What’s the point in doing a defrag?

Performance, that’s the point!Fragmented Disk

I’m a huge fan of doing regular defragmentation of hard drives and in terms of squeezing performance out of our bloated PCs, a defrag’s like a good old spring clean!

But why am I such a fan?…..let me explain…

It’s all about being tidy. When Microsoft store your files (and applications) on your hard drive (or any other storage device for that matter), there’s absolutely no guarantee that the entire contents of each file will be written contiguously on the disk. In fact, this almost never happens because the operating system (Windows) is programmed firstly to break files into small manageable pieces and secondly to use any available free area it can find on the disk to store those pieces. From the very first day you buy your new PC, the fragmentation begins and it never stops.

“So what” I hear you say….. Well, there’s fundamentally no problem with having files scattered all over the hard disk in random locations because Windows puts them all back together each time you read or change them. But, the fragmentation does lead to sluggishness when the PC is running because the disk head is flying all over the place locating and reassembling all the file pieces for you (and Windows) to use. If left for too long, this can lead to a noticeable slowdown in PC performance which needs your attention. The problem seems even worse on the older XP PCs due to their small hard disks where finding contiguous free space is next to impossible.

There are lots of options available when you choose to do a defrag and the simplest is just to join all the fragments back together into a contiguous area of disk. This is essentially what the standard Microsoft Defrag Utility does for you but it’s really only doing half the job. It’s unlikely you’ll sense any performance improvement so I don’t recommend using the inbuilt utility.

If you stop and think about the actual process of reading data from a hard disk, the most efficient performance will result if the (relatively slow) disk head movement is kept to a minimum. For those who remember vinyl records, the analogy is to have the needle track smoothly along the grooves reading file after file for you without having to stop and jump across to another track for the next piece of information. In computer terms, what we’re wanting to achieve is to get all related files sitting alongside each other because logic says that if Windows wants one file from a folder, it will shortly want more from the same folder. Pack them together and the head movement is kept to a minimum – goal achieved!

What you really want to do is sweep the disk clean and write everything neatly and tidily back to the disk. Of course this isn’t practical so you need a program which is designed to undertake the process for you without interfering with the operation of Windows.


Defragmentation in Action

I like free software and I have two programs that I recommend for performing efficient defragmentation – MyDefrag and Smart Defrag 3. Both work on Windows XP, Vista, 7 & 8 and both are easy to use.

MyDefrag is a simple but very effective program. It’s easy to install and runs on most PCs. I know of a few people who couldn’t get it to run but this was probably because it must have Administrator rights to work. MyDefrag offers you several “scripts” to run. I strongly recommend the one called “System Disk Monthly” as it performs the most comprehensive defrag possible. Be warned though, it can take a very long time the first time you run it…and I mean up to 24hrs depending on how big and messy your disk is! Just be patient and leave it running overnight!

Smart Defrag has a slick user interface but it does install an automatic defrag which runs all the time and you will probably want to turn this capability off. You also have to pay attention during the installation as it tries to install other IOBit software which you need to “untick” along the way. When you run it, click the arrow beside Defrag and choose the Defrag and prioritize Files (slow) option. This will give similar results to the System Disk Monthly script in MyDefrag and takes just as long the first time!

My recommendation would be to try MyDefrag v4 first and if it doesn’t work, uninstall it and move on to Smart Defrag 3.

Joke 1Before you set off down the defrag path thought, there’s one task you have to do manually – a cleanup of unwanted and unnecessary files and folders. This has the multiple benefit of removing rubbish, freeing up disk space and ultimately making the defrag finish faster.

  • Uninstall any software you’ve installed but never used using Control Panel, Add/Remove Programs (XP) or Programs and Features (Win 7 & 8). Don’t touch any Microsoft Programs you don’t understand!
  • Use File Explorer to clean up your My Documents – get rid of all the ancient rubbish
  • Clean out your Browser Cache – in IE: Tools, Internet Options, Browsing History, Delete… and tick Temporary Internet files and Browsing History
  • For the more courageous, use File Explorer and search for all files with type=.tmp and delete them. You can also delete any file whose name starts with a ~

The final rule with Defragmentation is “once is not enough”! You need to run these things several times at the beginning – one after another with a full reboot in between. The reason for this is that there are always certain temporary Windows System Files in use when you’re using your PC. They can’t be moved by the Defragger so the only way to free/clear the space they’re occupying is to reboot. Do this after the first defrag and when you restart you’ll normally see “holes” on the disk where these files used to be – during the reboot they are re-written at the back of the used area of disk. Forcing these system files to move to the back of the disk and use contiguous space themselves has a noticeable impact on performance as they are the most heavily used files on the PC!Now perform another full defrag. A third reboot and defrag will do no harm either!

Oh, and one final tip……if the Defrag program tells you that you don’t need to do a defrag (especially the first time) – ignore it. It’s the reorganisation of the files you’re really after so go ahead anyway.

The last thing to mention is that you should continue to run your Defragger at least once every 3 months. If you are a heavy PC user, monthly is better. They run in the background and you can continue to work (although the PC will feel slower) while they do their stuff.

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