Windows Vista : Performance - Hard Disk (part 3) - Transfer Windows to Another Hard Disk

8/28/2012 1:30:55 AM

4. Choose the Right Filesystem

The filesystem is the invisible mechanism on your hard disk that is responsible for keeping track of all the data stored on the drive. Think of it as a massive table of contents, matching up each filename with its corresponding data stored somewhere on the disk surface. Vista supports three filesystem types:[11]

[11] * There's actually a fourth type, CDFS, used by CD-ROMs.

FAT (File Allocation Table, 16-bit)

FAT is used for all drives under 512 MB, such as flash memory cards and floppy disks. The largest drive supported by the FAT filesystem is 2 GB.

FAT32 (File Allocation Table, 32-bit)

Designed to overcome the 2 GB partition limit with the FAT system, FAT32 is supported by every version of Windows since Windows 95 OSR2. Today, it's used mostly for flash memory cards larger than 2 GB, and on older PCs running Windows 98 and Windows Me. In addition to the support for larger drives, it also supports smaller file clusters (see the upcoming "Understanding Cluster Sizes" sidebar), so it stores information more efficiently than FAT.

NTFS (NT Filesystem)

NTFS, designed from the ground up to completely replace FAT/FAT32, is the default filesystem on all Vista PCs. (Specifically, Vista supports NTFS version 3.1.) It offers security features like encryption and permissions , compression, and quotas. It's typically faster and more reliable than FAT/FAT32, and supports drives up to 2 terabytes in size.

If Windows Vista is the only operating system on your computer, you should be using NTFS—no question. The only compelling reason to use another filesystem is if you have a dual-boot setup with a very old version of Windows, in which case you'd need to choose a filesystem recognized by all operating systems on your computer. Table 2 shows which filesystems are supported by all recent versions of Microsoft Windows.

Understanding Cluster Sizes

Clusters are the smallest units into which a hard disk's space can be divided. A hard disk formatted with the traditional FAT system, found in Windows 95 and an ancient operating system called "DOS," can have no more than 65,536 clusters on each drive or partition. This means that the larger the hard disk, the larger the size of each cluster.

The problem with large clusters is that they result in a lot of wasted disk space. Each cluster can store no more than a single file (or a part of a single file); if a file does not consume an entire cluster, the remaining space is wasted. For example, a 2 GB drive would have a cluster size of 32 KB; a 1 KB file on a disk with a 32 KB cluster size will consume 32 KB of disk space; a 33 KB file on the same drive will consume 64 KB of space, and so on. The extra 31 KB left over from the 33 KB file is called slack space, and it can't be used by any other files. With thousands of files (especially those tiny shortcuts littered throughout a Windows installation), the amount of wasted slack space on a sizeable hard disk can add up to hundreds of megabytes of wasted space.

The NTFS filesystem used by Vista can handle more than four billion clusters, resulting in much smaller cluster sizes. Now, four billion clusters, at 4 kilobytes each, gives NTFS a maximum partition size of 14.9 terabytes (15,259 GB). Of course, if this drive were commercially available, its manufacturer would contend that 1 terabyte is equal to 1,000,000,000,000 bytes, and market the unit as a 16.4 TB (16,384 GB) drive.

You can see how much space is wasted by any given file by right-clicking on the file icon, selecting Properties, and comparing the Size value with the Size on disk value. The same works for multiple selected files and folders; highlight all the objects in your root directory to see the total amount of wasted space on your drive. To find the current cluster size of your drive, just open the properties sheet for a small file you know will only consume a single cluster (such as a Windows Shortcut); its Size on disk will be equal to the size of one cluster.

Table 2. Filesystems supported by recent versions of Windows
Windows Vista ✓ (data only) ✓ (data only) ✓ (v3.1)
Windows XP, 2003 ✓ (v3.1)
Windows 2000 ✓ (v3.0)
Windows Me, 98, and 95 ORS2  
Windows NT 4.0   ✓ (v1.2)
Windows 95   

To find out which filesystem is currently being used by a particular drive on your PC, just right-click the drive in Windows Explorer and select Properties. Or, open the Disk Management utility (diskmgmt.msc) to see an overview of all of your drives.

