Hard Drive Thrashing

Dan Withers did some great detective work, but still was faced with disk "thrashing" and slow starts:

I’ve enjoyed your newsletterfor sometime and recently subscribed to the Plus version. Many of my computing problems have been solved by either you or input from your readers. But, and there’s always a but, I’m now at a loss to solve my latest quandary.

My Dell Dimension XPS 300 has been a most reliable machine but lately has developed an odd quirk during boot-up…. From power-on to system ready, my "boot time" [originally] took about sixty seconds. I use System Mechanic’s Startup Manager to keep my start-up programs minimal and basically run a lean machine. I’ve also enabled the "bootlog" feature and periodically check my times and failures with BootLog Analyzer version 1.23.

Over a period of three months, my boot time has increased perceptibly while my bootlog times have remained essentially the same. My power-on to system ready time has more than doubled even when I disable ALL TSR’s from the Start-Up folder, registry, autoexec and config files.

Once Windows is loaded and my start-up programs are placed in the taskbar tray, my hard disk begins to "thrash" as if it is swapping out a huge file. This process can last for a minute plus whether I load "clean" or my normal configuration. I first thought it might be an attempt to write to my virtual disk but I have 192 megs of RAM installed and wouldn’t expect to see that kind of activity on boot-up.

I’ve enabled a process viewer (PrcView version during start-up but that program has not identified anything that I can attribute to this excessive disk activity. Do you or your readers know of any software that monitors the hard disk and can identify just what is initiating this prolonged activity and exactly what my disk is attempting to read and/or write? Thank you for any assistance. It will be greatly appreciated.

You’ve done a lot of good problem-solving work already, Dan; nice job! You may find some other ideas in "Curing Sloooooow Restarts" at http://content.techweb.com/winmag/columns/explorer/2000/08.htm

But your comment on virtual memory made me wonder. It’s possible that Windows is adjusting your on-disk swapfile— the "virtual memory" area— during those long initial bursts of disk activity. With a poorly-sized and ‘dynamic’ (self-resizing) swapfile, the operation can take a while especially if the drive (and the swapfile itself) is fragmented.

First, check out "Real-World Answers about Virtual Memory" at http://content.techweb.com/winmag/columns/explorer/1999/0913.htm , to see if your setup falls within the broad guidelines. There are steps there— such as setting a generous fixed *minimum* size for the swapfile— that can substantially reduce the time Windows spends in virtual memory housekeeping operations.

But with a fragmented swapfile (one that’s scattered in little pieces all over your hard drive) you may still experience delays. So once you’ve set the right amount of virtual memory, make sure it’s not fragmented.

If you have a utility like Norton’s SpeedDisk, it will defrag your hard drive, including the swapfile; it can even place the newly-contiguous swapfile at the front of your drive, for fastest access.

If your defrag tool doesn’t support moving the swap file, here’s a trick: Disable virtual memory, or make the swapfile ridiculously small: Right-click My Computer, then properties, performance and virtual memory. Windows will complain, but ignore the complaints. Reboot, and hold the LEFT SHIFT key down as Windows loads (this tells Windows to bypass most of the normal startup stuff). When Windows has fully loaded, and without starting any other apps, run a full defrag to completion. When that’s done, reset your swapfile/virtual memory as suggested in "Real World Answers" (above), and reboot. The swapfile will now be recreated in the proper size and in one contiguous block.

And that should help speed up not only your boot times, but routine operations, too!

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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.