Windows’ defragging tool usually works quietly in the background, but sometimes it messes up.
When you suspect the tool is misbehaving, there are easy ways to verify whether it’s working as it should.
What gives with Vista’s defragging?
Joe Payne is suspicious of his Vista system, which has never reported it needs to be defragged.
- “I did a thorough cleaning of my computer’s files (per your [May 2] article) and got rid of about 700MB of clutter. After that, I figured I should defrag the drive. But as usual, Windows said I did not need to. It has never said I need to, and I’ve owned this system for years.
“What gives with defrag? Is it no longer needed, or do you still advise it? I am running Vista.”
Yes, defragging is still a good and needful thing in all versions of Windows. The defragmentation utility built into Windows — defrag.exe — is adequate in XP, moderately good in Vista, and more refined in Win7.
Microsoft Support article 942092 describes what Vista’s (and, to a large extent, Win7’s) defrag engine — Disk Defragmenter — can do and how it’s supposed to work. In short, by default, Vista’s and Win7’s Task Scheduler automatically runs defrag.exe once a week (or on whatever schedule you set) — behind the scenes during system-idle times.
Disk Defragmenter determines whether defragging is needed by estimating the percentage of files that are fragmented. If the fragmentation percentage is low, the tool shuts down for another week. An excellent MSDN article, “Disk defragmentation — background and engineering the Windows 7 improvements,” discusses Windows’ defragging technology from XP through Windows 7. It notes that disk fragmentation falls under the law of diminishing returns: removing even modest amounts of fragmentation won’t significantly improve system performance — especially in Windows 7.
Oddly, Microsoft doesn’t specify what percentage of fragmentation it deems worth fixing. But from observing Windows defrag in action, my guess is that a percentage in the high single digits or greater will trigger automatic defragging.
Getting back to your concern, Joe, it’s likely that your system has been quietly defragging itself in the background all along — and that would explain why Disk Defragmenter reports that no defrag is needed when manually queried.
Moreover, deleting junk files doesn’t fragment your other files. Yes, it does open up unused space that defrag can (and will) eventually consolidate; but those files that were unfragmented before your disk cleanup will still be unfragmented after cleanup. So there’s no reason to think that something’s amiss if Disk Defragmenter reports “You do not need to defragment this volume” after a cleanup.
All that said, Disk Defragmenter is not perfect. You can easily verify that it’s working properly by invoking defrag.exe from the Windows command line. This lets you bypass the utility’s graphical user interface — and any problems that the GUI might cause or hide.
- Open your Start menu, click All Programs, and then click Accessories.
- Right-click Command Prompt and select Run as administrator.
- When the command window opens, type defrag c: -a and press Enter. The tool will then analyze the C: drive for fragmentation. This process takes a few minutes to run, but eventually you’ll see a report that looks similar to what’s shown in Figure 1. (Of course, the exact details will be different on your system.)
Of course, you can analyze drives other than C: — just substitute the drive letter of your choice.
- If Disk Defragmenter reports “You do not need to defragment this volume” together with a single-digit (or so) Percent file fragmentation, defragging is most likely working fine and no further action is needed.
- No matter what Disk Defragmenter reports, you can manually start the defragging process whenever you wish. In that same admin-level command box, simply type defrag c: (or the letter for another drive) and hit Enter.
If defrag.exe doesn’t work, it might be corrupted. You can use Windows’ built-in System File Checker (sfc.exe) to restore the file. For how-to information, see MS Support article 929833.
If a manual defrag works but Vista/Win7’s automatic defragging isn’t taking place as it should, the problem might be in Task Scheduler. An MSDN article has abundant information on the care, feeding, and repair of Task Scheduler in Vista. (Win7’s scheduler is similar.)
Of course, you also can roll your system back to an earlier, pre-trouble state, assuming you’ve been making good backups all along.
Finally, if none of the above works to your satisfaction, plenty of third-party defragging tools are available, both free and paid. Just visit your favorite download library, search on defrag, and grab the tool of your choice.
Delays in switching windows, tasks, and tabs
Kenneth Hess’s system seems to stumble — frequently.
- “I have Windows XP SP3 on a six-year-old Toshiba laptop with 1GB RAM and a 125GB hard drive. For the past six months or so, whenever I change tabs on Firefox or Internet Explorer or I merely change from one running application to another, I get this wait period for a minute or more before anything happens.
“I’ve completely wiped the hard drive and reinstalled everything. Updates are current, and I regularly run ZoneAlarm Extreme Security and Malwarebytes. I’ve also run online virus and malware checkers, which found nothing. I used a hard-drive checker, and it shows the drive is performing well. I am totally frustrated with this. I would appreciate any ideas.”
