Windows 7 : Maintaining Your Hard Drive

10/1/2012 1:21:49 AM
While the CPU and RAM are the most important factors for system performance, your hard drive plays an important role in determining the overall speed of your computer. That's because the hard drive comes into play when you're opening programs or documents, when you're saving documents, or when you're moving and copying files. It also comes into play when you are running low on RAM by moving less-used applications to your hard drive from RAM. So, keeping the hard drive running as near peak performance as possible will have a positive impact on system performance.

1. Recovering wasted hard drive space

At any given time, some of the space on your hard drive is being eaten up by temporary files. As the name implies, temporary files are not like the programs you install or documents you save. Programs and documents are "forever," in the sense that Windows never deletes them at random. The only time a program is deleted is when you use Programs in Control Panel to remove the program. Likewise, documents aren't deleted unless you intentionally delete them and also empty the Recycle Bin.

The files in your Internet cache, also called your Temporary Internet Files folder, are good examples of temporary files. Every time you visit a Web page, all the text and pictures that make up that page are stored in your Internet cache. When you use the Back or Forward button to revisit a page you've viewed recently, your browser just pulls a copy of the page out of the Internet cache. That saves a lot of time when compared to how long it would take to re-download a page each time you clicked the Back or Forward button to revisit a recently viewed page.

Before you click the Disk Cleanup tool, be forewarned that the process could take several minutes, maybe longer. It's never necessary to use Disk Cleanup to get rid of temporary files.

To recover some wasted disk space, click the Disk Cleanup button on the Properties sheet for the hard drive. Open the Computer folder, right-click a drive, and choose Properties. In the Properties dialog box, click the Disk Cleanup button. Disk Cleanup then analyzes the drive for expendable files.  The Files to Delete list shows categories of temporary files. When you click a category name, the Description below the names explains the types of files in that category. All the categories represent temporary files that you can definitely safely delete. There won't ever be any important programs or documents you saved on your own in the list of temporary files.

The number to the right of each category name indicates how much drive space the files in that category are using, and how much space you'll gain if you delete them. Choose which categories of files you want to delete by selecting (checking) their check boxes. If you don't want to delete a category of files, clear the checkmark for that category. The amount of drive space you'll recover by deleting all the selected categories appears under the list. After you've selected the categories of files you want to delete, click OK. The files are deleted and the dialog box closes.

2. Deleting System Restore files and unwanted features

If you click the Clean Up System Files button in Disk Cleanup, a More Options tab appears on the Disk Cleanup dialog box. Clicking that tab provides two more options for freeing up drive space:

  • Programs and Features: Takes you to the Programs and Features window, where you can uninstall programs and Windows Features you don't use.

  • System Restore and Shadow Copies: Deletes all restore points except the most recent one. This can be significant because system protection files are allowed to consume up to 15 percent of your available drive space.

3. Defragmenting your hard drive

When a drive is newly formatted, most of the free space on the drive is available in a contiguous chunk. This means the disk clusters (the smallest amount of storage space that can be allocated) are side-by-side in contiguous fashion. As Windows writes a file, it can do so in contiguous clusters, writing the entire file in one pass. When it reads the file back, it can also do so in one pass, making drive performance as good as possible.

However, the more a drive is used, the more fragmented the data becomes. Instead of writing data contiguously, Windows writes it here and there on the drive, splitting up the file into fragments (thus the term fragmentation).

Defragmentation is not necessary for solid state drives.

When that happens, the drive head has to move around a lot to read and write files. You might even be able to hear the drive chattering when things get really fragmented across the drive. This puts some extra stress on the mechanics of the drive and also slows things down a bit.

To really get things back together and running smoothly, you can defragment (or defrag for short) the drive. When you do, Windows takes most of the files that are split up into little chunks and brings them all together to make them contiguous again. It also moves most files to the beginning of the drive, where they're easiest to get to. The result is a drive that's no longer fragmented, doesn't chatter as much, and runs faster.

Defragmenting is one of those things you don't really have to do too often. Four or five times a year is probably sufficient. The process could take a few minutes or up to several hours. So, it's another one of those tasks you'll probably want to run overnight. However, note that Windows 7, by default, defragments the drive. You can view the current schedule, if any, in the Disk Defragmenter program.

You don't have to stop using the computer while Windows defragments the drive. You can continue to use it as you normally would. Doing so, however, continues to generate read/write operations on the drive, which ultimately slows down the defragmentation process. For that reason, it's best to run the defragmentation operation while you are not using the computer.

To defragment a hard drive, starting at the desktop:

  1. Open your Computer folder by clicking the Start button.

  2. Right-click the icon for your hard drive (C:), and choose Properties.

  3. In the Properties dialog box that opens, click the Tools tab.

  4. Click the Defragment Now button. The Disk Defragmenter program opens, as shown in Figure 1.

    When it says you don't need to defragment, that doesn't mean that you can't or shouldn't. It just means the drive's not badly fragmented. But you can still defragment it.

  5. In the Disk Defragmenter dialog box, you're able to set up a schedule to run the defragmenter or click the Defragment Now button. The program will start analyzing your drive and may take as long as a few minutes or up to a few hours.

  6. When the defragmentation is complete, the icon on the left side of the screen should turn to a green circle with a checkmark.

Figure 1. The Disk Defragmenter default settings.

Disk Defragmenter defragments all the fragmented files and moves some frequently used files to the beginning of the drive, where they can be accessed in the least time with the least effort. Some files won't be moved. That's normal. If Windows decides to leave them where they are, it's for good reason. You may hear a lot of drive chatter as Disk Defragmenter is working. That's because the drive head is moving things around to get everything into a better position.

When Disk Defragmenter is finished, you can just close any open dialog boxes and the Disk Defragmenter program window.

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