Q: Should I defragment my hard drive?

A: This is one of the more common questions I get (along with “should I turn my computer off at night?” – which I’ll talk about next time). Defragmenting a hard drive (also defrag or defragging), seems to be one of the more well-known and talked about computer maintenance tasks. The issue is whether defragging a hard drive is worth the effort. The answer may surprise you.

Basically, a defrag reorganizes the data on your hard drive so that files are more contiguous – meaning the data that makes up a file is grouped together more closely on the hard drive. In theory, this makes it quicker for a hard drive to retrieve data. This is because it can read related data all in the same area of a hard drive instead of needing to access data that is scattered. Sounds like a good idea, right? Well, it used to be a really good idea years ago. Nowadays, while a defrag technically does make your hard drive faster, the difference is usually too small to really notice.

When computers were slower, hard drives were also slower – and much smaller. Tweaking your hard drive to get every bit of speed out of it could save a fair amount of time. This was especially true if your hard drive was at or near full capacity. Hard drives become much more fragmented when they get full. So small and slow hard drives were a recipe for noticeably decreased performance. Defragging was a good idea.

In today’s age, computers are much faster and they come with faster and very large hard drives. Because hard drives are faster, the performance drag due to fragmented hard drives is proportionally smaller. Since hard drives are so much bigger, most people do not get anywhere near filling their drives up. Along with the fact that today’s operating systems are “smarter” about storing data on hard drives to limit fragmentation, severe fragmentation is rare anymore. Often, a defrag can take one or more hours to complete. So while defragmenting usually does no harm, the time and effort put into it will rarely pay for itself.

Note that I say “usually” a defrag does no harm. Defragging is a very intensive process to the hard drive. It can be enough to push a hard drive to fail if it was close to failing already. So while this isn’t meant to alarm you, you should make sure you have a good backup anytime you chose to defragment your hard drive. And if you have ANY suspicion that your hard drive may be failing (like hearing clicking sounds from your hard drive) especially if your drive or computer is over 3 years old, DO NOT defragment it.

Now this article may provoke disagreement from many other technical people. In some circles, defragging is like an old wives tale, passed on from generation to generation. Again, it used to be a good idea, but not anymore for most people today. Certainly there are many cases where a defrag can make sense. But those cases are usually reserved for high-performance environments such as servers and workstations, as well as “performance junkies” who want to tweak every bit of speed out of their systems. But those types of people aren’t the ones asking me for advice. So to wrap up, feel free to defrag your computers if you feel you need to, say maybe once or twice a year, but certainly don’t worry about it if you don’t.