4.1. Convert your drives to NTFS

If you've upgraded your PC from an earlier version of Windows, there's a chance you're still using the FAT32 filesystem. Assuming you don't need to keep FAT32 for compatibility with other operating systems, you should convert your drive to NTFS. The process is easy, relatively quick, and won't harm your data (although you should back up beforehand just to be safe).

Windows Vista provides the FAT to NTFS Conversion Utility (convert.exe) for this purpose. To convert drive C:, for example, just open a Command Prompt window (cmd.exe) and type:

convert c: /fs:ntfs

Include the /v option to run in "verbose" mode, which provides more information as it does its job. Type convert /? for other, more esoteric options.

Note that this is a one-way conversion, at least when using the software included with Windows Vista. If you need to convert an NTFS drive to FAT32 for some reason, you'll need a third-party utility such as Disk Director (

5. Advanced NTFS Settings

The extra features of the NTFS filesystem discussed in the previous section come at a price, namely a small amount of disk space and performance overhead. The following settings allow you to fine-tune NTFS to squeeze the most performance out of your NTFS drive; experiment with these settings to find the configuration that works best for you.

Start by opening the Registry Editor and expanding the branches to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Filesystem.

Double-click any one of the following values to change its data. If the value is missing, create it by going to Edit → New → DWORD Value, and then typing the name exactly as shown.


Values: 0 = enabled (default), 1 = disabled.

Early versions of Windows and DOS didn't support so-called long filenames, but rather allowed only eight-character filenames followed by three-letter filename extensions. Although Windows 95 and all subsequent versions of Windows more or less eliminated this restriction, an eight-dot-three version of a filename is generated with each file you create to maintain compatibility with older applications. For example, the file A letter to Mom.wpd could also be referenced as alette~1.wpd. If you don't use older 16-bit programs, you can disable Vista's creation of these 8.3 aliases by changing this value to 1 (the default is zero).


Values: 0 = enabled (default), 1 = disabled.

Windows keeps a record of the time and date every file and folder on your hard disk was created, as well as when it was last modified and last accessed. You can stop Windows from updating the "last accessed" date for folders every time they're opened by changing the value to 1 (the default is zero), which may improve drive performance. This setting has no effect on files.


Values: 1 = small (default), 2 = medium, 3 = large, 4 = maximum.

The core of the NTFS filesystem is the master file table (MFT), a comprehensive index of every file on the disk (including the MFT itself). Since disk defragmenters can't defragment the MFT (also known as $mft), Windows reserves a certain amount of extra space for it to grow, in an effort to reduce its eventual fragmentation. The more fragmented the MFT gets, the more it will hamper overall disk performance.

You can determine the current size and fragmentation level of the MFT on any drive by using the command-line Disk Defragmenter tool (defrag.exe) along with the -a parameter. The numbers relating to the MFT are shown at the end of the Volume Information report. Probably the most interesting statistic here, though, is Percent MFT in use. The higher the number, the less space the MFT has to grow (and it will).

The NtfsMftZoneReservation setting allows you to increase the space reserved for the MFT. Although the default is 1, values of 2 or 3 are probably better for most systems with large hard disks; the maximum value of 4 is good for very large drives with a lot of small files. Specify too small of a value here, and the MFT will become fragmented more quickly as it grows; too large of a value, and it will consume (waste) too much disk space.

The problem is that changing this setting will not have any effect on your drive's current MFT, but rather only influence its future growth. For this reason, the earlier this value is increased in the life of a disk, the better. To defragment or rebuild the MFT on your Windows drive, you'll need to transfer your operating system to a new drive, as described in the next section.

You'll need to restart Windows for any of these changes to take effect.

6. Transfer Windows to Another Hard Disk

Each new version of Windows consumes something like four times that of its predecessor. That kind of bloat would cause an uproar if the sizes of commercially available hard disks weren't growing at an even faster rate.

Luckily, a new drive is an inexpensive way to improve performance as well as get more space for your stuff. And there are basically two approaches:

Add a second drive.

Hard drive manufacturers sell a lot of external USB drives for this purpose. It's the easiest approach, taking only a few minutes to hook up, but it does very little to improve performance. Why run Windows on an aging 60 GB drive, while your photos sit happily on a much faster 500 GB drive?

