We often hear questions like “Why is it taking ages to boot-up Windows?” or “Why is it taking so long to start the Web browser?” The major culprit here is file fragmentation, which means that your files are scattered all over your hard disk in a chaotic manner. Since this is a major performance hit, Windows comes with its own disk defragmenter. This blog post details exactly why the fragmentation phenomenon needs to be addressed and, most importantly, if the Windows basic defragmenter is really enough to boost your PC’s performance.
The fragmentation phenomenon: What is it and why does it matter?
The more programs you install (and uninstall), updates you run and files you move, the more chaotic your hard disk gets. Simple example:
- You uninstall the office suite on your machine; these files are deleted, leaving a gap as you can see.
- Now you install a huge video editing suite which takes up more space than the office suite. Windows now tries to put the files in the gap, but they obviously don’t fit anymore.
- Then your video editing suite is split into two parts. The hard disk now needs more time to collect the data to start the program and use specific functions. Since all programs, including your operating system itself, constantly access files, the end result is an overall sluggish system.
This is a simple example of how fragmentation occurs. Simply by deleting, moving, installing and copying files, fragmentation happens DAILY. Even when you’re just browsing the Web or receiving e-mails, your hard disk becomes more and more fragmented, and you lose performance.
The effect on performance is exponentially related to how many files are being accessed at the same time. Also, keep in mind that your hard disk is mechanical and is therefore the weakest link in the chain. Your processor, main memory and motherboard all have to wait until data is read by the slow mechanical hard disk.
In order to counteract the fragmentation of files, it is important to defrag the hard drive. This process puts the scattered file fragments back together, thereby accelerating the system. Now, PC users can finally work at the right pace again.
Choosing the right defragmenter for your disk
Microsoft offers a built-in defragmenter, but is this basic tool really enough, or is it better to turn it off? The typical consumer should definitely go with a third-party defragmenter. Administrators might want to check out O&O Defrag v11, which offers different algorithms, for example, one that optimizes the hard disk for server use. If you’ve just bought your laptop with one of those crazily expensive SSD Hard Disks (Solid State Disk with flash storage), you could try out the latest version of Diskeeper, which optimizes the free space so that the SSD is able to write data more sequentially. This improves speed and increases the life span of the SSD.
You could also go for TuneUp Drive Defrag, part of the TuneUp Utilities suite. Here are some thoughts from our developers on the major differences between our defragmenter and the Windows built-in tool:
- TuneUp Drive Defrag makes sure that free disk space is laid out in a contiguous manner.
- Our tool puts the important prefetch files at the beginning of the hard disk, where read/write operations are generally a tad faster. Prefetch files are used by Windows to speed up boot and application startup time.
- It also optimizes the so called “MFT” file. The “Master File Table” contains metadata on all of your files and folders, such as permissions, size and file names. To give credit where credit is due, Microsoft now includes that in Vista as well.
Keep in mind: Most modern third-party defragmenters feature a visual representation of the hard disk as it is being optimized. Vista’s defragmenter doesn’t even tell you how long it takes to finish the job.
Disable Vista’s defragmenter
So you found your favorite defragmenter? Good! If you’re using Windows XP, everything you need to do at this point is simple. Do NOT use the built-in defragmenter anymore; you only need to ignore it. If you own a newer machine with Windows Vista, then you need to make sure it doesn’t automatically defrag your hard disk with the built-in tool. Otherwise the basic Windows defragmenter would need to re-analyze the drive just to see that defragmentation is not really necessary. So let’s make sure that the Windows defragmenter is disabled:
- Click on the start orb in Vista and simply type in “defrag.” Click on the “Disk Defragmenter” entry, then hit “Continue.”
- The Vista defragmenter starts. Uncheck “Run on a schedule (recommended)” and hit “OK.” After that, the built-in Windows defragmenter will not interfere with your new defragmentation tool!
The bottom line
While Windows’ built-in disk defragmenter does an okay job, it is not sufficient by itself. Professional tools can automate the defragmentation process for Windows XP users and are capable of rearranging the hard disk much more efficiently. If you use the right defragmenter, boot time will go down, and your programs will respond much more quickly.
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