In the long list of odious chores, defragmenting your hard drive is right up there with flossing your teeth and washing your dog--or flossing your dog's teeth, for that matter.
There is little agreement on how much--or even whether--defragmenting improves your PC's performance, but having files closer together on the disk reduces the amount of movement required by the drive's mechanical parts. This should make it last longer, though such factors as operating environment and the quality of its components probably have a greater impact on its life span.
Regardless of whether it will actually improve your system's performance and reliability, I do know that there's a better way to defragment your drive than using the utility built into Windows: you'll get the job done in less time by using Auslogics' free Disk Defrag utility.
Windows' own Disk Defragmenter is a slug compared to Auslogics' alternative. At least in XP, you got some feedback while the Windows defragger was working; Vista doesn't give you a clue what's happening after you click the Defragment Now button, other than to let you know that the process could take from a few minutes to a few hours (my bet's on the latter). I know many people scoff at the dancing colored blocks on the map as pointless, but I kinda like 'em.
By default, Vista defragments your drive once a week. You can set the defragmenter to run on a different schedule, though you don't want to defrag when you've got lots of applications open because of it's guaranteed to slow everything down.
The greatest benefit of third-party defraggers such as Disk Defrag is their speed: The program did its work in less than 5 minutes on my Vista machine, while Vista's own defragmenter took more than 20 minutes to finish. And on a tremendously fragmented XP machine, Disk Defrag got the job done in about 40 minutes, which was a third the time required by Windows' own tool.
Before you begin, open the Control Panel's Add or Remove Programs (XP) or Programs and Features (Vista), and uninstall any applications you no longer use. Then use a program such as CCleaner to empty your Recycle Bin, Temporary Internet Files folder, and other locations where clutter tends to accumulate on your PC.
Once you've taken out the digital trash, you're ready to tighten up your hard disk's sectors. Open Disk Defrag, and select your disk or partition to see a pie chart showing its used and free space. Click Next to begin the defragmentation.
If you're really bored, you can watch the program work. While the drive's fragmented sectors are cleared out, the process is represented by colored blocks on a disk map. Below this is a progress bar and a list of the names of the files currently being shuffled. You also get a count of the total files processed, as well as the number of fragmented and defragmented files.
XP's built-in defragmenter provides a similar show, but Vista's equivalent doesn't indicate what it's doing, or how much progress it has made.
When the defragmenting is done, you're shown the results, including the percentage of drive or partition space that was recovered. You can see more information in a browser window when you click Display Report, but don't bother clicking the Optimize PC link at the top of the window. That simply leads to a page where you can download the company's $30 BoostSpeed performance-boosting utility. Hey, you can't fault the company for trying to make a buck.
I wish I could say that I'm guaranteed to recoup many times over the time I spent defragging my PCs by having them run so much faster post-defrag. Maybe I'm kidding myself that there's any practical benefit to defragging, but then again, maybe my dog wouldn't smell any worse without a bath.
Tomorrow: Create your own social network in 60 minutes or less.