Hard Drive Maintenance

Hard drive maintenance is of extreme importance in maintaining overall computer health.

It's a nasty fact of computer life, but Windows (and every other computer operating system out there) grows. If you're like me, not so long ago you were getting by with a 500 megabyte hard drive and dreaming of the day you'd be able to afford one of those huge 1.5 gigabyte babies. Then Windows 98 happened, and shortly after that the price of hard drives started dropping - it's a good thing too, since a full installation of Windows 98 without any extra programs can take up 350 megabytes all by itself. When I got my first 6-gigabyte hard disk, I was convinced it would last me for years. Two weeks later I'd managed to fill 4.5 gigs of it, and my brand new Pentium 350 was running at the speed of a 386!

It's one of those mysteries of life, like the way your expenses will always rise to meet your pay raises, or if you're a woman, the amount of stuff you need to tote around with you will increase proportionally according to the size of your handbag. Should we all go back to 500-meg hard disks? Of course not. But there are some things you can do to keep that new 17-gigabyte drive on your Pentium 810 from filling up and slowing your machine down to the speed of an old 486.

If you're lucky, you have a SCSI (pronounced "scuzzy") hard drive. Most of us don't, because they're considerably more expensive than good old EIDE drives, and they're also a pain to install. SCSI drives use a lot less of your CPU time (translate that as "computer horsepower") than EIDE drives do, but you pay for that convenience.

If you haven't bought a new hard drive yet and money isn't an object, go for a SCSI drive. If, on the other hand, like 70% of us or so, you're using an EIDE drive, there are lots of ways to get better performance out of those too, and make them work almost as quickly as SCSI drives do.

First things first: Hit Start-->Settings-->Control Panel-->System. Click on the Device Manager tab. This will bring up a box called System Properties and show you what's on your machine for hardware, or it should anyway. Sometimes Windows still gets a little confused about scanners and digital cameras, so you may have to reinstall those if you don't see them listed there, and it's also good to note anything you see with either a red or yellow mark through it, because that indicates that a device has been disabled or has a conflict with another device - but I digress.

Just know that your device manager is handy for troubleshooting, and it's one of the first places to look if you have a suspected hardware problem. It's also the first place to go to start getting your hard disk in order. You'll see a number of listings with "+" signs next to them. What you want to do is click on the "+" sign next to Disk Drives. That will show you the floppy, removable and hard drives that are installed on your computer. Double-click on something that says "generic IDE disk type 47" or similar (that's how my computer reads, yours may be a little bit different, but what you want is the hard disk, not the floppy disk, and it'll say something like that).

Clicking this listing will bring up another box with three tabs on it - General, Settings and Drivers. (I know we're doing a lot of clicking, but it really is easier than it sounds.) The General box should simply say that the device is functioning normally. If it doesn't say that, get on the phone to the tech support people who sold you the computer or the hard disk, because something is very wrong. Don't worry about the Drivers box, hard disks don't usually need drivers anyway.

What you want to do is click on the tab at the top that says Settings. One of the small boxes in Settings goes by the acronym DMA (Direct Memory Access). Chances are, if your hard drive was made within the last four to five years, it supports either DMA or Ultra DMA. If the box that says DMA is not ticked, tick it. Windows will bring up a dire warning window and tell you that it doesn't know if your hard drive supports DMA, all sorts of awful things could happen to your computer if it doesn't support DMA, and in any event, any changes you make won't take effect until you reboot the computer. If the box is already ticked, fine - you have a DMA or Ultra DMA hard drive and Windows knows about it. If it's not ticked, go ahead and tick it and restart your computer. The worst thing that's going to happen is that if your hard drive for some reason does not support DMA the option will be greyed out when Windows reboots - no big deal. DMA helps hard drives to keep things moving faster, which is what you want.

Interestingly, the next tab over from Hard Disk is Floppy Disk. Unless for some reason you're installing and uninstalling floppy disk drives on your computer on a regular basis, untick the box that says "Search for new floppy disk drives each time your computer starts."

