In a perfect world, the data on your hard drive would line up on the platters like little soldiers, all in perfect rows and grouped by class, frequency of use, and size. But modern-day Windows operating systems don’t behave in such a way, leading to data fragmentation—and, by necessity, the rise of defragmentation routines.
As for how this happens, we’ll offer a simplified version of a typical file-system architecture. Envision a blank drive. When an operating system writes a series of files to the drive, it might place them in sequential order—say, five different chunks of data lined up one after the other with each chunk taking up 20 blocks of space. Removing one of the files creates a hole that the operating system can then fill either completely or partially with new information.
Now suppose the new file needs to get bigger. Since the existing data takes up space immediately following the file that needs to grow, the operating system is forced to continue the file elsewhere on the drive. Take the large number of files on a typical hard drive and the massive number of writes and deletions that happen constantly and you get a perfect storm of file fragmentation.
Fragmentation forces the drive head to jump all over the place to find the bits and pieces of files whenever you access them. Defragmentation, then, is the means by which these files are realigned into contiguous chunks. Windows Vista does this automatically, only the slow speed at which it defrags makes us wonder: Is the time spent worth the supposed performance payoff? And do third-party defragmenters, free or otherwise, do a better job?
Fragmenting a hard drive is harder than you think, thanks to Windows Vista
|HP’s TouchSmart IQ770 Desktop isn’t the speediest of rigs, which forced us to measure our defragmentation runs in hours rather than minutes.|
For our tests, we’re using an HP TouchSmart IQ770 Desktop machine that has been in constant service as a security-monitoring webcam workstation for the last several months. Due to the amount of use (and abuse) this poor 1.6GHz AMD Turion-based machine has endured, we expected it to be fragmented beyond belief. And it would have been, were it not for the fact that Vista’s automatic defragmentation utility is scheduled to run every week.
Unlike Windows XP, which uses a stripped-down version of Diskeeper to defrag drives, the Windows Vista application has been redesigned from the ground up. Microsoft claims that the new defragger makes for faster, less processor-intensive defragmentation. While it’s true that the Vista defragger doesn’t hit our system as hard as the XP defrag process, it takes much, much longer to complete, making Microsoft’s claim of faster performance baffling.
Because Vista’s defragger runs automatically every week, it would be extremely unusual to find a heavily fragmented Vista drive in the real world. That said, prior to testing, we disabled Vista’s defragger, uninstalled a few apps, and then filled the empty space with a collection of MP3s and other newly installed applications to replicate a busy week for a power user.
We’ve chosen four products for this challenge, starting with Vista’s built-in defragmentation program. Against that, we’re testing the free Auslogics Disk Defrag, as well as two commercial defragging utilities: Raxco’s PerfectDisk 2008 and Diskeeper 2008. This healthy mix of free and paid-for defragmentation software will allow us to determine if there is any benefit to using a third-party defragger, and if so, just how much the commercial apps can improve our rig’s performance.
So that each defrag utility operates on an identical machine, we captured a complete image of the original drive using Norton Ghost 12 and then reloaded it onto the machine prior to running each program. To measure the performance impact of each utility, we looked at the machine’s startup times, shutdown times, and PCMark Vantage scores before and after the defrag. We chose Vantage as our primary benchmark because it represents a number of real-world performance scenarios one would encounter during an extended period of computer use. We also factored in the time each utility took to perform its defrag to test our theory that Vista’s defragger—low priority though it may be—still takes an inordinate length of time to complete.
Prior to making the Ghost image of our drive, we ran PCMark Vantage’s hard drive performance script 20 times. Since typical defragmentation programs reorder data based on frequency of use, we wanted to make sure they take our benchmark into account.
|The command-line version of Vista’s defragger provides much more information than the GUI version.
