tries for me to get my drive to boot and I would’ve been itotally screwed if I’d had no backup — as it was, I was in deep doo-doo anyway. Back those files up!


I have actually found that my Dell Latitude laptop from work, after I swapped the memory up to the higher speed it supports (rather than the lower speed it ships with by default), has serious heat dissipation problems from the memory compartment. I actually have to put pencils under it to hold it off the desk, so air can circulate below it and help carry away some of the heat.

Dell used to be good, but since the late ’90s they’ve declined. These days, I have to agree with Jarvis: Dell sucks, Dell lies.

Oh, and I actually had that exact same problem, where closing the computer failed to cause it to sleep (or, actually, hibernate, since that’s what my Power Options say closing is supposed to do). When I took it out the next morning, it was almost too hot to touch. :-P

Well now it’s obvious that it’s not the hard drive, which is odd because it really does make the characteristic sound of stiction. I’m thinking it might be the hard drive controller, causing something funny to happen with the read/write head. Of course, that means motherboard replacement. We’ll see what we can get Dell to do. Shoulda paid 50% more for the IBM.