De-fragmenting your hard disk is one of the best things you can do to speed up your Windows computer. How? Think of your hard drive like a file cabinet. If you're like most people, you've got your papers stored in alphabetized folders so you can find things easily.
Imagine, though, if someone took the labels off the folders, switched the locations of all the folders, and moved documents into and out of folders at random.
It would take you a lot longer to find anything, since you wouldn't know where your documents were. That's sort of what happens when your hard drive gets fragmented: it takes the computer much more time to find files that are scattered here, there and everywhere. Defragmenting your drive restores order to that chaos, and speeds up your computer -- sometimes a lot.
Defragmentation is available in Windows XP and Windows Vista, although there are some differences between the two. The most important is that Vista allowed scheduling of defragmentation: you could set it to defrag your hard drive every Tuesday at 3 a.m. if you wanted. In XP, you had to defrag manually.
It's just as important to defrag a Windows 7 computer on a regular basis, but there are some new options, and a new look. To get to the defragger, click on the Start button, and type in "disk defragmenter" in the search window at the bottom. "Disk Defragmenter" should appear at the top of the search results, as shown above.
If you've used the defragger in Vista and XP, the first thing you'll notice is the that Graphical User Interface, or GUI, has been completely redesigned. It's from this main screen that you manage all your defragmentation tasks. In the middle of the GUI is a screen that lists all the hard drives attached to your system that can be defragmented.
This is also where you can schedule automatic defragmentation, or start the process manually.
To automate defragmentation, left-click on the "Configure schedule" button. That will bring up the window shown above. From here, you can schedule how often to defragment, what time of day to defragment (night is best, as defragmenting a drive can suck up a lot of resources which can slow down your computer), and what disks to defragment on that schedule.
I recommend setting up these options, and having defragmentation done automatically; it's easy to forget to do it manually, and have to spend hours defragging when you need to get something else done.
The middle window, shown above, lists all your hard drives eligible for defragmentation. Left-click any drive in the list to highlight it, then click "Analyze disk" at the bottom to determine if it needs to be defragmented (fragmentation is shown in the "Last Run" column). Microsoft recommends defragmenting any disk that has more than 10% fragmentation.
One of the advantages of Windows 7's defragmenter is that it can defragment multiple hard drives simultaneously.
In previous versions, one drive had to be defragged before another one could be. Now, drives can be defragged in parallel, i.e. at the same time. That can be a big time-saver if you have, for example, an internal hard drive, external drive and a USB drive and they all need to be defragged.
If you enjoy being bored, or are just a geek by nature, you can monitor the status of your defrag session. After clicking "Defragment disk" (assuming you're doing a manual defrag, which you may want to do the first time you defrag under Windows 7), you'll be presented with detailed information on how the defrag is going, as shown in the image above.
Another difference between the defrag in Windows 7 and Vista is the amount of information provided during a defrag session.
Windows 7 is much more detailed in what it tells you about its progress. This could be helpful to view if you're having insomnia.
In Windows 7, you can stop the defrag at any time, without damaging your disks in any way, by clicking "Stop operation" during a defrag.