Vista’s built-in defrag program reported a fragmentation level of 11 percent prior to the defragmentation process. We were able to obtain this information only by using the command-line version of the app—the standard interface doesn’t provide any information about your drive’s state, nor does it report on the defragmenter’s progress. It took Vista’s app three and a half hours to defrag our test drive. Vista’s lengthy defrag times are due largely to the fact that it runs as a low-priority process. The application won’t make full use of your processor unless the computer sits idle for several minutes.
While the program reportedly reduced fragmentation on our drive to zero percent, we saw negligible performance gains in our PCMark Vantage tests. The startup time improved by 39 seconds, but the process added an additional 14 seconds to our shutdown time. Regardless of whether the culprit is our slow test rig, Vista itself, or the insignificance of drive fragmentation on performance, Vista’s built-in defragmentation application did little to improve the real-world performance of our computer.
|Fragmented Vista Drive||Window Vista Defrag|
|best scores are bolded.|
It’s free and fast but doesn’t improve system performance
|Auslogics’s Disk Defrag skimps on features, but it still offers more than Vista’s native defragmentation client—including a graphical interface.|
Auslogics’s Disk Defrag (free, www.auslogics.com) is a no-frills entry point into the world of defragmentation. It offers just what the name implies: a disk defragger, plain and simple. From a drop-down menu you select the drive you want to defrag and then press a button to start the procedure. (An upcoming version of the app will reportedly feature a scheduler, as well.)
We love the program’s graphical analysis of the drive’s fragmentation level—it’s interesting to see what’s being done to your computer (which allows you to estimate how long the procedure will take). Disk Defrag doesn’t come with a pre-defragmentation analysis tool, though a results screen following the defrag shows what the program “improved”; still, it wasn’t clear to us in our benchmarking that Disk Defrag actually did anything.
The program quoted an initial fragmentation level of 4.21 percent, the lowest figure of the four programs we tested. That said, Disk Defrag still took two hours, 45 minutes to complete its run on our drive. Our test rig’s shutdown time improved by three seconds compared to the shutdown time after a Vista defrag (although it was still slower than pre-defrag), but this was offset by a dramatic 45-second increase in our startup time.
Stranger still, we saw a 5 percent drop in performance as measured by our PCMark Vantage benchmark. There were no noticeable negative effects during normal usage, but we didn’t see a benefit from running the defragmentation either. The only true positive this program offers is speed—it completed the defrag process 45 minutes faster than the built-in Vista client.
|Fragmented Vista Drive||Window Vista Defrag||Auslogics Disk Defrag|
|best scores are bolded.|
For all its options, Diskeeper did nothing to increase our rig’s performance
|Diskeeper’s drive analysis provides plenty of information about the fragmented status of your drive, but no estimate of how long the defragmentation will take.|
Diskeeper 2008 ($30, www.diskeeper.com) comes with a few features that are above and beyond anything you’ll find in a free defragmentation application. For starters, the utility’s built-in automatic defragmentation option negates the need to ever run a manual defragmentation of any sort. The program makes full use of underused resources on your computer by defragmenting your drive in the background. You can let the program figure out your typical computer use and run accordingly or dictate when you want the full use of your processing capabilities.
Since Diskeeper runs inside the operating system, it includes a boot-time defragmentation option which manipulates files that would otherwise be locked by Vista. The program will even lock off your master file tables and paging files to prevent any future fragmentation, a feature unique to Diskeeper. Considering these would be handled by a boot-time defragmentation, it’s nice to see the program making even its own workload easier.
Diskeeper reported a fragmentation level of 14 percent on our test drive, the highest of any program we tested. Of the third-party programs, Diskeeper took the longest to finish its defragmentation routine, but at two hours, 48 minutes it still took less time than Vista’s built-in program. However, we saw no improvement whatsoever in Vista’s startup or shutdown times. In fact, it took an additional minute for the computer to boot compared to boot times after Vista’s defragger ran. Our PCMark Vantage test showed a negligible loss of performance, and we didn’t’ see any differences in speeds when running common Vista-based tasks.
