After using your computer for a few weeks/months or if you are a really busy computer user where you transfer, copy, delete, move files around in your hard drive, you’ll probably notice that your hard drive’s performance will start to degrade. Applications start to load very slow and often times, when you are just trying to open a website, it would likely take you a minute or so. I move Gigabytes of data everyday and after around 3 weeks, my hard drive starts to perform considerably slow. What happens is that the files get fragmented and it takes much effort from your hard drive just to look for the data.
It’s really one of the hardest things to explain but I’ll try my best. Take a look at the diagram I provided. Let’s say you just formatted your hard drive and you copied a 100MB, 60MB, and another 100MB file onto your hard drive. Looking at diagram A, that’s what they should look like if they are written on your hard drive.
This is where fragmentation usually starts. Let’s say you delete the 60MB file. Looking at diagram B, there will now be an empty 60MB ‘space’ between the two 100MB files. Now, if you copy another 100MB, looking at diagram C, it will split the file into 2 files. It will then be 60MB and 40MB, respectively. It will not copy the entire 100MB after the previous 100MB since it has to write sequentially onto your hard drive, thus the split.
Now, why is it then that the hard drive slows down if it gets fragmented? Here’s why. If you plan to access the green 100MB file, after it reads the first 60MB of the file, it will look for the beginning of the next fragment which is the remaining 40MB. That search will slow down your hard drive. You won’t notice it if it’s just 1 file and 2 fragments as you see in diagram C. But if there are lots of files and each of the files are fragmented, let’s say 5,000 files into 40 fragments each, the waiting time to access a file can be annoying or even painstaking. This is where the term fragmentation was derived from.
This concept is oftentimes hard to grasp however, I came upon an excellent article by one of my fellow writers here at Associated Content. I strongly suggest that you read Karen Curley’s article “Understanding Hard Drive Degfragmentation” as she clearly and excellently explained the concept of hard drive fragmentation.
Also, remember that when you delete files, it won’t necessarily delete the file itself but just its address on the hard drive. It means that the file will still be physically written on the drive but you won’t be able to access it or find it. It will be tagged as an ’empty’ space and if you copy a file, it will physically overwrite the deleted file. Let’s continue on with fragmentation.
Now, the question is, would it be better to format your hard drive entirely or just defrag it? Well, it actually depends on what you like or need. Let me share the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Let’s start with defragmentation. If you defrag a hard drive, it will try to combine the fragmented files so that it’ll be easier to access. It will save your hard drive from having to look for the continuation of a file. If you have thousands or millions of files and if they are heavily fragmented, you’ll see a noticeable improvement in the speed of your hard drive after defragging.
As most would agree though, a common disadvantage of defragmenting your hard drive is the amount of time it requires. It can take hours or even a day or more to defrag your hard drive depending on what hardware you have and how fragmented your hard drive is. The advantage is that you won’t have to do anything else afterward. Your programs and other files will remain intact and you’ll see a significant speed boost after the defragmentation is completed.
Formatting the hard drive is another option. It may actually seem faster since a quick format would suffice and it usually takes just a couple of seconds. The only drawback is that you have to reinstall everything again from your Operating system to your applications.
The main advantage in formatting is that you can actually remove files or applications that you don’t want. Yes, it may include viruses or unwanted programs that you may not know of or having trouble removing. You can just do a clean install of the programs you need. But of course, just make sure you back up important files. Doing a full format will make it impossible to recover formatted data though as it will physically erase data from the hard drive.
Either way, both methods will increase the performance of your hard drives. If you think your PC is too slow or started to become noticeably slower, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to upgrade your PC right away. Defragmenting your hard drive or formatting it will bring your drives back to peak performance.
To answer the question, it really depends on what you prefer, what you need or what is actually viable. If your drives aren’t heavily fragmented let’s say only around 3%-5%, defragging probably wouldn’t take that long. But if you think you have too many programs or too many files and if it’s extremely and heavily fragmented, it would probably be better to just format your drive rather than wait for hours or even days just to defrag it. It’s kind of like starting a clean slate.