Two top defraggers speed your disk accesses

Scott spanbauer By Scott Spanbauer

Free, easy-to-use disk defragmenters and optimizers let you consolidate scattered files to maximize the performance of Windows XP and Vista.

One program lets you select for yourself which files to reunite and move to the fastest areas of your drive, while the other utility makes the disk-optimization choices for you.

The unbearable slowness of hard disks

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Over time, as you install more programs, create and edit files, remove applications, and replace them with new ones, the computer starts to bog down. After a couple of years of regular use, the thrill is gone and Windows’ hourglass icon becomes a constant companion.

As if that weren’t enough, applications gradually require more memory and disk space. Windows itself swells as Microsoft grafts on more service packs and security patches. This is just one of those inevitabilities, like death and taxes: as time goes on, software gets bigger and your PC gets slower.

Another reason your computer slows down over time is file fragmentation. When you install the very first applications to an empty hard drive, the disk is free to write the files to a series of logically contiguous sectors across the drive’s platter or platters.

Writing files to contiguous sectors when you install an application, copy or save a file, or perform other disk operations requires the least amount of movement of the read-write head between write operations.

The same goes for read operations, such as launching an application or opening a file. If the file’s sectors are all more or less in the same neighborhood, disk-intensive tasks go more quickly.

Fragmented files take more time to save and open

Of course, if files always had to be stored on the disk contiguously, the hard disk’s controller would have much more work to do. Every time a growing file bumped into an existing file written to sectors just beyond it, the controller would have to copy the entire file to a new location, calling a momentary halt to your productivity.

This also leads to a significant amount of wasted disk space, riddling your drive with a Swiss-cheese array of clusters too small to hold a complete file.

For this reason, disk controllers and file systems work together to write bits and pieces of files to the closest available free sectors. Over time, files become increasingly fragmented across the disk.

The more scattered the files become, the more the read-write head has to travel and the more disk operations slow. As the drive fills up, fewer large areas of free sectors are available, and the problem becomes worse.

Disk-defragmenting utilities consolidate scattered files to free space and boost overall performance. Windows comes with a basic defragger: select All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Disk Defragmenter to launch it.

In Windows Vista, Disk Defragmenter is set to run by default once per week, so Vista users are already benefiting from some amount of regular defragmentation. Nevertheless, you’ll realize a greater improvement in the performance of any Windows system by using a third-party defragger instead.

Fast, free defragger also optimizes your disk

Because Windows already comes with a defragger, there needs to be some concrete benefit to take the time to download, install, and run a third-party tool, even if it’s free.

If you use Windows XP, this is an easy call. XP’s defragger can take hours to slog through a hard disk, and the program offers few options and little feedback. Often, the percentage-complete readout remains frozen at a particular number for quite a while.

Vista’s built-in defragger doesn’t even provide this much progress feedback. Instead, it merely states that the operation could take from a few minutes to a few hours. Thanks for the heads-up.

Jeroen Kessels’ free JkDefrag gives you three distinct ways to defrag:

• The hands-free Windows-based graphical client displays defrag progress with a color-coded disk map and a very precise percentage-complete readout. (See Figure 1.)

• The command-line utility lets you specify exactly how you want JkDefrag to do its job.

• The screensaver version kicks in automatically when you’re away from the computer,

JkDefrag not only defragments files, it boosts performance further by moving frequently accessed files and folders to the fastest areas of the disk.

JkDefrag screen
Figure 1. This is your disk on drugs. JkDefrag shows an extremely colorful chart of the fragmentation on your drive as it puts everything into order.

I was happy using the program’s default defrag/optimize settings, which let you start defragging and optimizing the drive and forget about it as the utility does its magic.

However, the command-line version of JkDefrag lets truly obsessed optimizers extract every scrap of performance from their disks, and it works even in Windows’ Safe Mode, when fewer files are in use and thus unmovable.

‘Just defragment my files, please’

If JkDefrag’s kitchen-sink approach to disk optimizing seems like overkill to you, Auslogic’s Disk Defrag is a faster alternative. The program provides an easy-to-understand display of defrag progress.

You can set Disk Defrag to delete the contents of your temp folders before defragging, but the program offers no other defrag options and doesn’t optimize file locations.

The program has a handy pause button that lets you put the defragmentation operation on hold if you need to perform some operation that requires all of your PC’s resources. You can also set Disk Defrag to speed the process by using more of the CPU during defragmentation or save on CPU horsepower to minimize interference with the rest of your work.

When it finishes defragging, Disk Defrag gives you some brief stats on the number of files it defragmented and a link to a much more detailed report.

My only complaint about the program is that the same dialog box also reports that it found “junk files” on the system, with a recommendation to scan and remove them with a link. Of course, the link takes you to the Web page of another (not free) Auslogics product. Naturally, you can just ignore this pitch and continue to enjoy Disk Defrag’s fast defrags.

Scott Spanbauer frequently writes for PC World, Business 2.0, CIO, Forbes ASAP, and Fortune Small Business. He has contributed to several books and was technical reviewer of PC Hacks.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2008-06-12: