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Defraggers: No Longer Needed?

Illustrations by James O'Brien
Illustration: James O'Brien
When was the last time you defragmented your hard disk? As your PC creates, modifies, and deletes files on the hard drive, files tend to get broken up into pieces that are physically scattered around the disk. Drives and file systems are built to keep track of these noncontiguous file parts, but if a significant portion of your hard drive has become fragmented, its performance might suffer.

Then again, it might not. When the PC World Test Center set out to determine the effectiveness of the defrag utilities in our set of suites, plus that of Diskeeper 8 from Executive Software, our analysts found no evidence that defragmentation enhanced performance. On a desktop system from the PC World office with a heavily used, never-defragmented hard drive, the lab conducted speed tests using a range of applications before and after defragmenting the drive with each utility. In the end, the Test Center saw no significant performance improvement after defragmenting with any program. This result flies in the face of the received wisdom that fragmentation hinders performance, though much older PCs (with slower and smaller hard drives) and heavily used servers may benefit more from defragging.

Fortunately, you don't have to buy a defragger to see if it will boost performance on your system: Every copy of Windows comes with a defragmentation tool. However, it is not particularly easy to use. Diskeeper 8 Professional Edition offers set-it-and-forget-it scheduling options, the ability to prioritize or skip defragmentation of specific files, and a display that predicts how much faster your system will be after defragmentation. Our tests didn't validate those predictions, though; again, we saw no performance gains after defragmenting.

The Disk Defragmentation module in Iolo's System Mechanic 4 Professional, SpeedDisk in Symantec's Norton SystemWorks 2004, and JET Defrag in V Communications' SystemSuite 5 not only defrag files but claim to cluster frequently used files together for faster access. A tool in SystemSuite 5, called IntelliCluster, watches how files are accessed as you use your PC, and then arranges files on the disk for optimal load speed. Only SpeedDisk lets you schedule defragmentation (say, for the middle of the night).

Scott Spanbauer

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