|Fragmented Vista Drive||Window Vista Defrag||Diskeeper 2008 Defrag|
|best scores are bolded.|
PerfectDisk defrags the fastest, but fails in the subsequent benchmarks
|You won’t see all of PerfectDisk’s available defragmentation options unless you first run an analysis of the drive.|
PerfectDisk 2008 ($40, www.raxco.com) sports a similar feature set to Diskeeper 2008. In fact, the programs are nearly identical in basic functionality. But PerfectDisk does tweak a few of our favorite features just a bit. For example, PerfectDisk, like Diskeeper, allows you to establish an automatic defragmentation that runs whenever your computer is idle; however, it also lets you tie defragmentation runs to your screensaver. When your screensaver starts, PerfectDisk starts. We like this additional flexibility and would welcome even further customization in future editions of the software.
For the time conscious, PerfectDisk 2008 does a great job of estimating exactly how long the defragmentation process will take and provides approximate CPU usage info and fragmentation level at the beginning and end of the run. After a thorough analysis of your drive, the program suggests ways to improve performance. In our case, we needed a boot-time defragmentation. But we couldn’t select it from a menu—we had to run the analysis first, which then gave us that option.
The program reported that our test drive was 7.5-percent fragmented. Following a two hour, 24 minute defragmentation, our startup times increased by approximately 40 seconds compared to the startup times following Vista’s defragmentation and increased by two seconds when compared to the fragmented drive. PerfectDisk was the only defragger that improved our original shutdown time, albeit by just four seconds. But it also netted us a minor loss of performance in the PCMark Vantage benchmark—a decrease of 6 percent over the measured performance following a defragmentation by Vista’s built-in application.
|Fragmented Vista Drive||Window Vista Defrag||PerfectDisk 2008|
|best scores are bolded.|
You shouldn’t break the bank for negligible performance gains
With all of the benchmarking completed, we find it rather suspicious that disk defragmentation did nothing to improve the performance of our machine. However, we must note that our test drive was not terribly fragmented to begin with due to Vista’s auto-defragger running on our test bed. Even the paid-for programs were unable to yield any positive gains—quite the opposite, in some instances.
We had high hopes for Diskeeper at first. Given the relatively high level of fragmentation it quoted compared to Vista’s built-in app, we assumed the program’s analysis routines were seeing fragmentation that Vista couldn’t. In turn, we expected Diskeeper to do a better job of moving files around and ultimately give us better benchmark numbers than the Vista client.
That was wishful thinking on our part, as Diskeeper didn’t trump the Vista defragmentation routine at all. While it did beat PerfectDisk by 150 points in our PCMark Vantage test, we hardly consider this a trouncing. We even fired up both programs’ boot-time defragmentation options to see if these additional features would make any difference on our benchmarks. Zilch.
We like the Vista defragmentation program for the simple fact that it’s, well, there. It comes with Vista and is enabled by default and runs its defragmentation routines during the wee hours of the morning. And even if you alter this time or run your own manual defragmentation, the program runs at a low processor priority, so you can easily multitask without hampering your computing experience.
That said, we hate that Vista gives you no estimated time of completion. You also get no way to see what the application is doing, any graphical representation of how fragmented your drive is, or any of the other features we’ve come to expect in even the most entry-level of defragmentation applications. Even if the pretty moving colored blocks don’t correspond to the actual data on our drives, at least they give us something to look at during the interminable two-hour-plus defrag process. You even have to run a command-line version of the application just to see an analysis of your drive’s fragmentation level.
If you don’t mind manually running your defragger and you can’t live without a visual representation of the fragmentation level of your drive, try Auslogics’s Disk Defrag. It doesn’t outperform Vista in our tests, but it runs faster than the operating system’s built-in defragger, and it displays a pretty picture to let you know that it’s working. Even if disk defragmentation ultimately does nothing for your computer—as our benchmark numbers would have us believe—you don’t need to spend money on a third-party program when Auslogics’s Disk Defrag is a serviceable free solution.