This will also save you considerable seconds during boot-up time, error messages and weird grinding sounds that your computer sometimes makes when it's looking for new disk drives that aren't there. It's turned on by default, so turn it off unless you have compelling reason not to do so.

(We're about to enter the tech-zone here, but bear with me, I promise it's not that difficult.)

Here's another thing you really ought to consider doing, but don't do it the Microsoft way: If you are running Windows 95 OSR2 or higher and you have a hard disk bigger than 500 megs, you have the option of converting your hard disk to a system called FAT-32. FAT-32 is a lot more efficient than the old FAT-16 system (though Windows 9x will run under either of them), it uses smaller clusters than FAT-16 does, and it will generally speed things up as well as saving precious space on your hard disk. FAT-16 only supports disk drives up to 2 megabytes, so if you're using FAT-16 and you have, say, a 10-gigabyte hard drive, you will need five partitions on it. Plus for every file that you create, you'll have at least 32 kilobytes of "slack space" left over that you can't use for anything else.

Considering how many files Windows itself contains, as well as all the files you create yourself and the files that are created by programs that you install, those kilobytes add up fast. FAT-32, unlike FAT-16, will support hard drives of up to 2 terabytes in size (bigger than you're apt to see anytime in the near future) without adding extra partitions, and the slack space per file can be as low as 4 kilobytes. Obviously it's a big space saver, and that also makes it a more efficient and faster system. If you are running Windows 95OSR2 or any of the Windows 98 operating system varieties, your hard disk is 2 gigabytes or larger and you only have one partition, you're already running FAT-32 - your computer came with the hard disk formatted that way.

But maybe you just bought a new hard drive and installed it yourself, or maybe your computer came with no operating system installed on it at all, in which case you'll need to format the hard disk yourself before you can install any kind of operating system.

Like all good things, FAT-32 does have its drawbacks: You may have old DOS or Windows 3.1x programs that will refuse to run under FAT-32. And when you call the software vendor, he or she may kindly inform you that the upgrade to a program compatible with FAT-32 will cost you a mere $1000. If you have a dual-boot system with Windows NT4, that won't run under FAT-32 either, nor will Windows 9x run under NTFS, the file system that NT4 uses. If that's the case, you're stuck with FAT-16 if you want to make sure all your programs will run - you lose the security of the NTFS file system and the space-savings and speed of the FAT-32 system so that everything will work to some degree. Not a great solution.

The big problem with using Microsoft's built-in FAT-32 converter is that it's a one-way trip. If you convert to FAT-32 and discover that it doesn't work for you, Microsoft doesn't give you the option of changing back to the FAT-16 system. You're stuck. And if you're formatting the disk yourself, FDISK, the Windows partition manager that runs under DOS, is not known for its user-friendliness.

So do yourself a favor before undertaking this. Go over to

PowerQuest's web site and pick up a copy of their excellent Partition Magic program. Partition Magic comes bundled with a program called Boot Magic, so if you are running say, Windows 98 and Windows NT4, or even Windows 98 and UNIX on the same machine, setting it up is a breeze. The way the program works is that you install it, make a couple of diskettes from it, boot from those, and it will walk you through the conversion process step-by-step, and if you've got a dual-boot system it will walk you through setting that up step-by-step as well. So if you need to make two partitions for two different operating systems (or even three or six) you're set - you can make one for Windows 9x and another for NT or UNIX. You can also convert most of your system to FAT-32 partition and create a small FAT-16 partition for those programs that refuse to work under FAT-


If you try out FAT-32 and it doesn't work for you, you can easily reverse the process by using Partition Magic to re-partition your drive. The suggested wisdom is to back up your data first, and I agree, but in a pinch I've done it without making back-ups first. I've never lost data using Partition Magic, it's a pretty safe program, unlike DOS FDISK. (But make those back-ups anyway, okay? You never know.)The whole process will take you about 20 minutes, and with Partition Magic you have a fall-back, you can always go back to what you had before, whereas the Microsoft method won't let you. I know it sounds confusing, but it's more difficult to explain than it is to do, and Partition Magic will give you graphical on-screen prompts and an extensive help file to walk you through the whole process. And it works with both SCSI and EIDE drives.

