The facts about fragmentation

FI-Log-On-With-Larry-SchneiderDear Larry,

I was recently told that I could possibly speed up my computer by defragmenting the hard drive. Does this make any sense to you, and, if so, what does it mean?

D. S.


Dear D. S.,

What is this mysterious thing called fragmentation? And is it really something that slows computers down? Those are excellent questions.

Let’s think about this simplistically. Imagine that your computer’s hard drive is organized into little blocks of individual space. Now say you save Document A to your computer’s hard drive, and your computer stores it in the consecutive blocks 1 through 3 on the hard drive. Next, you save a second document, call it Document B, that ends up occupying blocks 4 and 5. Lastly, you modify Document A and make it longer by a factor of two.

Since the original Document A occupied blocks 1-3, and blocks 4 and 5 are occupied by Document B, your computer must store the new material from Document A in the next set of available blocks, 6-8. Suddenly, unbeknownst to you, Document A has become fragmented. Part of it is stored in one location of the hard drive, and a second part of it is stored elsewhere.

Don’t worry, your computer handles this with aplomb and is easily able to reconstruct the document when you next open it. But multiply this example a couple hundred or thousand times, and you can see that individual files on your computer may become broken up into lots of individual segments spread across the hard drive.

Theoretically, this can eventually become a problem because it takes time for your computer’s hard drive to seek out all the individual pieces of a file and put them back together again every time the file is called for.

Defragmentation is a process you can run on your computer that reorganizes all the files so that they are not broken up and they occupy consecutive blocks of hard drive space. Of course, use your computer a little more after that, and the problem will eventually return with a vengeance.

So, as your friend suggested, is all this fragmentation a problem that causes your computer to run slowly? The truth is that’s likely not the problem — unless you own a computer that is still running Windows XP.

With the advent of significantly larger and faster hard drives built over the past decade, and an improved filing system built within Windows, the problem has been significantly reduced. If you’re operating on an older computer, defragmenting your hard drive may help a little. But on newer computers, you’ll probably not notice any improvement at all.

If you need to, you can find the defragmentation program under Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools.

This is Larry Schneider, logging off.


Larry Schneider is the owner of Accent on Computers, a Greenwich-based consulting firm — now in its 15th year of business — catering to individuals, businesses and professional offices. PC and Mac services include computer setup, training, troubleshooting, virus resolution, networking, Internet, database, and programming. Call 203-625-7575, visit or send email to [email protected]

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