Replace the primary drive.

Use this approach if you want to throw away that old 60 GB drive, and use only the 500 GB drive for Windows and all your data. Not only will this give you better performance, you'll have a lot less to worry about if you're running Windows on a new drive rather than one that's seen thousands of hours of use. The downside is that it's more work to completely replace your old drive, and that's what this section is about.

Thanks to improvements in technology, rapidly dropping prices of new hard disks, and a nifty new tool in Windows Vista, it's easier than ever to replace your old hard disk.

The procedure goes like this: first, connect your new drive to your PC alongside your old drive. Then, create an image of your old hard disk—a snapshot of every byte of data on the entire drive—and write the image to your new hard disk. Finally, disconnect the old drive and put the new one in its place.

Start by purchasing an SATA/IDE to USB 2.0 Adapter, like the $20 Vantec unit shown in Figure 6. Alternatively, you can use an external hard drive enclosure, although a unit like this may be a better investment, as it supports SATA, 3.5 desktop IDE, and 2.5 notebook IDE drives all from the same cable.

Figure 6. Use a handy external USB adapter like this one to hook up your new drive to your PC

Next, plug the drive into the adapter, plug the power supply into the drive, and then plug the adapter into a free USB port on your PC.

Now, I know what you're thinking: why don't I just plug the drive directly into my SATA or IDE controller? While it's true that you can connect your new drive to your motherboard's controller, there are several reasons to use a USB adapter like this one instead. First, it's quick and easy; you don't need to take your PC apart (yet) and you don't have to leave the new drive dangling from the side of your box while you transfer your data. Second, it's great for laptops that may not have a way to connect two drives at once. Third, it avoids the nasty problems you'd encounter if your PC tried to boot to the wrong drive in the middle of the procedure. And last but not least, when you're done, you can use the adapter to clear off the old drive. A device like this makes things so much easier.

When Windows detects and installs the new drive, it'll show up in Disk Drives branch in Device Manager (devmgmt.msc).  As soon as Windows finishes installing the necessary drivers, open Disk Management (diskmgmt.msc), right-click the new drive in the lower pane, and select New Simple Volume, as shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7. Use the Disk Management tool to prepare the new drive

On the first page of the New Simple Volume Wizard, click Next, and then specify the size of the new partition.

You'll need to make two partitions on the new drive: the primary partition to become your new boot drive, and a secondary partition to temporarily hold the backup of your existing data. The second partition needs to be no larger than the capacity of your old hard disk, so set the primary partition to the total size of the new drive minus the total size of the old drive. For instance, if you're replacing a 60 GB hard disk with a 500 GB hard disk, set the first partition to 440 GB, and use the remaining 60 GB for the second.

So, at the prompt, type a value, in megabytes, for the size of the primary partition (i.e., 440000 for 440 GB) and then click Next. Follow the prompts to complete the wizard; make sure to format the drive with the NTFS filesystem, but don't assign a drive letter at this time.

Now, create the second partition in the remaining unused space, and have it consume the rest of the drive. Again, format it as NTFS, but this time, assign a drive letter (your choice).

At this point, you can copy your data to the new drive in either of two ways:

Use Complete PC Backup and Restore.

If you have the Business, Ultimate, or Enterprise edition of Vista, you can use the backup software built in to Windows to back up your entire hard disk onto the second partition you just created.

Then, power down your PC, remove your old drive, connect the new one to your primary controller, and then boot your PC. 

When that's done, and you're able to boot Windows with the new drive, use the Disk Management tool to delete the secondary partition and extend the primary partition so that it consumes the whole drive.

Use third-party disk imaging software.

If you're using the Home Basic or Home Premium edition and don't have access to Complete PC Backup and Restore—or if you just want to complete the whole process without having to dig up your Windows installation disc—you can use third-party software instead. Try DriveImage XML ( or HDClone Free Edition (, both free, or use a commercial product like Acronis True Image Home (

Use your disk-imaging software to create an image of your old hard disk, and save it to the secondary partition of the new drive. Then use the same software to restore the image to the new drive's primary partition.

