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From time to time, Windows XP (on laptop Dell Latitude D530) goes into strange mode - it writes (or reads?) from disk in 1 sec intervals without apparent reason. It is just short HDD reads/writes, but every second - it is like clock ticking, very well audible. The computer is idle. I have killed Firefox already (because it caused similar problem by constantly writing session data), stopped ESET antivirus. When I look to the task manager and add colums for read/written I/O bytes, no increments are observed. Yet the HDD is being accessed every second, making constant rythmic noise and flashing the LED. I have already disabled the Windows XP indexing service. Sometimes it stops, but later it comes again, without apparent reason.

Do you have any idea what could cause the problem?

Edit: the window of ProcessExplorer as recommended by @kmg90 - it doesn't show the name of the process writting, and also it doesn't show anything in the disk bar (the HDD access was every second but it has not appeared in the running bar).

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EDIT (as response to all the comments): This issue is not easy to reproduce. It happens unpredictably after computer has been overloaded and it usually looks like Firefox is the guilty one, but it continues even after killing it and many other apps. And there is no way to stop it, only restart the computer. So reply the advices to look if it does in safe mode - it doesn't do it even in normal mode after reboot, before something happens (some overload) and then regardless of what you do it continues to do it on and on. There is no apparent culprit, no process that would have increases in I/O stats.

EDIT: I tried CrystalDiskInfo from the tools recommended by harrymc. I don't understand the output very well. It shows that there are like 100 errors in "read error state" which is over the threshold of 50, but it says that "health status is GOOD". How shall we interpret this?

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EDIT: Installed SpeedFan, another tool recommended by harrymc, and ran the short test. Shows no errors and maximum Fitness and Performance of the HDD:

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Sounds like the hdd is failing I would replace it. – Ramhound Jul 23 '13 at 18:21
@Ramhound - are you for real or is it irony? To the closer: what is opinion based on this problem? – Tomas Jul 23 '13 at 18:23
Why would I joke around? The behavior you describe is a sign the hdd is about to fail. – Ramhound Jul 23 '13 at 18:37
@Ramhound sorry I was not sure if you were joking... because I was suspecting OS, sorry.. of course I want honest possibilities. Is there any log where I can find HDD errors? I tried to look in administrative tools > event viewer but I've found nothing. – Tomas Jul 23 '13 at 18:42
Thank you all for your responses and advices; please see my updated question for my response. – Tomas Jul 31 '13 at 10:48

Initial diagnoses says add more RAM. A computer will use the hard drive as virtual RAM storage page files and typically cranks away the Hard drive constantly.

The not so jumpy diagnoses, assuming you have 2+ gigs RAM, is that the OS is simply running basic diagnostic scans for viruses via windows defender, moving fragmented/unused files, garbage collecting unused resources, etc. Just because you're not doing anything does not mean your computer isn't. Typically the computer performs these tasks when the CPU reaches a certain time of day or high enough idle percentage. This makes sense since a user is obviously not using the PC if its idle is at 98%.

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Well but it is pretty annoying to hear HDD sound every second. Is there some way to stop it? Note that not every Windows XP was doing that... Maybe depends on setup somehow? – Tomas Jul 23 '13 at 18:31
Go to start menu and right click 'my computer' and select 'properties' from the menu. Make a note of how much RAM you have. Hit CTRL+ALT+DEL, select task manager, and then select the 'performance tab' Are the green bars under 'PF Usage' full? If so, your computer is using your HDD for virtual memory and you need more RAM. If not, than you either have a virus or a virus scanner running in the background. Best guess. – Josh Campbell Jul 23 '13 at 21:19
Not at all full; also the Physical Memory available was several hundreds MB. It is not the swap issue. This was actually regular ticking pattern - just short reads/writes, but every second. – Tomas Jul 24 '13 at 6:06
Try pressing F8 at startup and booting into safe mode. If the hard drive continues grinding away then you know it's a system issue, otherwise it's some third-party software / drivers. – Josh Campbell Jul 24 '13 at 14:58
Thank you for your responses and advices; please see my updated question for my response. – Tomas Jul 31 '13 at 10:48

I wouldn't use task manager to monitor I/O activity as it doesn't count EVERYTHING your computer is doing.

I would suggest using ProcessExplorer from Microsoft SysInternals as it will make it a lot easier to pinpoint what is producing the hard drive activity.

All you need to do is run the program, hit Ctrl-I and click on the I/O tab.

It should show 3 bars for the 3 different types of I/O, including disk

Hover your mouse cursor over the disk graph to see what processes is generating the hard drive activity.

