Is Disk Defragmenting Still Needed?

In the days of XP, defragmenting a hard drive was considered an essential tool to speed up a slow computer. But as disk storage capacities and speeds have greatly increased, and with Windows 7 offering a more modern operating system, is disk defrag still worth doing?

Disk Defragmenting – Files on a hard disk drive may be split into many parts (fragments) stored in different places on the disk – this happens more frequently as the drive fills up. A fragmented file takes longer for the hard drive to read (access) as it takes more time to find and combine all the separate fragments from locations spread across the disk – the more files that are fragmented in this way, the slower Windows may become.

Defragmenting rearranges the scattered fragments of a file to occupy storage locations next to each other, reducing the time it takes to read the whole file – defragmenting may therefore speed up Windows and even reduce system startup times.

What’s Changed Over The Years? Hard drive sizes are much bigger. When Windows ran on an old (e.g. 20GB) hard drive, files were fragmented frequently because the drive soon filled up – so defragging regularly made a lot of sense.

However, with typical modern drives of 320GB – 1000GB it is rare to see a Windows system using up even half of the available space – so files do not become fragmented as often. Less fragmentation reduces the potential benefit of regular defragging.

Hard drives are much quicker – Without going into too much detail, advances in platter design and spindle speeds in modern hard drives make them much quicker at reading and writing files than old hard drives. With quicker drives, any delay caused by reading fragmented files will be less than it used to be – again, this reduces the benefits of defragging.

SSDs (Solid State Drives) are becoming common. SSDs do not benefit from defragmentation – in fact it is highly recommended that you do not defragment SSDs because the defrag process adds additional writes on the drive which reduces its lifespan.

What Hasn’t Changed? Although hard drive speeds and capacities have increased greatly in recent years, hard drives still represent the biggest bottleneck when reading and writing data. Even modern hard drives remain much slower than other components (e.g. RAM memory, solid state storage and processors) because they are mechanical devices rather than integrated circuits. Therefore any helpful decrease in the time it takes the drive to read files may still reduce that bottleneck and, potentially, speed up the computer.

Is Disk Defrag Automatic Or Manual? Vista and Windows 7 include automatic disk defragmenting based on a weekly schedule – although by default it is scheduled for 1:00 a.m. in the morning so, unless you regularly pull all-nighters on your computer, it may not have happened for some time…

XP does not have scheduling for defrags – you must run them manually.

Is Disk Defragmenting Still Worth Doing?

Some people argue that if Microsoft include it in Vista and W7 (and have made it automatic) then obviously defragging must still be of great benefit. We’re not convinced by such knee jerk respect for Microsoft’s technical prowess – this is the same company that foisted the disastrous heap of dung that was Vista on its users, and claimed it was better than XP…

But why would they keep it in if it wasn’t truly of much use nowadays? Probably the same reason they keep things like Windows Defender in successive versions of Windows – because someone would complain if they took it out…

  • If you have a modern (less than 3 year old) computer, defragmentation should not be a major issue. Yes, there could be benefits to be gained from the occasional defrag but whether they are truly noticeable or just a psychological placebo is difficult to assess. What is certain is that there are far more effective ways to speed up a slow computer but, if you really want to tweak the last ounce of speed out of it, go ahead and defrag regularly – knock yourself out ;-)
  • If you have an older computer, especially if it is XP, then it is more worthwhile to run a regular (we suggest monthly) defrag – the older and slower the computer, the more beneficial defragmenting could be (though be aware it may not make any obvious improvement).

How To Defragment A Disk

Vista and Windows 7 – bring up the Start menu and type “Defrag” to display the link to the disk defragmenter, then open it. If you want to change the frequency and day/time of the automatic scheduled defrag, click “Modify/Configure Schedule” – we suggest making it a time when the computer is likely to be on but not heavily used.

If you want to start a manual defrag, click “Defragment Now” or “Defragment Disk” to begin – be warned this may take some hours to complete.

XP – open ‘My Computer’. Right-click the disk that you want to defragment, and then click ‘Properties’. On the Tools tab, click “Defragment Now”. Select the disk to be defragmented (there may only be one) and click “Defragment” to begin.

Alternative Defrag Programs

The integrated Windows defragmenter tool is very basic and, to be frank, doesn’t do as good a job as dedicated defrag programs – many of which are free. See here for a look at our favorite alternative – Piriform’s Defraggler. Unlike the defragmenter built into Windows (which only lets you defrag an entire drive), Defraggler lets you specify one or more files, folders, or the whole drive to defragment – and there is a portable version too.

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