What is a Disk Cluster?

Also known as “allocation units”, clusters are essentially units of disk space as defined by a file system like FAT32 or NTFS during the partition formatting process. When files are saved to disk, they are stored in as many clusters as necessary to save the complete file. For example, if an NTFS partition is configured with a 4 K cluster size, a 32 K file would be saved using a total of 8 clusters. When a disk is defragmented, files are saved to contiguous disk clusters.

Why Is Disk Defragmentation Necessary?

When files are saved to a hard disk, they aren’t necessarily saved in an area of contiguous disk space. For example, a 10 K file might be fragmented and spread over three disparate disk clusters, each 4 K in size. When this file is accessed, the system needs to obtain the contents of each of the clusters to open it, which would involve reading different areas of the disk for a single file. When defragmentation is performed, fragments of the same file are saved in contiguous areas of disk space, thus speeding up read access to the file and improving performance.

Scheduling Windows Maintenance Tasks

Don’t feel like manually maintaining your system? Use the Task Scheduler to perform maintenance tasks automatically.

Step 1: Click Start, and then click Control Panel. Double click the Scheduled Tasks applet to open it, as shown above. Double-click the Add Scheduled Task icon to open the Scheduled Task Wizard.

Step 2: At the introductory Scheduled Task Wizard screen, click Next. Scroll through the list of available programs, and then select a maintenance-related program to run, such as Disk Cleanup. Click Next.

Step 3: Type an appropriate name for the task, and then select an interval at which the task should be performed, such as daily, weekly, monthly, and so forth. In this example select Monthly, and then click Next.

Step 4: Select an appropriate start time for the task, as well as the date or day of the month on which the task should start. Select the month(s) in which this task should run, and then click Next.

Step 5: Provide a username and password as the credentials under which the task will run. This is useful in cases where you want a scheduled maintenance task to run under the administrator account rather than the user currently logged on. Click Next.

Step 6: Click Finish to complete the wizard. If you want to configure the advanced properties of the task, check the checkbox on this screen prior to clicking Finish. This task can later be changed or deleted from the main Scheduled Tasks window.

Use Automatic Updates or Windows Update to Stay Patched and Protected

In much the same way that it’s important to ensure that data on your PC is properly backed up, it’s equally important to ensure that your operating system is constantly updated with the latest service packs and hot fixes issues by Microsoft. Hot fixes are effectively operating system updates that address different security and system stability issues, while a service pack is a larger update that incorporates many individual hot fixes and updates. Installing these updates regularly is essential towards protecting your system from security exploits and solving known issues with operating system components.

While Microsoft provides hot fixes and service packs for download from their web site, the easiest and most effective way to update your system is by using Windows Update. This tool connects you to the Windows Update web site, which will scan your system and then provide you with a list of the updates applicable to your system. Rather than run this process manually, operating systems like Windows XP include the ability for updates to be downloaded automatically if so configured from the Automatic Updates tab in the System program in Control Panel, as shown below. Selecting the “Download the updates automatically and notify me when they are ready to be installed” option does exactly what the name suggests, and will make your life much easier in the long run. If you choose to use the Windows Update web site, then make a point of checking for updates at least once every two weeks, since staying updated will make your PC less susceptible to any new security vulnerabilities that may be discovered.

Keep Important Files Safe with a Sound Backup Strategy

So what’s a section on data backup doing in an article on system maintenance? Well, the short answer is that far too many users overlook the importance of regularly backing up their critical data files. If (and more realistically when) a system failure of some sort does occur, you’ll want to be sure that you still have access to all of your critical data files such as documents, email messages, and so forth. In a nutshell, the cost (in terms of time) of ensuring that you have all of your data backed up is worth its weight in gold should the unthinkable occur – in fact, without the backup you could be looking at spending hundreds of pounds trying to have your data recovered in cases of hard disk failure.

Thankfully Windows systems since 95 all include a built-in Backup utility. Windows Backup is your primary defense against data loss, so get to know it well. If you happen to be running Windows XP Home, you may need to install the program manually as it isn’t installed as part of the default XP Home installation process. Once the program is installed, it’s accessible from the System Tools menu, and opens in an easy-to-use Wizard interface. The Advanced mode of the program is also accessible from the wizard.

When trying to decide what to back up, take stock of which files on your system are important to you. Key files that should always be backed up include any documents, spreadsheets, important images, email data files, and so forth. The location of these files can differ depending upon the operating system version and applications you’re running, so you’ll need to check where your programs store these files. For example, Outlook Express will store your email in a series of files with a DBX extension in a folder similar to C:\Documents and Settings\Dan\Local Settings\Application Data\Identities\{CD6E366E-02BB-4051-8271-786CE0E93945}\Microsoft\Outlook Express, which might not be immediately apparent. It would be a shame to lose important email messages, so be sure to keep the fact that some programs store data files in unique locations in mind when planning your backups.

As far as timing is concerned, we’re big proponents of backing up your system at least once per week, with once a month being an absolute (and potentially dangerous) minimum. If your PC includes a writeable CD or DVD drive, backing up to this type of media is probably your most effective option – saving backups to your hard disk is generally a bad idea because you could end up losing both your live data and backup versions in the event of a disk failure.

