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Defragment Your Hard Drive

by Oscar Sodani
February 21, 2003

Oscar Sodani is a founder of Help2Go and owner of Help2Go Networks, an IT consulting firm in the Washington D.C. area. Oscar holds the CISSP certification as well as industry certifications from Microsoft, Cisco and Novell.

Many computer magazines throw around the term "defrag your hard drive" when they talk about preventive maintenance for your computer. When your computer starts to act sluggish, the defragging of your hard drive is an easy way to make your computer more responsive. Frequent defrags will keep your hard drive in tiptop shape, so you can avoid data loss down the road.

In this article, you'll learn:

  • What defragging means
  • How a hard drive gets fragmented in the first place
  • How to go about the defragging process

The Jackson Drive

To illustrate the point of fragmentation, we're going to take the example of a family closet. This family, the Jacksons, needs to fill up their closet with all the stuff collected by the various family members. When the Jacksons first start to load up the closet, they are very organized. The boxes are stacked neatly, the books have their own place near the back, the sports equipment is placed neatly, yet securely, on top of the whole pile. It looks pretty neat.

Your hard drive is the same way when you first get it. Because you are starting with an empty disk, the programs you load on it place themselves neatly, in order. Windows takes up a large chunk at the beginning of the disk. Office95 takes up most of the middle, and you have some games scattered about, but neatly.

As the Jacksons fill up the closet, they soon realize that they are going to run out of space. Dilemma! So, they decide that Tito's drum set is going to have to come out so that Michael's box of clothes and Jermaine's computer can fit. So the drum set is taken out and the space is filled with the new additions. The new additions don't fit perfectly, and the space isn't used well, but it'll do for now.

To continue the analogy, your hard drive will start to fill up as well. Suddenly that great game from last year isn't so great anymore, according to the kids. And there's a new game they bought that you need to install. As with the van, the new game won't fit exactly into the space created by the uninstallation of the old game, so your hard drive isn't as efficient as it once was.

Uh-Oh! Now Michael wants to put his birdcage in the closet! Out comes the computer and LaToya's box of new-age books, and the birdcage is smashed in. LaToya really wants her books in the closet, though, so she opens the box and squeezes individual books between all the other stuff in the closet, filling every nook she can with books.

Well, your hard drive will start to look just like the Jacksons' closet as you install and un-install programs. You bought Microsoft Office97 to replace your old Office95. You UN-install Office95, but the free, continuous space left isn't big enough to fit the bloated new version. So your hard drive with squeeze as much of Office97 as it can into the vacated space, and then chop the rest up into fragments and scatter it throughout your hard drive, wherever it can find some free space, just like LaToya did with her books.

Your hard drive will start to look like a mess, with pieces of data here, there, everywhere! It takes longer to load Office97, because your hard drive has to find all the individual fragments that are scattered about. Just as it would take laToya a LONG time if she were looking for one particular book. She would have to check behind every nook in the closet! This mess in your hard drive is called fragmentation. And the way to fix it is to defrag (short for defragment) your hard drive.


A defrag program is a small application that comes with most operating systems, including Windows 95/98/ME, Windows 2000, and Windows XP. The defragging program moves all the data on your hard drive so that your hard drive space is used most efficiently, and it reconstructs your programs from all the fragments. It's as if the Jacksons decided to clean the closet, taking everything out and starting from scratch. Each item is put back in, but in a more orderly fashion, optimizing the closet's available space. Plus, LaToya can find her books much more easily since they're all grouped together now.

You should definitely defragment your hard drive every few months, just to make sure that your hard drive is working at peak efficiency. A complete defrag of a large hard drive can take hours, so this is a program that you can start at night before you go to bed, and leave it running all night long, letting the defrag program work its magic.

To defrag your hard drive using Windows, click on the Start button and choose Programs. Click on Accessories and then click on System Tools. You'll see an icon there for Disk Defragmenter. Click on it!

Disk Defragmenter will first ask you to select a drive. (See Figure 1 below) You can select any of the disk drives on your system, although for now, let's stick with the C: Drive. Click on OK. (Click the Defragment button if you use Windows 2000/XP).

Figure 1

The program will now show a status indicator, so you will know how far along it is. Like I said earlier, this may take a few hours, so let it go on its own. It is very important that you do not use the computer while it is defragging, or the entire defragging process will start completely over again.

You will also notice a button marked Show Details. If you click on it, it will show you a visual representation of your hard drive data as it is moved and organized.

When it is done, the data on your hard drive will be stored more efficiently, and programs that work together are stored together. This means faster access times to your programs and your files, and better performance overall. If you have never defragged your hard drive, we strongly encourage you to do so -- it cannot hurt, and it could improve your computer's performance significantly. It just takes time. And while you're waiting, you might as well go clean out your hall closet!

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