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Tuning Up

Is your hard drive getting sluggish? Try these tips to get it back in top form.

Your hard drive is your humble servant, storing and retrieving files day after day without complaint. If you're like most people, you don't think much about it-until disaster strikes, and it's too late.

But there's a lot you can do not only to keep your hard drive in good working order but also to optimize its performance and even anticipate when it might fail so you don't lose valuable data.

1. Partition your hard drive. Over the last few years, hard drives have become progressively larger. And with the ever-increasing amounts of storage space needed for the latest applications, it's not uncommon for businesspeople to need a 500MB to 1GB hard drive or even bigger.

But you may not be using your hard drive as efficiently as possible. If you have a large hard drive and plan to store lots of small files-for example, business documents created with a word processor rather than large graphics files-your hard drive will store files more efficiently if you partition it to create two or more hard drives.

Why? Most hardware manufacturers partition a hard drive as a single drive before they ship it. But the larger the drive, the less efficiently it handles small files. A file 1 byte in size occupies 2K on a 100MB drive, 16K on a 540MB drive, and 32K on a 1GB drive. Partitioning the 1GB drive into three 256MB drives would save considerable storage space.

You would give each of these drives a name like D, E and so on, and access them as you would your A, B or C drives. A good rule of thumb is to keep partition sizes to less than 256MB if you're storing primarily small files or between 256MB and 512MB if you'll also be storing lots of large files.

Before you begin, remember that repartitioning a drive destroys what's already there, so back up your files first. To partition the hard drive, type "FDISK" on the DOS command line. A menu of FDISK options will pop up to lead you through the process.

Before you exit FDISK, use the "Set Active Partition" menu option to mark the C drive as the partition your system boots from. Also format each of the partitions you create. (If you're not familiar with DOS, consider getting help from someone more knowledgeable.)

2. Organize your files. Most hard drives limit the number of files or directories you can store in your root directory to 512. As a result, it's possible to get a "disk full" error even when you have hundreds of megabytes of free space remaining. Prevent this problem by creating subdirectories for your programs and data files. Store only the essential files and directories in your root directory.

To find files again, use a utility like PC Tools from Symantec to view a graphical representation of your directories, subdirectories and files.

3. Repair drive errors. If you have bad sectors on your hard drive, you're likely to lose the data stored in those areas. To find errors, use the Scan Disk command in DOS 6.2 or the CHKDSK command (type C:CHKDSK) in earlier DOS versions.

Once you discover bad sectors, you can use the DOS Recover command to remove those sectors from each file. Unfortunately, this will remove the data stored in those sectors as well, but at least you'll be able to retrieve the rest of the file intact. One word of caution, however: Never run Recover without specifying a file name. If you type "Recover C:," you'll wipe out everything on your drive.

4. Defragment your hard drive regularly. When your hard drive is new, it generally stores data contiguously. But as you erase old files and add new ones, DOS reuses the space to store all or part of new files. It uses its file allocation table to keep track of where all these bits and pieces of files are located.

As time goes by, files can become heavily fragmented. This fragmentation slows down performance time by increasing the distance the drive heads must travel to pick up or deposit data. Fragmentation occurs gradually, but eventually, even the fastest hard drive grows sluggish, and the risk of data loss increases.

The solution is to regularly defragment your hard drive. To defragment your drive, first repair any drive errors as described in No. 3. Then run the DOS 6.X defragmenting utility or, if you have an earlier DOS version, use the defragmenting utility found in most popular drive utility packages, such as the one described in No. 7. Defragment your hard drive every few months to maintain peak performance.

5. Discard unneeded files. With the size of today's applications, even the largest hard drives can fill up amazingly fast. That's why it's a good idea to periodically delete files you no longer need or offload them to a floppy disk or tape backup system.

Unfortunately, this may be easier said than done. Misleading or unclear file names, often due to the eight-character DOS file name limitation, make it difficult to determine at a glance whether a file is important. This could make drive management difficult by preventing you from effectively cleaning up unnecessary files.

One solution is Disk Historian from Solid Oak Software. Disk Historian maintains a database of your computer's files and keeps track of how often you access them. Using an algorithm that notes how frequently these accesses occur over a week, a month or a year, the program designates each file as either active or inactive. The program then advises you on whether you need a particular file for your daily computing. If the files are unnecessary, you can delete them, move them to a floppy disk or another drive, or compress them to save hard drive space.

6. Be careful with your computer. Never move your PC while it's turned on because a hard drive spins continually. Although today's hard drives are rugged enough to withstand several G's of acceleration, the wrong bump at the wrong time can cause physical damage to the hard drive's magnetic coating, resulting in data loss.

7. Use utilities for preventive maintenance. There are several utilities available that can help maintain your hard drive and improve performance. One of the most popular is SpinRite from Gibson Research Corp.

One of SpinRite's main claims to fame is its ability to help optimize your hard drive's interleave. The interleave measurement determines how many hard drive spins it takes for the read/write heads to collect successive clusters of data. Because some systems take longer to read than the drive needs for a revolution, the platter may spin a few times before the head can return to the surface to collect the next cluster. Although most newer hard drives offer a one-to-one interleave, which reads data with each spin of the drive, slower or older units can often use some tuning.

Not only does SpinRite optimize the interleave, it also checks the hard drive for bad sectors and performs defragmenting. As it defragments data, it moves it from damaged sectors to safe ones and marks the bad sectors so data can no longer be saved on them. If possible, SpinRite will even repair the bad sector.

Using these techniques and utilities, you can keep your humble servant, the hard drive, working at peak performance. And since all your hard-earned data is likely to be on your hard drive, preventing disaster is well worth the effort.

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This article was originally published in the February 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Tuning Up.

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