Hard Drive Maintenance

Your hard drive is the workhorse of your computer, but do you really know what it’s up to in there? Here’s a brief description of how your hard drive works, and what you can do to make sure it keeps working the way it should.

How it works

When you save a file to your hard drive, it is magnetically recorded onto a platter inside your hard drive. Most hard drives have several platters mounted on a spindle that allows them to spin as fast as 15,000 times per minute. Each two-sided platter is mounted on a single arm with a slider that lets the heads move across the surface of the platter to access data.The amount of data each platter can hold is usually measured in Tracks Per Inch, where a track equals one concentric ring around a disk.

Because of the amount of data that can be stored in a single track, each track is divided into sectors, and each sector holds roughly 512 bytes of information. When you save data to the disk, it is referenced according to its track and sector.

Organize your hard drive

Occasionally your hard drive will make a whirring sound as it searches for a file. This is the sound of the platters spinning as the read heads zoom back and forth to access each sector where the data has been stored. You can speed up this process by periodically “defragging” your hard drive. The Windows Disk Defragmenter utility reorganizes the scattered data on your hard drive to make your files run more efficiently. It also moves the files that you use most often to the beginning of the hard disk where they’ll load faster.

To run Disk Defragmenter in Windows 98 and Windows Millennium, follow these directions:

Shut down all applications. The utility takes several hours to run, so choose a time when you won’t need your computer.

Click Start > Programs > System Tools > Disk Defragmenter.

Select the drive you’d like to defrag and click Settings button.

On the Disk Defragmenter Settings menu, check “Rearrange program files so my programs start faster” and “Check drive for errors.” Hit OK to go back to the first screen.

Click OK to begin. Clicking Show Details will display a graphical representation of the utilities.

To run Disk Defragmenter in Windows XP, follow these directions:

Click Start > Programs > System Tools > Disk Defragmenter.

You should analyze a drive (volume) before defragmenting it. Because defragmenting may take hours, this tells you whether you need to take the time to perform this task. Click the Analyze button.

A drive must have at least 15 percent free space for Disk Defragmenter to completely and adequately defragment it. Disk Defragmenter uses this space as a sorting area for file fragments. If a volume has less than 15 percent free space, Disk Defragmenter will only partially defragment it. To increase the free space on a volume, delete unneeded files or move them to another disk.

Click the Defragment button.

To interrupt or temporarily stop defragmenting a volume, click Stop or Pause, respectively. The bottom frame displays a graphical representation of the utilities progress.

Disk Cleanup

Another powerful utility that comes with Windows is Disk Cleanup. This application allows you to easily sort through and delete unused and temporary files, freeing space on your hard drive and speeding up its operation.To run Disk Cleanup in Windows 98, Windows Millennium, and Window XP:

Go to Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools and select Disk Cleanup.

Choose the drive you want to scan from the drop-down menu, and wait while the program calculates how much disk space is available for cleanup.

On the Disk Cleanup tab, check the boxes next to the types of files you want to remove.

Temporary Internet Files are Web pages stored on your hard drive for quick access. Deleting these files will leave intact your Internet browser preferences and bookmarks.

Downloaded Program Files are Java and ActiveX applications downloaded from the Internet to view certain pages.

The Recycle Bin contains files you have deleted from your system. They are not permanently removed until you empty the bin.

Temporary Files are created by some applications to temporarily store data. Typically, the data is deleted when the program closes, and it is safe to delete these files if they have not been modified in over a week. Clicking the View Files button will display the files to be deleted in a separate window.

To remove Windows components or unused programs, click the More Options tab. Clicking the appropriate Cleanup button will open the Add/Remove Programs utility, where you can then select what you would like to delete.

ScanDisk

If you’ve ever turned off your computer without properly shutting down the system (or had to restart after a crash), then you’ve probably seen your computer run a utility called ScanDisk. ScanDisk checks the hard drive for errors and, if it finds any, marks the cluster of sectors containing the error as unusable, so that no data can be written to or read from that portion of the disk.You can also run ScanDisk from within Windows. This allows you to do a more thorough scan of your hard drive and detect errors that might make it difficult or impossible to read or write to the disk.

To run ScanDisk in Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows Millennium:

Click Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools > ScanDisk.

Select Thorough under Type of Test.

Click Start to begin the scan.

Windows XP refers to ScanDisk as an “error-checking” tool; to perform error-checking, follow these directions:

Open My Computer, then select the local disk you want to check.

On the File menu, click Properties.

On the Tools tab, under Error-checking, click Check Now.

Under Check Disk options, select the “Scan for and attempt recovery of bad sectors” box. ScanDisk should take only a few minutes to run, and should probably be done every two or three months. It will give you a report of the number and types of errors it has found, and can even automatically repair some of these errors.

More serious errors can be repaired by reformatting the drive, if the errors are “soft” errors (which means that the magnetic signal on the disk is weak or the formatting is bad).”Hard” errors, however, refer to actual physical damage to the disk, such as a scratch or a bump, and cannot be repaired.

If you have a large number of hard errors on your disk, you will probably need to replace your hard drive.The average life span for today’s hard drive is between three and five years. Simple maintenance can keep your hard drive running smoothly well past the time it has become obsolete.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Hard Drive Maintenance

  1. klanster

    What a comprehensive article on drive maintenance! I’ve read about both views on fragmentation, how some call it a disease for its self propagating nature, others who dont bother for years and then struggle with a claustrophobic over stressed drive. Considering the fact that the drive is the storehouse of all critical data, backups and maintenance should never be taken casually.

  2. kevin clifton

    Mr. Mullins, can you/should you interrupt a chkdks or scadisk?
    My external hard drive is 500G and has been checking for 2 days now. I think that might be a bit to long.

    Thank You for your help,

    Kevin Clifton