Remove Unnecessary and Unused Programs for Better Windows Performance

Beyond unnecessary temporary files, your PC may be bogged down with a slew of installed and unused applications. We’re all guilty of installing various utilities on our systems for testing or trial purposes, but in general not so good at removing these programs once we’re finished with them. Over time, your PC’s registry can become filled with relatively useless data for unused programs, not to mention the disk space occupied by those programs. For best performance, you should really make a point of adding “remove unnecessary applications” to your monthly maintenance task list.

Removing programs from a Windows system is easily accomplished by running an uninstall program if one was included with the application, or by using the Add or Remove Programs applet in Control Panel. In fact, if you’ve already got the Disk Cleanup program open, you can access Add or Remove Programs by clicking the Clean up button on the More Options tab (on XP systems). When Add or Remove Programs opens, click the programs that you want to remove to highlight them, and then click the Remove button. While the impact on system performance won’t be huge as a result of removing unused programs, it will lead to a smaller Registry and increase the amount of available disk space at your disposal.

Keep Your Hard Tidy with the Disk Cleanup Tool

Over time, your PC will become cluttered with unused programs, temporary files, and deleted items stored in the Recycle Bin. Regardless of their location on your system, all of these files are capable of using up large tracts of your system’s disk space, something which can be detrimental from both a performance and available storage point of view. Quite simply, the more unnecessary files stored on your system, the less valuable disk space you have at your disposal. Disk Cleanup is the native Windows tool provided for the purpose of quickly finding and ridding your PC of unnecessary files, and you’ll want to run it at least monthly as part of your scheduled system maintenance activities.

Disk Cleanup is accessible via the Accessories > System Tools group on the Start menu. When this utility is opened, it will ask you to choose a drive to scan, and then calculate the amount of disk space that is being used by everything from Temporary Internet Files to the contents of your Recycle Bin. By simply checking the checkbox next to the appropriate item, Windows will permanently delete the selected files, allowing you to reclaim the associated disk space. Again, run Disk Cleanup at least once per month on your system, and more often if your usage is extremely high.

Testing For Drive Errors and Health with Check Disk

While defragmenting a partition will speed up disk access by placing files in contiguous disk clusters, another key disk maintenance task that should be performed at least monthly is running Check Disk. On a Windows 2000 or XP system, Check Disk is accessible from the Tools tab in the properties of a drive (like C). To open the tool, press the Check Now button in the Error-checking section.

Check Disk has two main purposes – to check for file system errors, and to scan for bad disk sectors and fix them if possible. As an electromagnetic component, a hard disk is susceptible to surface errors, so it’s important for the system to be aware of them and allocate data to known good sectors. By the same token, file system errors can cause data loss or system instability, so you’ll definitely want to check for them as well. Both tasks are easily configured by selecting the appropriate check boxes in the Check Disk tool.

As a general rule, Check Disk should be run at least once per month on newer systems, and more often (perhaps once every two weeks) on older PCs. If your PC is running an older version of Windows like 98 or ME, Check Disk is not included. Luckily, these systems include an older utility known as Scandisk – while it’s not quite as pretty as Check Disk, Scandisk performs similar disk checking functions on these versions of Windows.

Defragment Your Hard Drive for Better System Performance

While handling everything from the installation of programs to the storage of various data files, your PC’s hard disk drive is a workhorse that takes a great deal of punishment over time. As programs are installed and various data files are added and deleted, a hard disk eventually becomes fragmented, leaving bits and pieces of files spread across different (and non-contiguous) disk clusters. In simple terms, a fragmented hard disk will not perform optimally, since all of the fragments of a file must be assembled when that file is opened. Over time, fragmentation can severely degrade the performance of your hard disk, since individual fragments need to be searched for and reassembled by the system. If your PC seems slow right now, performing disk defragmentation often has a huge impact towards improving system performance.

Operating systems from Windows 95 forward have included a utility called Disk Defragmenter. As its name suggests, the primary role of this tool is to defragment your system’s hard disk on a partition-by-partition basis. The process begins by analyzing a partition to find its current degree of fragmentation, and then suggests whether defragmentation is necessary based on its findings. As a general rule, you should run Disk Defragmenter at least once per month on busy partitions like your C drive. When fully defragmented, your hard disk will be much more responsive, with files and programs opening much more quickly that they otherwise would. For details on how to use the Disk Defragmenter on an XP PC, see the details below. Note that the process can take quite some time on a system with badly fragmented partitions, so you might want to consider running it overnight the first time.

Step 1: Click Start, and select All Programs. Select Accessories > System Tools, and then click Disk Defragmenter. The Disk Defragmenter window will open. All partitions configured on your system will be listed, along with information about available disk space.

Step 2: Click the Analyze button. This will analyze the partition currently selected for fragmentation, and will graphically display the current state of fragmented, contiguous, and unmovable files on your system.

Step 3: Once the analysis is complete, you will be presented with the Disk Defragmenter dialog box. Click the View Report button to view the reported findings of the analysis. Scroll down to view information such as total fragmentation for the partition.

Step 4: If the Disk Defragmenter suggests that the partition need to be defragmented, click the Close button on the Analysis Report dialog box and then click the Defragment button. The defragmentation process can take anywhere from minutes to hours based on your system and its current state, so a little patience will be necessary.