Tweaks: performance tips

Do you remember the last time you defragmented your hard drives? If you’re running Windows, you should… if you haven’t defragged in a while, read on.

Remember when you first got your brand-new editing system? Everything ran super-fast. You double-clicked on your editing software’s icon and it finished launching before you moved your hand away from your mouse. It was great, wasn’t it? But of course, it seems like it just didn’t last long enough.

What happened? Well, just like your car, you have to keep maintaining your system. Defragging regularly is one of the easiest ways to maintain the speed and stability of your system, but it’s a lot like checking the air pressure in your car’s tires. It’s quite an easy thing to do, really, but it’s not something a lot of us think about that often.

A Fifty-Cent Filesystem Tour

When the operating system writes a file to your computer’s hard drive, it may write that file as a contiguous chunk. As files get bigger or smaller, or get deleted, the filesystem is left with gaps. If a big file (say, a video capture file) needs to be written to the hard drive, and there’s not enough contiguous free space to accommodate the new large file as a single chunk, the file will end up being broken up into a number of chunks on the disk to fit. Hence, your disk is now fragmented. When a file that is fragmented is read by the operating system, your hard drive’s heads now have to jump around on the disk to read the file, which causes your computer to lose performance. If taken to extremes, this could cause your computer’s hard drive to wear out faster.

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What a Defragmenter Does

A defragmenter consolidates all of the files into single chunks (though depending on the size of the files, they can only lessen the number of chunks that a file takes up on the disk. Many (but not all) defragmenters also consolidate all of the free space at the end of the disk as well. Some defraggers also perform operations such as optimizing system boot speed and optimizing the folders on your disk.

How Often?

We would recommend running a defragmenter right before you start a video project. This will minimize the likelihood of running into issues when you capture footage, and should help keep system performance reasonably high while editing.

Many defraggers also include a scheduler. Windows Vista’s built-in defragmenter also includes a scheduler that you can use to start a defrag run at a time when you’re not using your computer. (This is certainly something to consider if you don’t generally pull all-nighters when you get deep into editing.)

At a minimum, defragment your system drive at least monthly. I personally defrag after every Patch Tuesday (the second Tuesday of the month, the day every month when the latest Windows patches are released.)

Which One?

There are a surprisingly large number of defraggers. Windows 2000 and XP ship with a very stripped-down defragmenter based on Diskeeper. There are some utility suites that defragment, and also include tools such as registry cleaning and disk cleanup tools, and sometimes antivirus/anti-spyware capabilities too.

There is one major free, open-source defragmenter that we are aware of, JkDefrag. While it is a bit spartan, it includes a litany of options that can be invoked when the program is run from the command line.

Finally, there are some dedicated commercial defragmenters on the market. The biggest names are Raxco’s PerfectDisk, Diskeeper, O&O Defrag and Golden Bow Systems’ Vopt; but there are some other up-and-coming utilities out there (e.g. Paragon Total Defrag and DiskTrix’ UltimateDefrag.) These are the utilities that tend to have the advanced features, such as scheduling, metadata defragmentation, MFT optimization capabilities, etc. Practically all defraggers are available in limited-time trial versions, so you can try them out before you shell out for a full version.


But I Have a Mac…

Macintosh owners are in luck, as the HFS+ filesystem used by Mac OS defragments files on the fly, as they are accessed. Generally, most Mac users don’t need to use a third-party defragmenter, but there are a handful of them out there. Because of the way HFS+ operates, we recommend making a backup and running Disk First Aid at a minimum before attempting to run a third-party Mac defragger.

If you’re a Linux user doing some video production on the cheap, there are some defragmenters for the Ext2 filesystem, though most Linux gurus we know say that you will generally never need to defrag your Linux box.

I Really Need to Do This?

You definitely need to keep your system defragmented if you have any hope of getting the best performance and longest life out of your hard drives. Trying out third-party defragmenters is also one of the steps that will bring you further into the realm of being an advanced computer user, and when your friends see how much faster your system is compared to theirs, they’ll probably ask how you did it. If you don’t want to start geeking out, just show them this article. It’s OK with us.

Charles Fulton is Videomaker‘s Associate Editor.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.