Putting together the pieces on defragmenting

Defragmenting a computer seems to be a mystery operation. What does it mean when we see a message that we haven't defragmented in 343 days? What should we do?

Actually, defragmenting is not a mystery. In concept it is a rather simple task.

Defragmenting, incidentally, refers to the hard drive and means removing file fragments that are on the drive as the result of how the computer operating system stores data.

Let's look at an analogy. The computer hard drive, where we store our programs and data like letters, pictures and checkbook information, is like a large file cabinet in an office.

Think of typing a long report using a word processing program. When we go to save our report, the operating system places it in a file sleeve in a folder in the file cabinet. However, these file sleeves only hold a certain amount of data. If the report is long, it might be placed in two or more sleeves.

In a relatively new computer, these sleeves might be placed next to each other. Picture someone going to the file cabinet to retrieve the report. Wouldn't it be easy if all the sleeves were adjacent?

As the hard drive gets used however, the drawers might become crowded. Thus, the long report might have to be placed in sleeves that are in separate drawers. When the file drawers get real crowded, these sleeves might be all over the place.

Technically, the computer doesn't care where these sleeves are located. It keeps track of their location so it knows where to go when you want your report. However, if the computer has to go all over to get the report, it takes a lot of time. In other words, the hard drive has become "fragmented," and it takes a lot of computer time to reassemble the report before we can continue to work on it.

Defragmenting is reassembling these fragments. It works just like you would work in reassembling the office file cabinet. You would start at the top of the cabinet and check to see if all the needed sleeves are next to each other. If they were not, you would take some existing sleeves out of their current location and temporarily place them in an empty drawer. Then you would find the fragmented sleeves and put them all together. Since you don't want to lose any sleeves, you would continue to put them in, and take them back out of the temporary drawer until you got everything reassembled. Sound complicated? It isn't. However, it does take a long time, so you don't want to do this very often.

How do we defrag a hard drive? In Windows, click on My Computer and locate the 'C' drive. Right hand click on the 'C' drive icon and a drop down menu will appear. Left click on Properties. Another window appears. Click on Tools. A menu will appear where one of the buttons says Defragment Now and also indicate how long since the drive was last defragmented.

At this point, Windows 95 and 98 differ. In Windows 95, clicking on Defragment Now brings up a screen that indicates the amount of fragmentation. My Windows 95 machine indicates that it hasn't been defragmented in 347 days, but the drive is only two percent fragmented. No need to defragment this drive.

My Windows 98 machine goes through the same process but does not indicated the percentage of fragmentation. Thus I have to guess if I want to defragment.

By the way, defragmenting also can be found under Programs, Accessories, System Tools.

It is mesmerizing to watch the defragmenting process. By clicking on Details, you can watch the sleeves being moved back and forth on the hard drive. They are represented by different colored little boxes that skip around the screen. However the process can take an hour or so, so I usually do mine at night and then go watch television.

How often to defrag? Not often. If the machine seems to slow down, defragment. This doesn't have anything to do with the Internet being slow. Another story. I might defrag once or twice a year depending on how much I use the computer.

If you have further questions about defragmenting or other computer topics, visit "Coffee and Computers" at the Tustin Area Senior Center any Friday morning starting at 9 a.m. Bring your questions or just come in and visit.

In the mean time, keep the neurons happy, synapses snapping and enjoy computing.


Dr. Art Holub is a long time resident of Tustin and teaches computer and Internet courses at the Tustin Area Senior Center and the Tustin Adult School. Visit his web site at: This column is written to address the computer adventures and concerns of older adults. If you have comments, questions or suggestions for future columns, Email HIM at:

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