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I tried ProcessExplorer but it didn't show anything - please see my updated question – Tomas Jul 23 '13 at 21:55
Unfortunatelly this wasn't any useful. It seems to me that ProcessExplorer doesn't show anything which wasn't shown by the Task Manager. And neither of them is able to see those "HDD ticks" in the stats. – Tomas Aug 1 '13 at 11:12

From SysInternals there's another program named "Process Monitor" (not Process Explorer). It will produce an absolutely overwhelming amount of data, Even on a non very busy system, this can produce thousands of events per second. So filtering its output is a challenge. Luckily there are a lot of filters, and some are predefined for you. Do check those, because these predefined filters filter out many of the "normal" background chatter which you may be looking for.

Basically, what ProcMon does is capture every file access, registry access and network access, and log the relevant parameters, as well as the call stack.

This means that you might see that Explorer.EXE read C:\temp\testfile.txt, but that this call actually came from Plugin.DLL within Explorer.

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Strange. When I tried it but cannot load any filter. I hover mouse over the menu Filter > Load Filter but no submenu pops up. And it should because there is a right arrow suggesting so. – Tomas Aug 5 '13 at 8:09
You probably don't have any filter saved. The normal way is to open the existing list Ctrl-L and then add new entries or remove unwanted entries. – MSalters Aug 5 '13 at 8:31
Tried it but this actually seems as a big challenge, which renders this unusable for me (unless someone more capable will recommend filter for me). – Tomas Aug 6 '13 at 7:11

Try the Windows Task Manager.

Go to the Processes tab, use the menu View / Select Columns and tick I/O Reads and I/O Writes and press OK.

Next time the problem occurs, start up Task Manager and try to catch a process whose count changes every time you hear a tick. If you succeed, post its name so we can comment on it.

If you can find no such process, then it is probably the disk's firmware that is the cause of the tick, and then the disk itself is suspect.

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harry, please read my question carefully: "When I look to the task manager and add colums for read/written I/O bytes, no increments are observed". And regarding the disk firmware, please read the part after "EDIT". It happens only after certain load of the system. – Tomas Aug 1 '13 at 11:09
Sorry for not seeing that, but I fear the worst in that case. Excuse the dumb question : You have of course ticked in the task manager "Show processes from all users". – harrymc Aug 1 '13 at 11:40
Harry, no! But I am the only user using that computer. When I check it, nothing changes (no processes are added to the list). – Tomas Aug 1 '13 at 14:24
There are heaps of tools : Best Free Hard Drive Health Monitoring and Diagnostic Programs. – harrymc Aug 3 '13 at 10:46
The SpeedFan test shows that the disk was fine when tested. I would have a look again when the ticking starts at the disk's information, such as temperature. If this isn't useful, and if task manager isn't useful, in your place I would stop looking for problems but take backups every day just in case. Keep SpeedFan as it can alert you to problems, and keep on running CrystalDiskInfo weekly to see if anything changed. In other words, put your disk on probation and stay alert. You could also backup a disk image from time to time using a 3rd-party tool (not Windows Backup). – harrymc Aug 7 '13 at 11:50

Seems that your hard drive is about to fail. I would advise to move all of the data from your current hard drive onto an external one, purchasing a new hard drive and installing that one in place of the external one, and then copying the data from the external drive onto the new one that was just installed. Better yet- just put the external drive into your computer in place of the failing one.

You best be doing this soon as well, as a hard-drive may fail at any moment without warning if it is experiencing problems like what you are describing.

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From which diagnostic output you conclude that my harddisk is going to fail? That's all still just a speculation. I need solid diagnosis to confirm this. – Tomas Aug 7 '13 at 10:27
This is based on experience. A couple years ago the same problem happened to a laptop I was using with a similar Hard-Drive (It was a 120 GB Toshiba). At random moments the hard drive would randomly start producing a clicking noise at a very fast speed, and this would last for a good 15 to 30 minutes before it stopped again, and then occur again later. I opened it up and it turns out that the stylus was lagging behind and hitting a metal support within the casing and then bouncing back to where it should have been. This did slow down file loads quite a bit at times. – Ben Franchuk Aug 7 '13 at 20:38

I own a Dell Latitude D830 and the hard drive clicks in a similar fashion as you describe.

The solution (at least for me under Linux) was to turn off the drive's power management, which parks the drive's heads when idle causing the clicking.

On Linux (or cygwin) you can do that with: hdparm -B 255 hda

BrightHub has instructions for Windows

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IF you do end up getting a new HDD, and don't want that ticking sound, perhaps a Solid State Hard Drive is what you want. No moving parts in it from what I hear.

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This is not an answer to OP's question. Post it as comment. – tumchaaditya Jan 4 '14 at 21:48

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