Are the benefits of defragmentation overblown?

Fred langa By Fred Langa

One of the never-ending, always-simmering debates between PC users is whether defragging modern hard drives provides any measurable benefits to PC performance.

Unfortunately, the answer is not an absolute yes or no but instead depends on how you defrag your system.

There’s clear logic behind defragmentation

Reader Martin Hack asks a legitimate question regarding some advice given recently in this column: Is the recommendation to “Defrag, defrag, and defrag again” actually founded in fact?
  • “In his July 22 column, Fred makes the following statement: ‘Defrag, defrag, and defrag again. Hard-drive files neatly packaged into long, unbroken chains load faster than those whose segments are scattered all over the drive.’

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    “I have yet to see this shown to be the case. And if he has any proof, I’d like to see it. Thanks.”
It’s always good to question conventional wisdom, Martin. Sometimes it’s dead wrong! But I can show you the benefits of defragmentation in two ways.

I admit the first is anecdotal and subjective, so you’re free to disregard it. That said, I’ve seen the benefits of defragging many, many times when I’ve cleaned up PCs crippled by serious performance issues. Such PCs’ drives are almost always severely fragmented, and they almost always perform noticeably better after a thorough defrag.

But that’s a fuzzy argument, so let me give you the underlying logic:

Files are stored on a hard drive in small chunks called clusters. On an NTFS drive, for example, the default cluster size is 4KB. Large files are stored in a series of 4KB clusters.

Let’s look at the example of a common file — Excel.exe. It occupies 17.5MB (17,924KB or 18,354,176 bytes) of disk space on my system. Do the math (17,924KB divided by 4KB), and you’ll see that this one file occupies approximately 4481 clusters.

Current hard drives have an average nonsequential seek time (the time needed to move the drive heads from one place on the platters to another) of around 7 milliseconds (ms); server drives can be faster, laptop drives slower, but 7ms is a reasonable average.

A little more math (4481 clusters multiplied by the 7ms average seek time) shows you that loading a completely fragmented Excel.exe would require over 31 seconds just in mechanical head-movement time. Note that this doesn’t count the actual read-in time nor any processing or setting up of Excel — it’s 31 seconds lost in just getting the drive’s heads in position to read the file’s pieces!

Too extreme an example? Maybe. Few files are that badly fragmented, and I’m using Excel only for illustrative purposes. But even if the file is only half-fragmented, it would add at least 16 seconds to the time it takes to launch Excel. And that’s just one file. Multiply that by the hundreds of files launched and saved in a typical day, and it adds up to significant time.

For example, my advice about defragging was in reference to a reader question about system startup — when all of Windows and every startup program (hundreds of megabytes in all) must be read from the disk into memory. On a badly fragmented disk, this can add tens of thousands of unnecessary head seeks — needless minutes of purely mechanical work by your hard drive!

Defragmentation eliminates that wasted time by putting all of a file’s clusters into a sequential order. A fully defragmented file requires just one nonsequential seek (the one that moves the head to the start of the file).

A good defragger will also go a step further, ordering your startup programs so they, too, are lined up one after the other on the hard drive. That way, your drive’s heads can glide through one startup program after another in a long, unbroken read — instead of jittering and jumping all over the disk, gathering tens of thousands of scattered file fragments.

Thorough defragging can eliminate virtually all unnecessary disk-head movements. Good defragging tools are either free or built into Windows, and running them is point-and-click simple. So, why wouldn’t you defrag?

Trust me on this. Defragging makes a difference!

Another method for completely uninstalling Flash

Bill McGarry offers some additional information with regard to my July 22 item, “Fix Flash Player with a complete uninstall.”
  • “You’re right. When Flash won’t work (or won’t install), sometimes you need to completely uninstall all Flash versions. Adobe has a special program to uninstall Flash Player. I had a problem a while back where Flash was not working. One Web site recommended using the Adobe Flash uninstaller, and that did the trick!

    “The instructions are on an Adobe Web-site page. The notes say that you should exit all programs, including all browsers.

