Is ‘Sleep’ the same as ‘Suspend’ or ‘Standby’?

Fred langa By Fred Langa

The sleep-state modes programmed into today’s PCs are rigidly defined, but the common names of these modes vary wildly from vendor to vendor.

With no standardized language, it can be difficult to know exactly what it means when your PC goes into standby mode. But here’s help.

PC still seems active when ‘standing by’

Reader Bob Hall’s PC is supposed to be snoozing, but he still sees activity and wants to know what’s going on in there.
  • “I noticed that even though my computer was in standby mode, the hard drive light was blinking, indicating activity. What’s going on? Am I being a bit paranoid about what might be happening? “
Paranoid? No, you’re just observant.

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Most PCs today support several distinct power modes or sleep states, generally defined by the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) specification, an engineering document you’ll find on an ACPI info page. If you’d prefer a plain-English explanation, check out my Langa Letter article, “To Sleep, Perchance to Hibernate.” Virtually all PCs sold today are ACPI-compliant.

ACPI defines six states ranging from S0 (sleep zero) — the PC is fully on — through S5 — it’s completely off. Between those extremes, the various sleep states specify which components in the computer are receiving power and how much.

Although the technical specs of each sleep state are firmly defined, PC vendors often disagree on the labeling they use for sleep modes. Some use nondescriptive names, such as my laptop’s Zzz function keys (evocative of snoring, I guess). Others may refer to reduced-power states as sleep, standby, or suspend, with no further clarification.

So here’s the answer to part of your question, Bob. When you put your system into standby, it’s most likely in a light sleep state allowing some tasks or processes to bubble slowly in the background, akin to putting a pot of water on low heat. If your PC is free of malware and your firewall is properly configured and up-to-date, odds are the activity you noticed was normal and harmless system activity.

In short, you’re probably fine. If, however, you want to go beyond probably, do a bit more work.

First, use Windows’ built-in Event Viewer and Search tools to check for system events and file changes that occurred during the time your PC was in sleep mode and you saw activity. You can find information on using those tools in my May 6 item, “Tracking down the source of mystery downloads.” That may be enough to tell you what was going on.

Windows can tell you what it knows about your hardware’s sleep-state options via the built-in powercfg command explained in this detailed Technet list of powercfg usage options.

But Microsoft and your hardware vendor may not use the same nomenclature. To track down what standby really means on your specific PC, check your system’s technical documentation and your vendor’s site as well.

You also can peek directly into your PC’s BIOS power settings. Often, the BIOS shows the English nicknames used by a vendor for various formal sleep states. You may even be able to select a different default sleep state. (See Figure 1.)

BIOS power settings
Figure 1. Sometimes, the BIOS is the best place to see exactly which formal sleep states (S0-S5) are available to you, regardless of the nickname your vendor has given them.

If you need a refresher on how to access your BIOS settings, consult my Feb. 5, 2009, column.

So, you know what was running on your PC while it was on standby. You also know what standby means on your PC, and you’ve swept your PC for malware. Now you should be able to judge whether you really have a problem.

As I said earlier, I bet you’re OK and your system was simply in a sleep state that allowed some normal tasks or processes to continue working in the background.

Free app prints folder-content lists with ease

David A. Grosland is frustrated by Windows’ lack of a simple print-directory tool:
  • “One of the most irritating omissions in Windows and Office 7 is the ability to print lists of folders and files. The most problematical situation is the inability to print out a directory and file list of my photos (of which I have over 2,600) in order to keep track of those I have scanned, etc., and those I haven’t. Is there a solution?”
Yes, there is, David. I guess so many people complained about this problem that Microsoft published support article 321379, “How to add the Print Directory feature for folders in Windows XP, in Windows Vista, or in Windows 7.”

The Microsoft method requires editing the Windows Registry, so if you’re uncomfortable with that process, or if you prefer a free program, Karen Kenworthy’s Directory Printer app (info page) should also do the trick.

MS Office and Adobe icons no longer meaningful

Some of Al Reeder’s mainline software is misbehaving.
  • “My Office 2007 and Adobe applications and files now only show the same generic icon with little arrows for internal functions. Everything still works, but the icons are all the same. It’s just these applications. The Recycle and other system icons remain unaffected.

    “Am I going to have to do a clean system/programs install? Please say it ain’t so!”
OK. It ain’t so — probably.

A total reinstall of Office or Adobe is your last-ditch option. I suggest you start with less-drastic repair installs first. These should refresh your existing installations and repair defects caused by missing or corrupted software or settings, without dismantling your current setup. Here’s how:
  • Office 2007: MS Support article 924614 tells you “How to use the repair process in the 2007 Office programs.”’s article, “Detect and Repair Applications In Microsoft Office 2007,” offers an alternative explanation of the same basic process.

  • Adobe: You don’t specify which Adobe program you’re referring to, Al, but most offer something similar to Office’s repair option. For example, Adobe Reader’s Help menu has an item named Detect and Repair. If you click it, diagnostic and repair routines will try to get Adobe Reader performing properly.

    For other Adobe tools, check the help files and documentation for the words Detect and Repair, both as a phrase and as single words.
If none of the repair or diagnostic tools works, then, yes — I’d suggest a reinstall right on top of your existing installations. That still should allow some of your settings and customizations to survive.

Only if that also fails would you need to do the ultimate: uninstall Office and Adobe and reinstall them from scratch.

How long do hard drives last in storage?

Craig Benson has a ton of music files that he wants to preserve on a hard drive placed in storage.
  • “I have a question about relatively long-term backup of files that don’t change much — ripped CDs, archived files, etc. With the free fall in prices on 1+ TB drives, I have found myself with an embarrassment of perfectly well-functioning ATA hard drives in the 160–-320 GB range. I know you recommend CD-ROM for long-term storage, but the limited capacity makes it difficult to store half a terabyte of WMA lossless files on a reasonable number of disks.

    “My question is whether unconnected hard drives are a good long-term storage medium. Most of the time they will be sitting in a climate-controlled area, not connected to anything.”
In a truly climate-controlled area — away from extremes of temperature, light, humidity, dust, static discharge, etc. — any data-storage medium will last a very long time.

With hard drives, the magnetic surfaces will be fine almost indefinitely in climate-controlled storage, but the lubrication for the drive’s moving parts will slowly degrade, no matter what. At some point, the drive may no longer be mechanically able to access the data that’s still perfectly encoded on the platters.

But with careful storage, that will be a long way off. I’d suggest testing the drives from time to time — every year or two, perhaps — to make sure all is well. Again, with careful storage, I’ll bet your drives will last for decades. has a good forum thread titled “What Is the Best Solution for Storing Hard Drives?” also has some good suggestions (intermingled with the usual cheeky banter, jokes, and insults) in an Ask Slashdot item, “How to Store Internal Hard Drives?”

But the key to all of this is controlled conditions; storage in a damp closet or on a dusty shelf won’t do. The more change in temperature, light, humidity, dust, static discharge, and so forth, the shorter the life of any data-storage medium.

And while you’re at it, if you have many drives to spare, make multiple backups of the same data. That way, you’ll avoid data-loss due to any one hardware failure.

It something matters to you, back it up and treat it gently!

Have more info on this subject? Post your tip in the WS Columns forum.

Fred Langa is a senior editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He was formerly editor of Byte Magazine (1987–91), editorial director of CMP Media (1991–97), and editor of the LangaList e-mail newsletter from its origin in 1997 until its merger with Windows Secrets in November 2006.
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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.