Next, open the Disk Management tool. Delete the secondary partition and extend the primary partition so that it consumes the whole drive. Then, right-click the sole remaining partition and select Mark Partition as Active. Shut down Windows and then unplug both drives. Set the old drive aside and connect the new drive in its place.

Turn on your PC, and Windows should boot to the new drive.

6.1. What to look for in a new hard disk

The speed of your hard disk is a major factor of your system's overall performance, at least as much as its capacity. After all, the faster it's able to find data and transfer it, the quicker Windows will load, the faster your virtual memory will be, and the less time it will take to start applications and copy files.

Money is usually the deciding factor when choosing a drive, but with more money, people usually just opt for more gigabytes. If you want the best performance, though, consider these factors to be at least as important:

RPM (revolutions per minute).

This is the speed at which the disk spins; higher numbers are faster. Cheap drives spin at 5,400 RPM, but you shouldn't settle for anything less than 7,200 RPM. If you're serious about performance, get a more expensive (and harder to find) 10,000 RPM (10k) or 15,000 RPM (15k) drive.

Buffer (measured in megabytes).

The buffer is memory (RAM) installed in the drive's circuitry that allows it to accept data from your computer faster than it is able to physically write to the disk surface, and to read data from the disk surface faster when your PC isn't necessarily ready for it. A larger buffer is better; don't settle for less than 8 megabytes.

MTBF (measured in hours).

It doesn't matter how fast a drive is if it dies on you. The higher the MTBF—Mean Time Between Failures—the more reliable the drive is supposed to be. Of course, this isn't a guarantee, but rather merely an indicator of the market for which the drive was designed. Hard disks designed for servers tend to have much higher MTBF ratings than the low-end disks available on most computer-store shelves.

If you're buying a drive for use in a DVR (Digital Video Recorder) or HTPC (Home Theater PC), it's also wise to seek out the quietest drive you can find. Although manufacturers offer very little in the way of useful, reliable noise data, you can usually cull pretty good feedback from HTPC discussion groups on the Web.

Aside from the specs, you'll also need to consider the interface, the connector on the back of the drive that must match the drive controller and cable already in your PC. Here are your choices:

SATA (a.k.a. Serial ATA)

For most Vista users, SATA is probably your best bet. It's faster than IDE (next), supports hot-swapping (connecting and disconnecting while the PC is on), and is easier to hook up (no jumpers or ribbon cables). Look for a SATA 3.0 (also known as SATA II) drive with the NCQ (Native command queuing) feature for the best performance.

The main drawback is that SATA connectors are flimsy and easily broken, so if you'll be hot-swapping your drives, consider instead eSATA (SATA with a stronger connector for external drives) or SCSI (described shortly).

ATA (a.k.a. Parallel ATA or IDE)

This interface is now totally obsolete. Even if you have an older PC with only an IDE controller on the motherboard, it's usually a better idea to get a SATA card ($20–$30) and a SATA drive than to invest in an older IDE drive.

Consider IDE only if you have a laptop that just takes 2.5-inch IDE drives, or if you need to set up a dual-boot system with an older version of Windows that doesn't support SATA.


Ultra320 SCSI is still faster than SATA, and will likely be your only choice if you want a super-fast 15K RPM drive. But given that SCSI controllers are unreasonably expensive, as are SCSI drives, consider this option only if you absolutely need the fastest drive money can buy.


If you're buying an external drive—which is great for backups, you may be tempted to get a USB drive or enclosure. While USB 2.0 is reasonably fast at 480 mbps, and Firewire 800 is slightly faster at 800 mbps, both of these standards will restrict the speed of your drive. For faster backups and less time spent transferring files, you'd be hard-pressed to beat eSATA (external SATA), which supports speeds up to 2,400 mbps. Most desktop PC and some higher-end laptops include eSATA ports for this purpose, but if your PC doesn't have one, you can get an internal-to-external (SATA-to-eSATA) adapter for just a few dollars, or a standalone eSATA controller for not much more.

Finally, there's the form factor, and this one's easy. Desktop PCs use so-called 3.5-inch drives, while laptops use 2.5-inch drives. If you're getting an external drive, you have a choice between the two; 2.5-inch drives are smaller and lighter-weight, but you get much more speed and capacity for your money with a 3.5-inch drive.

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