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Safely Remove Hardware acting questionable

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I have a Windows 7 Home Premium laptop, with a Seagate external hard drive connected to a USB hub. Sometimes when I want to remove the hard drive, the Safely Remove Hardware function will not respond. It will neither tell me it is busy nor will it tell me that it is safe to remove the hard drive. The hard drive no longer appears in the list of devices under Compute. The Safely Remove Hardware icon is still in the systray, but is unresponsive. Usually I will shut down the computer, remove the device, and everything is OK.

What causes Windows to leave a "Safely Remove Hardware" request in limbo like this? I tried to remove the hard drive an hour ago, and still got no response that it is busy or can be removed. Nothing either way.

Is it OK to remove the hard drive even though there is no acknowledgement that it can be removed? Windows no longer sees it. I'd like to be able to take my laptop to another room without shutting it down (and closing any documents I am working on). I have no open documents on the external hard drive. I use it only for backup. The backup software says that the backup is up to date.

I appreciate any insight on this, and any advice on how to deal with this situation.
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