**Okay, that was the hard part. Here are a few more obvious and maybe not-so-obvious tips for helping to keep the clutter down and your hard drive in good shape, and you'll only really hate one of them.**

Make sure to run a full scandisk(not the abbreviated version - when you open the program you will see that you have a choice, so choose "thorough,") and defrag on your computer at least once a week. You can use the tools that come with Windows to do this, or you can use third-party tools. Just make sure you do it, it will nip errors in the bud and keep your hard drive running faster because it won't have to look all over the place for the files that go with the programs you use.

Go to Start-->Programs-->Accessories-->System Tools. There's a nifty little app there called Disk Cleanup. You should run this once a week or so anyway, but if you haven't been doing it, you may notice that "Uninstall Information for Windows 98" or something similar is listed there and is taking up about 150-200 megabytes of space. If you've been using 98 or your preferred flavor of Windows for a while, tick the box and delete this. It will instantly free up a lot of space, and more space means a faster hard disk. If you're dual-booting between operating systems, I strongly recommend that you use Partition Magic and Boot Magic to keep them on separate partitions anyway, that way you can take advantage of all the good features each OS has to offer instead of trading off most of them for the sake of keeping your system running.

How about the MSN Network and Online Services? Do you use

those? If not, simply delete MSN from your desktop, and Online Services from both your program files and your desktop. Another big space savings. If you change your mind, they will still be on your Windows CD and you can reinstall them, but there's no point in keeping them if you don't use them. After you're connected to the Internet, the Internet Connection Wizard is another one you can say good-bye to. You don't even need it to connect to the Internet at all, you can do all that through the Dial-Up Connection panel if you're so inclined. Again, if you want it back, it's on the Windows disk, and perpetually available from Windows Update as well.

You can also use Disk Cleanup to get rid of some of the other garbage on your computer, like old temporary files and Internet cache files (you'd be surprised how much room those eat up). Do that once a week, at least. You may also want to pick up a program like Iolo's Safety Scan to clean up various odd useless files that get left over on your computer. You can do that by hand, but Safety Scan is quicker. Two of the biggest offenders in this category are files called "mscreate.dir" and anything that ends with the extension "gid." The mscreate files are made by Microsoft when most programs are installed, and after installation serve no purpose. The files that end in .gid are help files, and you can delete them because if you ever need them again they will recreate themselves when you hit "Help."

If you're a do-it-yourselfer, go to Start-->Find-->Files or Folders to hunt these down.

Also make sure to clean out your Windows temp directory once a week or so, that builds up various odds and ends that the system needs while it's running (don't worry if you delete something Windows does need that's in the temp folder - Windows will recreate it - at the very worst you'll simply need to reboot or restart Windows), and it's also the place a lot of big files end up if your system crashes. If you don't clear it out every week or so it's going to grow to an unwieldy size and really slow down your computer. The two directories to leave alone and NOT delete things from under any circumstances are Windows System and Sysbackup. The files may look unimportant or redundant, but they are usually quite crucial to keeping Windows up and running.

Here's a tip when you're installing programs: Create a directory specifically for installations (I call mine c:\dumb because if I make mistakes at least it keeps them isolated there). When you install a new program, start it out in your "dumb" directory or the equivalent thereof. After you've finished installing the program, there will be lots of files left over in "dumb". You can delete those, the program doesn't need them, but the installation routine did.

If a lot of your programs come in .zip format (many do these days, especially ones you download from the Internet), create a directory for those too, and call it "c:\executables" or something. Don't call it

"Programs," because you've already got a C:\Windows\Program Files directory that your installed programs live in. After you install a program, put the .zip file into "executables." When that file starts getting big, burn a copy of everything in it onto a CDR, along with a copy of your zip/unzip utility program (it's amazing how little things go missing in a crisis).

