Diplomatic Technology: PC 102, Defragmenting on Windows XP

IT personnel, computer enthusiasts, subscribers of MaximumPC – this post isn’t geared towards you guys, because what I’m going to talk about, you live with it everyday.  This article is about bridging the gap between geeks and non-geeks, and reaching out to those perhaps not so computer savvy, less experienced, or gun-shy when it comes to working on their machines.  Full disclosure; I’m writing this for people like my parents.

This… is Diplomatic Technology.

For the past decade and beyond, Windows has dominated as the most widely used operating system on PCs the world over.  Even in today’s world where Apple has carved a mighty niche for itself, over 80% of computers around the globe are running some version of Windows.  While many of us have made the leap to Windows 7 (46%), a great deal of the machines running today are still running Windows XP (32%!); whether it be to hardware limitations, or inability or lack of desire to upgrade, Windows XP is still very much a part of many people’s lives, including my own.

We will not be discussing Windows Vista, partly because it only accounts for 5% of the world’s PCs, but mostly because I don’t want to make myself sad.  I’m of the opinion that if you have Microsoft Vista, you would be better off downgrading to Windows XP, or biting the bullet and upgrading to Windows 7.  Windows 7 is what Vista should have been.

Windows XP is still widely used in large corporations needing a multitude of workstations, which is a large reason why it is so familiar to so many of us.  More than that, many people (like myself) can say they still have a computer at home that runs Windows XP, because, well, it still runs just fine.  Microsoft is still cranking out new security patches and fixes for it mostly because their customers haven’t given them much choice in the matter.

Some people still have computers at home with Windows XP simply because they see no reason to upgrade.  They don’t use their machines for much aside from some web browsing and social media, or perhaps to print their pictures… et cetera.  They don’t need the latest and greatest technology for their purposes.  Those folks will be my target audience for today.

Tip #1 – Defrag!

Fragmentation is the term used to describe when the space on your computer’s hard disk is used inefficiently, causing the machine to perform slower and your storage space capacity to reduce.  This potential problem builds up over time with regular day-to-day usage.  Microsoft has a built-in utility for defragmentation which should be used on a regular basis to clean this up.

Think of it this way; let’s compare your computer’s hard disk to a record album player.  To play a record, you would rest the needle at the inner-most part of the record, and as it played music, the needle would slowly make its way to the outer rim.  If the space on the record was ‘fragmented’, in order to play the same sequence of songs, the needle would need to skip all over the place, from the inner part to the outer part and back again, just to try to play the songs in order – causing blips, lag, and poor performance.

Fun fact: Windows 7 (and the dreaded Windows Vista) both have scheduled Disk Defragmenter built-in; Windows XP does not.

This is what happens when your machine is defragmented; your computer needs to move the laser it uses to read your hard drive a lot more to get the data you want it to read, instead of being able to read in a straight line, resulting in performance loss, and in extreme cases system lockups and freezes.  Hence, the importance of defragging.

To find your Disk Defragmenter, click Start, and go to All Programs > Accessories > System Tools – it will be in that list.  Once it is open, select the drive you want to defragment, and click Analyze.  It is good to Analyze a drive before defragmenting it, because it may not be necessary to defragment – you may just be wasting time/system resources.

When the analysis is complete, the tool will let you know whether or not your hard drive needs fragmentation or not.  In my case just now, I did not.

Note the legend on the bottom of the window.  Fragmented files represent what would be re-arranged in the event of needing a defragmentation.  Blue = fine.  Green are files that can’t be moved, typically vital system files.  From my analysis above, you can see quite a bit of red; I don’t need to defrag yet, but I may need to soon.  If you need a defrag, you might get results similar to this:

The process of defragmenting can take quite some time, and will bog down your system performance while it is running, so choosing when to do it is key.  I highly recommend that you defragment your drives at least once a month to ensure good system performance.  There are automated programs out there which can do that for you; you can even set it up to run in the middle of the night.  Look into it!

OS Statistics source
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