Hard drive grinding?

My PC keeps grinding away as if it’s always accessing the hard drive. How can I stop it?– J.S.

Answer: Here’s a computer trick that I think everyone who has a computer with 128 MB or more memory should try. It’s an advanced technique to help make a computer run more smoothly. It will also stop all that grinding.

When you get a lot of hard drive activity that doesn’t seem to make any sense, Windows is probably using your hard drive as virtual memory.

Let me explain.

When Windows starts to run out of space in RAM
(which is the memory where programs are loaded when you run them), it turns to the hard drive.

By default, Windows assigns part of the disk as “virtual memory” and reads and writes to it as it would to RAM. While this does work, it is kind of cumbersome and a lot slower than accessing RAM. Still, it does solve a memory shortage in a pinch.

Most users allow Windows to manage virtual memory automatically and that’s okay, but if your hard drive fills up, there is no space left for Windows to use as virtual memory.

The other problem is that the hard drive gets kind of messy. Windows doesn’t do a good job of storing data on it in an organized fashion. When bits of files and various programs are saved to the hard drive, they are crammed in whatever space is available. A large data file may be stored in pieces in various places around the hard drive, making it time-consuming to retrieve it later. When this happens,the drive becomes fragmented.

You can remedy this by defragmenting the drive (in other words, tidying it up) with a Windows program called Defragmenter. It organizes the disk and puts all related data together. Even when you do this, though, the space allocated by Windows as virtual memory doesn’t get defragmented. In fact, this space gets locked. This perpetual state of disarray causes the hard drive to grind a lot. So it has to be fixed.

Note: If you have less than 64 MB of RAM
in your computer, defragmenting the hard drive’s virtual memory will not stop the grinding. When Windows doesn’t have enough resources to handle the demand, it will automatically use the hard drive as virtual memory and it is necessary to run the computer. DO NOT turn your virtual memory off (as advised in the first step below) to do this procedure. You may not be able to restart your computer.

That said, here’s how to defragment your hard drive and your virtual memory:

  • First, turn off your virtual memory.
  • Go to Start > Settings > Control Panel, and click System, then Performance. Click Virtual Memory, then Let me choose my own virtual memory settings.
  • Check Disable virtual memory (Not recommended). It’s okay, we’ll turn it back on later. This is so that we can defrag the part of the disk normally reserved for virtual memory. If it is on during defragmentation, that part of the disk is locked.
  • Next, restart Windows.
  • Now, turn all programs off in memory. To do this, close any open programs, close any items in the System Tray in the bottom right corner of the screen.
  • If you have Windows 95, 98 or ME, hit the Ctrl-Alt-Del keys all at once to bring up the Close Program box.

This procedure is normally used to forcibly remove any misbehaving programs. Select each item in the list (one at a time) and click End Task. You may be prompted with another box when you terminate some programs. Simply click End Task in the new box to confirm.

Sometimes, the program won’t go away immediately. You may have to select it and click End Task a few times to get rid of some programs. Remove all programs from the list — by repeating this several times. Do not remove Explorer or SysTray.

If you have Windows 2000 or Windows XP, hit the Ctrl-Alt-Del keys all at once to bring up the Windows Task Manager. If this is the case, first check the Applications tab. This should be empty. If it isn’t, exit , and close any running programs. Under the Processes tab, turn off all items except those listed as System under the user column.

Now your computer will be running with very little in its memory.

Before you start defragmenting, you may want to check the disk by running ScanDisk. Start it by find it under Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools. Make sure you tick off Automatically Fix Errors. If you have lots of time, choose the Thorough test, otherwise stick with the Standard test.

Now run your Defragmenter tool. Start it by clicking Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Disk Defragmenter. When the program starts, choose to defrag drive C. When it starts, you might also ask it to Show Details so you can see the program’s progress on the disk. (Alternately, if you have Norton System Works you can use the SpeedDisk utility instead.)

When this is complete, go back to your Virtual Memory in the System Applet (as above). Choose Let me specify my own virtual memory settings. To calculate how much virtual memory you need, set it at 150% of the RAM you have on your computer (this can be found on the General tab of the System applet).

So if you have 128 MB of RAM, set the virtual memory to 192 MB. That should be your minimum and maximum setting so that Windows will set aside a fix block of space on your hard drive.

If that calculation results in a number more than 250 MB, simply put a minimum and maximum of about 250 MB. There’s no point in making your virtual memory really large. It doesn’t help the machine any.

When you’re done, reboot Windows to restore your machine to working order.

This should solve the annoying hard drive grinding. You should defrag your hard drive once a month and defrag the hard drive and virtual memory using the technique above once every two months or so.


If this doesn’t work for you and your hard drive still grinds, read our How to Add RAM article or try a memory manager so that your computer uses memory better. Check out Memory Optimizer Pro.