    “The site also says that Internet Explorer users need to select Show Details after running the Flash uninstaller, then look for the Delete on Reboot lines in the log. That will determine whether you need to restart your computer to complete the uninstall process. (Not too user-friendly, is it?) But on the same Web page, it says that if you mistakenly leave any program open, close the program and run the uninstaller again.

    “I would recommend running Task Manager before running the uninstaller, then killing any iexplore.exe instances that are still running. (The Task Manager is also a good way to check that there are no Chrome or Firefox components running.) I would still check the uninstaller log to see whether there are any other programs that need to be stopped, and I would keep running the uninstaller until the log says that everything was removed successfully.”
Thanks, Bill! The Adobe tool is worth trying, but all your caveats and additional warnings about it are why I prefer manual deletion. If you track down and delete all Flash files everywhere on the disk and remove all references to Flash in the Registry, there’s no way that Flash can survive. It will be gone for certain — no caveats, no quibbles, no doubts.

But options are good, and the Adobe tool could be useful for people who aren’t comfortable with the admittedly harder manual methods.

Install 64-bit Windows 7 over 32-bit Vista?

Don Lathem wanted to do a major system upgrade but ran into a snag.
  • “I am running 32-bit Vista Home Premium. My machine is 64-bit capable (determined two different ways). I want to install Windows 7 Home Premium x64 as a custom installation. But I keep getting the message ‘Setup was unable to create a new system partition or locate an existing system partition.’ Of course, I’m trying to install it right onto the existing system partition. Any ideas?”
You’re trying what Microsoft calls a “cross-architecture, in-place upgrade.” You’re not only trying to change the edition of your OS (from Vista to Windows 7) but also its bittedness: from 32- to 64-bit. I’m sorry to report that it won’t work. It’s just too much to change all at once.

The Technet article, “Windows 7 upgrade paths,” explains what upgrade combinations are acceptable.

Your best bet, Don, is to back up everything and do a clean Win7 install in a new, empty partition.

AV suite implicated in horrible boot time

Charles Rathbun wrote in with some useful information related to my July 22 item, “Horrible four-minute boot resists easy fixes.”
  • “I installed Trend Micro Internet Security 2010 on some of my clients’ computers.

    “I noticed significant performance and Web-browsing sluggishness (especially with Vista). Once TMIS 2010 was removed, the performance greatly increased.

    “This unpleasant discovery makes me want to get rid of what I once thought was good software.

    “Personally I’d recommend ESET’s NOD32, as I have been both using it and reselling licenses for it since 2005 and have never had any significant compatibility or performance issues. Their software is written entirely in assembly language instead of the bloated C++ used for Norton and McAfee.”
Thanks, Charles. AV tools and security suites are notorious system hogs, and feature-bloat is common.

For example, Trend Micro lists 13 major features and subsystems in its security suite, McAfee lists 14, and Symantec lists 33!

Many of these features duplicate abilities already built into Windows and the major browsers. For example, Internet Explorer and Firefox have built-in link-checkers, pop-up-blockers, parental controls, and more. Windows itself (especially Win7) has a capable firewall built in.

So the large security suites are including features you probably already have, and all of these redundant features consume memory and CPU time.

In contrast, the small, more nimble security packages offer just the essentials. For example, ESET lists just six major features for NOD32.

And my current favorite security tool, Microsoft’s free Security Essentials (site), lists just two major functions: antivirus and anti-malware protection. When used with Windows’ built-in firewalls and a fully current browser (say, IE8 or Firefox 3.6.x), you end up with essentially the same capabilities provided by the huge commercial security suites.

What’s even better, it’s all free!

On any system that’s suffering a slowdown, it’s well worth the time and trouble to at least temporarily swap out a large commercial security suite with a small and lithe AV tool.

You just may recover some of the performance you thought your system had lost forever!

Have more info on this subject? Post your tip in the WS Columns forum.

Readers Bill McGarry and Charles Rathbun will each receive a gift certificate for a book, CD, or DVD of his choice for sending the tip we printed above. Send us your tips via the Windows Secrets contact page.

Fred Langa is a senior editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He was formerly editor of Byte Magazine (1987–91), editorial director of CMP Media (1991–97), and editor of the LangaList e-mail newsletter from its origin in 1997 until its merger with Windows Secrets in November 2006.
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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.