Easy Solution to Drive Fragmentation

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One of the hardest things I have to do is explain to customers why their computer is so slow.

Without some prior education about computers, CPU’s, memory, hard drives, etc… it’s difficult to articulate the reasons behind dramatic drops in performance without a full-blown class on computer basics.

One the most common questions people ask me is on the subject of file fragments and defragging.

I get a lot of “What is a frag?”, or “Should I defrag?”, or “How often should I defragment my hard drive?”

Well before I get into the whys and hows… let’s start with a good explanation.

I like explanations that you can visualize in your head.

Let’s start by pretending that your computer is a large office building with many floors.

In this office, there are many filing cabinets, in every room, and on every floor.  In these filing cabinets is where you keep your files.

Now, let’s say that for the sake of speed, everyone puts their documents in whatever filing cabinet is closest to them.  But, to keep track of where things are, they record the locations of the documents in a huge, centralized index book.  So whenever someone needs a file, they consult the book, find out where the file is, and then fetch it.

That’s not too bad, right?

It gets even better.

What if they went a step further and put different parts of a single file in different filing cabinets?

Even if they updated the huge book on a continuous basis, it would make things very complicated.

If your boss ever gave you a seemingly simple command, such as, “Please fetch me the file on XYZ, Inc,” you would have a real project ahead of you!  Let’s look at the steps this would take:

  • You would need to run over to the huge index book, find out where all the pieces of the file are located.
  • You would then need to take this information and gather all the pieces – one by one.  Each piece of the file might be in a different floor of the building, so this might take you a while.  There could be thousands of pieces to a single file.
  • You would then reassemble the pieces into something usable.  As stated in the previous step, some files may be separated into thousands of pieces.
  • Some would say that this is probably the most inefficient office filing system ever.

Well, surprise!  This is almost exactly how your computer stores data on the hard drive, and then retrieves the data when you need a file.

File Fragments = Trouble

The only difference between our office example and your computer is that your computer can grab each piece much faster.  It might only take a high-speed computer a few milliseconds to gather each piece… and maybe a few milliseconds to reassemble the pieces.

But, consider that in a course of using a computer to accomplish a single task (checking your e-mail, for example) the computer is accessing hundreds of files.  All those extra milliseconds add up quickly.  Over time, this can slow a system down considerably… especially on a computer with an already slow hard drive.

If that weren’t bad enough, the extra work your computer’s hard drive does in scavenging for those bits and pieces will shorten it’s life.  Some experts estimate that a severely fragmented hard drive will shorten the life of a computer by 1 to 3 years.  You have backed up lately, right?

Even if this is an exaggeration, file fragmentation can still cause:

  • Sluggish performance
  • Slow boot
  • Slow shutdowns
  • Failed CD recording
  • Slow or aborted backups
  • Corrupted registry
  • Freezes, lockups and crashes

Why so many problems?

The hard drive is one of the slowest components in your computer.  It’s the only major component of a computer that has moving parts.  That already makes it the bottleneck of most system operations.  If the system has a sufficient amount of RAM, it probably is THE bottleneck.  Slowing down a hard drive even more will bring a computer down to it’s knees.

It may sound strange, but file fragmentation was once considered an amazing feature.  Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) originally designed this method of organization as a key part of its RSX-11 operating system.  DEC designed this as answer to storage space “challenges”.  Hard drive space was VERY limited back in those days.

The Defragmentation Debate Rages On

Defragmenting (often called “defragging”) a hard drive is like having a crew of people come into the office over the weekend, and reorganize those little pieces back into consolidated files.  So, when you come in on Monday morning, everything is in order.  When you need a file, all you have to do is consult the newly written index book, go fetch the single file, and use it.  No running all over the building to gather hundreds (or thousands) of pieces.

No reassembling, since it’s all in the same place.

It’s more efficient and fast.  How could it not be?

Despite the evidence in favor of defragmenting, there are still those who believe that it doesn’t do much.  This belief has been perpetuated by some rumors floating around the internet.

There was a rumor once, back when Windows XP was young, that fragmentation of the hard drive would no longer affect the performance of a computer.  Back then, the reasoning behind this myth was that the XP operating system was so efficient in managing and caching data.

Recently, it has been rumored that Microsoft stated that Vista did not need to be defragmented.

BOTH of these statements are FALSE.

Perhaps this belief has kept up isn’t momentum because the impact isn’t always so dramatic.  The difference defragging makes isn’t always night and day.  Sometimes a computer may have other problems, which affect the system in worse ways.  But defragging still makes a difference… especially with badly fragmented drives.  You’ll also see a big difference on slower drives.

Both XP and Vista need defragmenting.  In fact, both XP and Vista come with built-in defragmentation utilities!

Although these defragmentation tools aren’t as efficient or beneficial as some of the 3rd party utilities, this fact alone should be enough to prove that Microsoft sees the value in defragmenting drives when needed.  Vista actually comes preconfigured with the defragmentation tool scheduled for once per week, showing that Microsoft has taken an even stronger stance on the importance of defragging.

Third Party Tools are Better

As mentioned above, Windows XP and Vista may have built-in tools for defragging the hard drive, there far better tools available.

The best one that I know of is called Diskeeper 2009 Professional Edition.  They are currently on Diskeeper 2009, but they have been around for a LONG time.  The Diskeeper corporation has essentially mastered the defragmentation process by defragging the hard drive in real time.

Basically, the program runs at a lower priority (in the background) and defrags your computer’s hard drive without affecting performance in any way.  As far as I know, no other program besides Tune-Up Utilities has this feature – especially not the built-in Windows defragmenter.

Always Within Easy Reach

Here is where Diskeeper really shines.  Not only does Diskeeper reassemble the files on the hard drive, but it also does something better.

To increase performance even more, it monitors which files are accessed the most, and then rearranges those files in such a way that the most often accessed files are placed near each other.  Diskeeper calls this “Intelligent File Access Acceleration Sequencing Technology, or I-FAAST.”

In our office example above, it would be similar to keeping the most commonly needed files closest to your desk.  This decreases the time it takes to retrieve each file, giving your system a subtle but noticeable boost.  Unfortunately, Diskeeper only does this in it’s 2009 Professional Edition… not in it’s 2009 Home Edition.

Decisions, Decisions…

If you want to keep your hard drive data organized, extend the life of your computer, and make your entire computing experience better… you need to defrag your drive.

You can either do this manually or automatically.  The choice is yours.

If anyone ever gives me that choice, I choose the automatic method.  My life is complicated enough already!  It’s always better when I can simplify my life by getting a little more OFF my plate.

When it comes to automatic defragging, very little beats Diskeeper’s REAL-TIME defragmenting (although Tune-Up Utilities comes close).  What’s better than automatic AND immediate?  Not much could beat that except placing the commonly used files together on the hard for even faster access.  Oh wait, Diskeeper does that too!

Although Diskeeper comes in a 2009 Home Edition, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it due to the absence of the I-FAAST feature.  The Home Edition also lacks the Frag Shield 2.0 feature, which keeps those critical system files from becoming fragmented.

So, stick with Diskeeper’s 2009 Professional Edition instead.  It’s only $59.95, which is a little more than the Home Edition, but it’s infinitely better.  It will be one of the best investments you can make in the health of your computer’s hard drive.

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