If you do these things, you won't have a lot of homeless installation files scattered across your computer, and you'll have backups of all your programs in case you need to reinstall them - just make sure to delete them from your computer after you've burned them to CDR so they won't be taking up space. And make sure to back up important files that you're working on every day on a floppy disk. This will take you less than five minutes, and save you many hours of work in case of a hard disk crash.

When you find you have hundreds of megabytes of photos or MP3's on your hard disk taking up space and you don't want to lose them, burn those onto CDR as well, and get back anywhere from 650 to 2 megabytes of space (they mount up fast!). You also want to keep an eye on your fonts, icons, wallpaper and screensavers. Those can accumulate quickly too, and fonts especially will slow down your computer when it's loading, so anything you don't need, delete. If, like me, you're the equivalent of a cyber-pack rat and can't decide if you just might want that old-style Celtic font again sometime put it onto a floppy or a CDR - but take it off your computer if you're not using it on a regular basis (or if you find you're not using it at all - if you change your mind you can always reinstall it).

Beware of feature creep! If you have a program that does something and you're happy with it, there's no need to install another one that does the same thing. Unfortunately, many software companies are now bundling their utility software in "everything but the kitchen sink" fashion. You'll need a few of these programs, but you won't need them all.

For instance, if you want a firewall and you also want to get rid of cookies, pop-up adverts on web pages and don't want to see offensive content on the web, you could buy Norton's NIS2K package. This will do the job, but it will also lead to many megabytes of bloatware on your system. Alternatively, you could download Zonealarm for a firewall, Surf in Peace for a pop-up killer (both of these programs are free and blissfully small), and set your Netscape cookies.txt file to "read only." That will make it automatically delete all cookies as soon as you close the browser. If you use MS Internet Explorer, you'll have to delete the cookies by hand or get a small program like Cookie Crusher to do it for you, but in any event, you're saving yourself a lot of money and saving your computer about 50 megs of space if you go this route. As for offensive content, there's no iron-clad guarantee that you won't come across it no matter what filtering software you use, so surf carefully and avoid those pages (if your kids are old enough to use the Internet, they already know how to defeat the protection schemes in browsers anyway). The biggest and most expensive program is not always the best. So look around for smaller, non-bundled programs that meet your needs.

Unless you absolutely need every feature of Microsoft Office available at all times, install it to run from your CDROM. It will let you do this, and so will many other (but unfortunately not all) bundled programs.

You might want to put the full version of Word on your hard drive, but if you only use Excel or Powerpoint five times a year, don't install all of Office 2000. It will eat over 2.5 gigabytes of space and slow down your hard drive considerably. If you're like me and people send you a lot of

different types of files, invest in Jasc Software's Quickview Plus program. Quickview Plus (which is where the miniature version of Quickview that ships with Windows comes from) will let you read, write and edit over 200 file types. So you don't need to install the program for every single file type you'll ever use, especially if a lot of stuff comes across your desk for review in formats that you don't do a lot of work with yourself.

Remember, the more stuff you've got on your hard disk, the slower and more error-prone it will be, it's just a fact of Windows life.

Every eight to 12 months, you are going to have to reformat your hard disk and reinstall Windows. No matter how careful you are, the dust bunnies will accumulate, frequently to the tune of a gigabyte or more. If you've been backing things up on tape, CDRs, floppies, or a combination of those things, it isn't that painful. Pick a week-end to do this. If you're having good weather, this is also an excellent time to pick up a couple of tins of compressed air, unplug the computer, remove the case, and

spray the literal dust bunnies out of it - there will be a lot of those, too, so try to do it outdoors, or at least put the box on some newspapers near a window (the kind that come with houses, that is ;). Keeping the inside of your computer clean will help both the hard disk and the rest of the components last longer, too.

Tip: Put a dot of liquid correction fluid on the upside of everything that plugs into the computer, that will make it easier to figure out which way to plug it all back in again.

After you've reformatted, reinstall Windows and the other programs that you need. I bet you'll find you didn't need half of the things you thought you couldn't live without. There's no motivation quite like reinstalling to make you see what you really need and what you don't.

© High Speed Ventures 2011