No boot sector detected... but then my computer came back

Problem description: A few days ago I opened up my laptop only to be greeted with a loud beep, a black screen and a message informing me that there was "No boot sector detected in internal hard drive". I was given the option of trying to boot again, viewing the setup menu, or running some tests. Booting again didn't work, I have no idea what the setup menu is for, and the tests seemed to be passing except I didn't have enough time to let them all run. But this doesn't matter because...

When I got home, and opened it up again, I was greeted by a friendly Vista login screen. I entered my password, and the computer started up normally. However, in my use of the computer since then I have noticed some bizarre symptoms. When deleting, copying, or moving files, Vista will hang on that little "Calculating..." screen. When I use Task Manager to end that process, it restarts explorer, but the files end up where I meant for them to go. This, coupled with the earlier "boot sector" warning, led me to believe that my hard drive was dying, but I have heard no strange sounds from the drive, no missing files, etc.

I noticed some other interesting symptoms when making extra backups in case of drive failure (one can never be too sure). When I tried to copy files to a CD, it took a long time and the CD itself seemed to spin up and down a lot, but the files got copied in the end. Also, when deleting some files from a usb thumb drive, I got the same hang as when doing it on the HD, which leads me to believe the hard drive is not failing (wishful thinking).

The laptop seems to be hotter than I remember, with the fan running loudly most of the time.

Attempted fixes: I don't really know what to do about this problem, as I can't seem to find consistent answers to my symptoms. I have run some new virus scans, found one but it was a low level threat. I also ran Spybot and found nothing.

Recent changes: Not that I know of.

Operating system: Windows Vista Home Premium, SP1, 32 bit

System specs: Dell XPS M1330, Intel Core 2 Duo 1.67GHz, 2 gigs of RAM, 136 gig HD, about 16 months old.

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