PART I – INTRO & FRAGMENTATION
Many people are under the impression that a computer’s performance deteriorates with age. I’d like to disspell that myth: computers are mostly solid-state technology that is largely unaffected by age. I’m not saying that older computers don’t run more slowly, but once we correct the notion that the slow-down is caused by its unalterable age, the problem becomes one that can usually be remedied without buying a newer computer.
First, let’s understand what doesn’t cause a computer to slow down:
- Computer processors are digital electronic transistor-like switches, sealed in a hard plastic package; these are solid-state devices that either work or don’t. They may get fried if exposed to a power surge, but otherwise, they don’t slow down.
- Computer memory is comprised of similar components and works or doesn’t work, just the same.
- Computer motherboards are nothing more than wire traces on a piece of plastic, usually with more solid-state devices plugged into it or soldered to it. They don’t slow down, either.
- Computer power supplies are exposed to some of the most extreme conditions your computer experiences. That’s why they burn out more frequently than most other parts, but even they don’t cause performance reductions; they either work or they don’t.
So what does cause a computer to slow down with age?
The biggest culprit is data storage. Imagine trying to look for something in a file cabinet if it was the only item in the drawer; it would be pretty easy to find, right? If there were even just a few items in the drawer, it would still be simple to thumb through them to find the one you wanted. What if the drawer was completely filled? It might take a little longer, right? That’s what happens on a hard drive when you install an operating system, applications, and data on it. Every time you download more mp3 songs, import more jpg photos from your camera, or type up new word processing documents, you’re stuffing more things in the file cabinet which is your hard drive.
Unlike the processor or memory, the hard drive is usually not a solid-state device; it has moving parts. Consequently, the time it takes to read or write hard drive data is on the order of 1,000 times slower than solid-state devices like RAM or a USB thumb drive. Couple that with the fact that you keep adding more and more stuff to it, and you can begin to understand the problem.
In reality, it’s even worse than you imagine. When you save a document to the hard drive, it gets stored in a specific space on the drive. The computer tries to allocate hard drive space as efficiently as possible, so if more stuff gets written to the drive after that, it’s stored in the next-available sequential space. (For the hard-core techies reading this, yes, I know that this explanation severely oversimplifies the process.) Unfortunately, that means that when you next edit that initial document, there isn’t any contiguous space on the drive for the new data to be stored, so it ends up getting stored elsewhere, discontiguous from the first part of the document. Later, when you try to read this document back into memory, it takes a little longer than it would for a contiguously-stored document because the computer must make a jump in the middle of reading it to find the rest of it. This is known as fragmentation. Another cause of fragmentation is when files are deleted, as that creates hole the computer tries to fill with subsequently-saved data, but the holes are almost never the right size for the data being saved, so they, too, get broken up into discontiguous pieces.
Don’t think your use is the only force causing fragmentation on your drive, either. Virtual memory, pointers to recent files, various cache files, and updates/patches use and release hard drive space all the time, causing fragmentation, even if you never intentionally save another file to your computer. Fortunately, fragmentation is relatively easy to cure. Microsoft Windows comes with a tool that does it for us – all we have to do is use this tool from time to time, and it rearranges the files on the disk to do its best to store them all contiguously. Lucky for us, a lot of the stuff we store on our hard drives doesn’t change all that frequently. Operating system files, installed applications, and even our music and photos rarely change in content or size, so once they get defragmented into less-dynamic areas of the hard drive, they should be fine.
Many people are comfortable enough with defragmenting their own hard drives, but if you’d prefer to leave it to a professional, Maverick Solutions would be happy to help. In fact, for our loyal blog readers, we’re even offering a Free PC Tune-Up.
Be sure to check back for the next installment in this series on PC optimization, about the negative performance effects of data hoarding, and what to do about it.
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