What is fragmentation and what do I need to do about it?

infoWe are frequently asked what fragmentation is.  Fragmentation is a normal process that occurs when people use their computers.  It is your files being scattered across your hard disk drive, often in pieces.  Let’s say you write document A.  It gets placed in the next available space on your drive.  Then you write document B.  It gets placed right next to document A.  What happens if you then go add another page to document A?  It has to go into the space at the other end of document B — or somewhere even further away, if it has been awhile since you originally wrote document A.  Perhaps you add and subtract things several times – well you get the picture.  Your file winds up being in multiple pieces scattered all over your hard drive.

Now let’s assume that you do automatic Windows Updates.  Here you have Windows files being replaced with newer and probably larger versions, and, as you can imagine, these files get scattered all over your hard drive as well.  After a short or long time, depending on your computer use, you get lots of bits and pieces of files scattered all across your hard drive. 

An analogy for fragmentation might be the filing cabinet.  Imagine if you had all of your credit card receipts in different manila folders split amongst 7 filing cabinets.  You’d have to go from cabinet to cabinet to track down information you might need.  It’s the same way with your computer.  That is fragmentation.  There’s no way to avoid it. 

What do you do about fragmentation?  You use a specialized program to defragment your hard drive.  What that program does is move things around so that all the various pieces of files are pulled back together again.  Now when you go to bring up document A, it is all in one place. To be honest, in most cases, nothing needs to be done at all since the days of Windows 2000 and XP. Today Windows does a pretty decent job of handling fragmentation without any help. Still it helps to understand what happens.

Let’s take a look at why this is important.  When it comes to performance, there are 3 main components to your PC:

1.    The CPU (computer’s brain which processes all of your requests).           

2.    The MEMORY (the CPU does all its work on information that has been brought up into memory).

3.    The Hard Drive (where your programs and data are stored).

CPU speeds are getting faster and faster. The same goes for memory which is getting bigger, better and faster each year.  But what about the disk drive?  It turns out that the disk drive is the slowest component in your entire PC, and drive speeds are only very slowly getting faster, and only a small amount faster.  How slow is your hard disk drive?  One hundred thousand times slower than memory.  Two million times slower than the processor.  Wow!

What happens when you go to pull up a file?  Windows consults a large file called the Master File Table (or File Allocation Table, depending on which version of Windows you are running), which has recorded the exact place on the hard drive where your file begins.  If your file is in 10 pieces, it has recorded all 10 places where the pieces exist.  Instructions are given to the hard drive to move to the place where the first piece is.  The drive platter has to spin around to wherever that is, then the data has to be read into memory.  Now the drive platter has to spin again to get the next piece and it gets read into memory.  And on it goes until all pieces of the file are read into memory.  Well your processor, in the interim, could have gone out for pizza and a movie by the time it gets the whole file!  Comparatively speaking, you understand.  And you are probably sitting there impatiently tapping your fingers wondering why your computer has gotten so slow.  And that’s just one file.  (And guess what? The Master File Table gets fragmented too.)

How about when you do a virus scan of your computer?  The virus scanner has to be able to look at a whole file to be able to tell if it is infected or not.  So it has to pull all the pieces of all the files together to be able to scan them.  But it is not moving the files, it is just reading them.  You can imagine how much longer a virus scan would take on a very fragmented drive as compared to a defragmented drive.  Not to mention the wear and tear on the drive!

You have a few options when it comes to defragmenting your hard drive.  Windows has always come with a defragging program. In Windows 8, 8.1 and 10 this program is called the Optimize Drives Tool (search on the word ‘optimize’ or ‘defrag’ to find the Tool). In earlier versions of Windows, this program is called the Disk Defragmenter. In all cases, this program can be set to automatically defrag your drive on a schedule that you choose (e.g., weekly) In most cases the built-in program will do you just fine and does its thing in the background so you don't even notice. If you want more versatility there are some good programs around that can help.

#1 is probably Diskeeper located here. While this is an excellent program it is not free and is overkill for most people.

#2, and free, is Auslogics Defrag located here. There is also a paid version but the free version is more than the average user needs. A nice feature with Auslogics Defrag is that it offers an option to optimize the drive along with defragging. This means that it places files that are more frequently used at faster locations on the hard drive. Yes, different areas on a hard drive perform quicker than others. If you are using an SSD or M.2 drive you should not defrag but Auslogics offers a feature to optimize such a drive for your system. This is an awesome free program that is used by Jay L., one of our administrators.


A note from Jay L. :) A nice feature involved with Auslogics Defrag is that it allows for the removal of temporary files before doing its defrag stuff. It will get rid of setup files left over from Windows Updates along with temp internet files and such. This is much like using Windows Disk Cleanup set to include system files before optimizing the drive.

Jay L.

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