I have two suggestions for you, Ken — one easy, one a little harder.
The easy way is to uninstall ZoneAlarm and try a different security solution such as Microsoft Security Essentials (free; site). MSE runs fine on XP and all other current Windows versions. It also has a relatively light footprint, so it’s less likely to bog down your system than some of the other security tools. (See the Feb. 16 Top Story, “Is your free AV tool a ‘resource pig’?”)
The harder approach is to open XP’s Task Manager, switch to the Processes tab, and click the CPU column title to change to descending order. When your next slowdown occurs, see what process jumps to the top of the list — that is, which process is suddenly consuming your CPU’s attention. Whatever that is — and I bet it’ll be Zone Alarm — is the likely culprit.
If you need help with XP’s Task Manager, a Microsoft Windows XP online-documentation page should get you going.
But I think you can probably skip the troubleshooting and jump straight to the most likely solution: uninstall ZoneAlarm and try a different, less resource-hungry security tool.
Fix a corrupted Change/Remove Programs list
John Buob’s Add or Remove Programs tool took one on the chin, and it’s never been the same since.
- “I don’t need to ask many [PC-related] questions, but this one is bugging me. I use two uninstall programs in addition to XP’s. A while back, I ran a Registry cleaner, which I have been doing for a long time without any problems. After that, I installed a new program; but I didn’t like it and decided to delete it — or try to anyway, since it didn’t have its own uninstaller. When I used Revo Uninstaller, most of the 40 to 50 program icons that show up (so you can pick which one to uninstall) were gone!
“I thought that strange, so I checked the other uninstall program and then Windows’ Add or Remove Programs tool, and they showed only about 10 program icons instead of all that are actually installed. Where would they go? Is there any way to get Windows to list them again? Any new program I install still puts an icon in the list, but most of the old ones remain missing. I may have a problem trying to uninstall a program in the future. Any ideas?”
This sort of thing is rare in Vista and rarer still in Win7, but — as you discovered — it can and does afflict Windows XP. It usually happens when a Registry entry gets mangled because of a software error. Not only can the error cause the directly affected program’s entry to disappear from the Change or Remove Programs list, all entries below that program’s entry might vanish as well!
That’s the bad news. The good news is that solutions to the problem are well documented.
For example, MS Support item 266668, “Add/Remove Programs tool displays installed programs incorrectly,” not only discusses causes and manual cures but also offers a one-click automated Fix it button that might be all you need to set things right again.
If that doesn’t work for some reason, try Support article 2438651, “How to troubleshoot problems when you install or uninstall programs on a Windows-based computer.”
And if that doesn’t work, check out the Kelly’s Korner page, “Windows XP from A to Z.” Scroll down to the item, “Add and remove — removing invalid entries in the Add/Remove Programs tool.”
Restoring older drivers to cure a WMP failure
Tom Watson’s Windows Media Player setup malfunctioned — probably because of a hardware-driver problem.
- “I wonder whether anyone else has posted a problem with Windows Media Player. About three weeks ago, WMP started acting up. It won’t recognize a CD or DVD containing video. Also, if I attempt to play a .wmv file, the audio plays — but no video.
“I tried everything I could think of. Finally, I downloaded VideoLAN’s VLC media player and made it the default player. Everything works fine with VLC.”
That’s not a lot to go on, Tom, but my best guess is that you’re the victim of an errant driver update, perhaps through Windows Update or another tool.
My general rule of thumb is to never replace hardware drivers (and not allow them to be replaced by various update tools and services) unless (1) the current drivers are obviously malfunctioning or (2) a newer driver corrects a known security issue.
In other words, if your drivers are working, the best bet in most cases is just to leave them alone.
In your case, I suggest restoring the older drivers for both your CD/DVD/Blu-ray drive and video system. Go to each vendor’s or OEM’s site and see whether they offer the driver version that originally came with your system. You also might be able to track down older driver versions through various websites — do a general Web search using the name and model of your drive and graphics system and see what turns up.
When you’ve located the drivers that originally worked with your drive, remove the current, nonfunctioning drivers by opening Device Manager, selecting the malfunctioning device, selecting its driver(s), then clicking uninstall. When the malfunctioning drivers are removed, install the freshly downloaded original drivers.
Or — and this is a perfectly acceptable approach — simply stick with VLC (free; site). It’s a fine tool; as you discovered, its generic drivers often work well when more specialized ones fail.