Dec 11 2007

Good Housekeeping in Vista

Maintaining hard drives in Windows Vista can help ensure top performance.

The hard drive is a key component of the computer system, but it is one that is largely ignored when it comes to maintenance and performance. Most administrators and end users focus on hard-drive capacity — as long as you don’t run out of space on your hard drive, everything must be fine, right? Not necessarily.

There are tasks you should perform periodically to make sure the massive hard drive you installed doesn’t fill up with junk you don’t want. Windows uses the hard drive as cache for memory. When the memory needs of the open applications exceed the amount of RAM available in the system, Windows uses a portion of the hard drive as virtual memory. If the hard drive is full, fragmented or flawed, it slows down everything you do.

Organize Your Data

The first thing you should do is partition your drive and structure your folders in a logical way. Doing so not only will help Windows use the hard-drive space more efficiently, but also will make it easier for you to locate files and programs.

There is no right or wrong way to organize. It’s recommended that you separate data (such as Microsoft Word documents or Microsoft Excel files) from programs (such as Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel).  There are two advantages to this: It helps Windows run more efficiently, and it makes backing up important data simpler.

On a well-organized hard drive, Windows doesn’t have to jump from one end of the hard drive to the other to access program files. And when it’s time to back up your data, you simply back up the partition where your data is stored.

Defragment Your Hard Drives

Even with the most logical organization of data, your files will still become fragmented over time. That’s because Windows records data in random locations wherever there is space available. Initially, this helps with performance, allowing Windows to store the data and move on to other functions rather than constantly having to go back to the exact spot on the drive from where the data originated. It also reduces wear and tear on the hard drive — until it doesn’t.

Eventually, the files and data become so fragmented that Windows is forced to jump all around the hard drive just to start a program or open a file. This can affect performance and wear down the hard drive, so to keep both the operating system and drive running at top speed, you should periodically defragment your drives. The defragmentation process finds the disjointed bits and bytes of the various files and reorganizes the data so that each file is in one contiguous block on the hard drive.

Windows Vista has a disk-defragmenting utility. Click on Start, then select Disk Defragmenter (under System Tools). Unless you have disabled User Account Control (UAC), you will receive an authorization pop-up. You can schedule the Disk Defragmenter to run automatically — daily, weekly or monthly — at a time of your choosing. Configuring Disk Defragmenter to run periodically at night while you’re away from your desk can help maintain your hard drive without affecting the performance of the computer while you’re using it.

Cleaning Up Your Drives

Aside from becoming fragmented, your disk drives also become cluttered over time. As you surf the Web, download and install software and delete files, remnants of data are collected that you don’t need and probably aren’t even aware of. By using the built-in Disk Cleanup tool, you can salvage hundreds of megabytes, and possibly even gigabytes, of hard-drive space.

To begin, click Start and select Disk Cleanup (under System Tools). You will see a prompt asking if you want to clean up only your own files or the files of all users on the computer, followed by a UAC authorization prompt. At that point, select the drive you wish to clean up from the drop-down list and click OK. Disk Cleanup will scan the drive to identify data that could be removed and display the results showing how much space each type of data could free up. You can check or uncheck each type of data as you wish.

Using Chkdsk to Maintain Your Drives

Another type of hard-drive maintenance is the Chkdsk utility. Chkdsk is “check disk,” minus the vowels. The name is a carryover from the old Windows 8.3 filename restrictions that existed in DOS — naming the program Checkdisk would have been too long.

Chkdsk can be run from the command line. You click Start, then Run, and type “chkdsk”; or click Start, then Command Prompt (under Accessories), and type “chkdsk” at the prompt. Because running chkdsk requires administrator privileges, instead of selecting Command Prompt, you could simply right-click it and select Run As Administrator (check first to see if you have the appropriate permissions).

Chkdsk is used to verify the integrity of a drive, identifying bad sectors and fixing errors. By default, if you run chkdsk alone, it will not identify or repair bad sectors, but simply scan and report on basic file integrity. However, you can use these command-line switches to control how chkdsk scans and which actions it takes as a result of the scans.

  • /f — Fixes errors on the disk.
  • /v – Works on FAT / FAT32 volumes only. Displays the full path and name of every file on the disk.
  • /r — Locates bad sectors on the drive and recovers any readable information. (The /r switch automatically fixes errors, so the /f switch is unnecessary when /r is used.)
  • /x — Forces the volume to dismount if necessary. All opened handles to the volume would be rendered invalid. (The /f switch is implied and is unnecessary when /x is used.)
  • /i — Works on NTFS volumes only. Instructs chkdsk to perform a less-vigorous check of index entries.
  • /c  — Works on NT file system volumes only. Skips the checking of cycles within the folder structure, reducing the amount of time needed to run chkdsk.
  • /l:size — Works on NTFS volumes only. Changes the log file size to the specified number of kilobytes. It will also display the current size if no size is specified with the switch.
  • /b — Works on NTFS volumes only. Re-evaluates bad clusters identified on the drive. (The /r switch is implied, so using /r is unnecessary when /b is used.)
  • Filename — Works on FAT / FAT32 volumes only. Used to specify which files to check for fragmentation.
  • Volume — Specifies the drive letter (followed by a colon).
Tony Bradley, a Microsoft MVP (Most Valuable Professional) in Windows Security, is a computer-security consultant with BT INS in Houston and author of Essential Computer Security: Everyone’s Guide to Email, Internet, and Wireless Security.