Driving Hard

Keeping your Hard Disk at Peak Performance.

When you first pull your brand-spanking new PC out of the box, it's clean and fast and you're in geek nirvana… then it starts to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n and you have no idea why. Your system still feels as if you're in the tortoise versus the hare race, and you're the tortoise.

Here's some tips for you to get that machine up and running at its peak again, so you can win the race against time (if not the hare.)

File Format (NTFS/FAT32)

Windows 95 OEM Service Release 2 was the first operating system to include the FAT32 file system, which allowed the use of larger partitions than previous Windows versions could handle. Windows NT added a new file system called NTFS which supports partitions of up to 16 exabytes and also adds other stability-enhancing features. Later NT-based operating systems (Windows 2000 and Windows XP) could use either NTFS or FAT32. NTFS is better than FAT32 for just about everything, but it's possible your drive is still formatted for FAT32. FAT32 can't imagine a file larger than 4 gigabytes (which is why video on FAT32 systems has to be cut up into chunks.) NTFS also has a smaller "smallest data block" size, which means there is less wasted space in an NTFS volume.

Unless you need to dual-boot with an operating system that doesn't understand NTFS (such as Windows 98), consider choosing NTFS the next time you reformat your hard drive. Or if you have a current backup set, you can convert your FAT32 volume to NTFS (there's a command-line utility in Windows that can do this, although it's sometimes a slow process depending on how much data you have on your drive). If you're not sure of your drive's formatting, right click on the drive letter (under My Computer), select "properties," then click the "general" tab.

DMA Settings

There are two ways that computers can send data to memory. The old way is Programmed Input/Output (PIO). With PIO, data is taken from the hard drive, handled by the system processor, and passed off to the appropriate place in memory. The newer, more svelte method is DMA or Direct Memory Access, which bypasses the processor, leaving it free to do other things. To enable DMA, open the system properties control panel, select the "hardware" tab and click on device manager. Scroll down and select your IDE controller and under the "advanced" tab, make sure all your hard drives and optical drives are set to "Use DMA if available".

Really Defrag Your Disk

Even most novices know to defrag their disks. The benefits of an unfragmented file system include faster program launches and more efficient use of your hard drive's space. The defragmenter that comes with Windows doesn't defrag the swap file and the information it gives you is not very useful. Third-party defraggers like O&O Defrag, Executive Software Diskeeper and Raxco PerfectDisk each have 30-day trial versions and information screens that assure you they're doing something.

What's Going on with My @#$@ Page File!!??

A fragmented page file can really slow down your system performance. One simple way to keep it defragmented is to erase it every time you're done with it and recreate it again when you need it. There's a simple Registry key entry you can make to have the page file deleted on shutdown or reboot. It slows down your shutdown a bit, but system performance will increase and you won't have a big file filled with cached passwords sitting on your hard drive. (Ed. Note: Be careful editing your Registry. Don't proceed unless you know exactly what you're doing.)

Change the Registry Value for System Key to: HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINESYSTEMCurrent
ControlSetControl
Session ManagerMemory
ManagementClearPageFileAtShutdown
From 0 to 1

There You Have It

These tweaks can help to breathe a lot of life back into your system. Develop a PC maintenance regimen to keep your hard drive (and by extension, your entire system) operating at its best. This includes converting file systems, if necessary, and also frequent backups and defragmenting on all of your disks.

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