Why is my laptop whining at me?
January 17, 2010 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Please help my diagnose a problem with my ageing laptop making high pitched noises at random intervals.

I have a IBM Thinkpad A22m laptop. It's running Win2k SP4, and has the latest drivers I can find for the sound card (via the IBM website). The problem is that at odd intervals, the machine will emit a high pitched sound through the speakers. If the volume is muted via the volume controls, the noise doesn't happen. It also doesn't always happen when the volume is unmuted.

It doesn't appear to be related to any specific thing - I've noticed it when the laptop has just been turned on, when it's been used for a while, when various different programmes are running/not running. I've removed all of the Windows sounds (critical stop, beep, the startup sounds, etc). I've looked in the BIOS to try to disable any system sounds in there, and can't find any. The laptop battery is pretty much defunct, so I'm running it off the power cable. I have disabled the beep driver.

The noise itself occurs for less than a second (with variable times), but repeats every second or so. Imagine Morse code, and you'll be pretty close. It's quite high pitched.

I sometimes use the laptop to listen to music, and can't leave the volume muted all the time.

I'm really open to suggestions as to how to diagnose the problem/what it could be/what I can try to make it stop.
posted by Solomon to Computers & Internet (12 answers total)
My old one did that. I think it was the fan. I don't know how to fix it, though. My inclination would be to blow compressed air into the fan, but I don't know if that would be bad for other components.
posted by emilyd22222 at 1:03 PM on January 17, 2010

It could be feedback from the microphone (which can have the sort of patterns you describe). Are you sure you don't have the computer setup to amplify the sound from the mic? You can easily check by finding the microphone and talking into it. If it's being amplified, you can turn it off by double-clicking the volume icon in the taskbar and muting the appropriate device.
posted by helios at 1:18 PM on January 17, 2010

Seconding emilyd22222. When my puter hummed like that it was the fan. Easy to replace yourself.
posted by dchrssyr at 1:50 PM on January 17, 2010

Oh crap. On preview, your problem doesn't sound like what happened to my computer at all. Will read below the fold info more carefully next time.
posted by dchrssyr at 1:51 PM on January 17, 2010

Response by poster: Yeah, it's not the fan. When it's playing up, I can mute and stop the noise instantly, and then it starts again when I unumte.
posted by Solomon at 1:54 PM on January 17, 2010

Does this happen the same way regardless of your location? I suspect it's getting a signal from something in your environment.
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:12 PM on January 17, 2010

Response by poster: It's only ever in one location - underneath my desk (I use it as a file server as well as for playing music). It's not the noise that speakers make when a SMS is arriving to a mobile phone.

I thought at first it was the HDD seeking or spinning or something, but that doesn't appear to be the case.
posted by Solomon at 2:17 PM on January 17, 2010

You are going to think I'm nuts on this one, but I have worked on more than one computer where the ram DIMMs themselves emitted interference causing high pitch squeiling noise through the sound system, loud enough to be noticable by the operator.

This was in the amplification system though, so software volume control did not have an effect. If the noise still happens with the sound turned all the way down, this might be the case.
On the desktops, replacing the ram helped. On a laptop, solving this might be trickier.

Food for thought.
posted by upc_head at 3:44 PM on January 17, 2010

Perhaps you could diagnose whether the problem is in the hardware or software with a Linux LiveCD. Try running your laptop with a Live CD (for simplicity's sake, maybe an older version of Ubuntu like 7.10 to match your A22m) and see if the sound occurs. You don't mention how irregular the sound is, but hopefully it is regular enough that you would "expect" it to happen within a certain amount of time. If you run the laptop in Linux and the sound happens, then the problem is in the physical hardware of your laptop. If you run the Live CD and the sound doesn't happen, then there is some problem with your installation of Windows, your installed software, and/or your sound drivers.
posted by wondercow at 4:25 PM on January 17, 2010

If turning off the microphone input doesn't help (or it is already off), then I'd suspect it is picking up electrical noise from the motherboard. This could be caused by a capacitor on the board going out of spec.

While you could visually inspect the board for obviously bad capacitors (bulging, leaking, etc), it is a real hassle to get access to the motherboard on many laptops. And even then, a component that is not obviously damaged can still cause a problem.

You indicate that the laptop doesn't do much (if any) traveling. I suggest you bypass the issue and get a external USB sound adapter. Even the cheapest external sound adapter is probably made of better quality components than the sound chips commonly found in laptops. And having the sound chip farther away from the electrical noise of the motherboard helps a lot too.

I have one of these: STARTECH USB 2.0 TO AUDIO ADAPTER, as a solution to just this sort of problem with the built-in sound on my desktop computer. It works well for my uses and it's hard to beat the price. A quick google search indicates that Win2k should support USB audio devices with a native driver, but ymmv with such an old OS.
posted by Thalience at 4:39 PM on January 17, 2010

I wonder if that's a sound effect for one of Microsoft's search mascots? Periodic strange noises often turn out to be something like that. (They're kind of like "Clippy", only even more obnoxious.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:56 PM on January 17, 2010

Response by poster: Some good ideas here, thanks guys. I will try the Linux CD for sure.

I've muted everything apart from the master volume and the Wave volume, and it's still doing it.
posted by Solomon at 12:01 AM on January 18, 2010

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