People oftentimes hear that defragmenting (or commonly called defragging) their computers is a good idea and they may even know how to bring up the Windows utility to make it happen but do they really know what it is doing? Usually not, which is part of why people continue to use the Windows utility instead of getting something better.
To start this discussion, let's first discuss the way that the hard drive works. The hard drive is the part inside your computer that holds all your files. Most hard drives nowadays are about an inch tall, about six inches deep and about 3-1/2 inches wide. That small component holds all your data: your resume, pictures of your kids, music that you've downloaded into your iTunes, and so on. Now, what do most people do? They write a file (say, a new song or an attachment from an email) to the computer, use it once, and then they throw it away. Now, let's say that before that file gets thrown away (deleted), another file is written to the computer. That second file takes up space next to the first file. Now, the first file is removed. What happens? The space that was used by that first file is now empty. Still with me?
Okay, now let's take this a bit further. A third file is written to the hard drive. The computer writes it to the first available area of the hard drive, which is where the first file originally existed but there's a problem: the space left behind by that first file is too small to fit all of the third file. No problem: the computer writes as much as it can into the first file's space and then finds the next available space and writes the rest of the third file. You now have a fragmented file: two (or more) parts of the file are in different parts of the hard drive.
This is just a simple example of how hard drives operate and uses only three theoretical files to demonstrate the point. Realize that the average computer has hundreds of thousands of files on it just for the Windows operating system itself. Add in all the files for Microsoft Office, QuickBooks, Firefox, and whatever else may be installed and you can see just how easily fragmentation can occur...and that's before you start considering all the letters you write to your Aunt, your school papers, and all other data that you create on your computer. Before you know it, your computer is running slower than molasses in winter and you are wondering what happened to the zippy computer that you bought only a few months ago.
So, why does this slow down the computer? Easy answer: if the file is not in a single area of the hard drive, then it means that the computer has to wait for the hard drive to find all the parts of the file it needs before it can proceed to the next step of its current task. If a file is in one piece, then the hard drive needs to make only a single pass to load all parts of the file. If, however, it is in 30 pieces, it has to take up to 30 trips around the hard drive to get all the parts to the computer. That takes as much as 30 times as long as if the drive were defragmented. So, as you can see, that will easily bog down your system and make you want to pull out your hair.
What is the solution? Defragment the hard drive. If nothing else, use the Windows defragmentation tool. It is better than nothing but just barely. What the defragmentation utility (Windows or any other) will do is take all the various fragments of the files and put them together so that each file is a single contiguous segment of the hard drive. The better defragmentation utilities will actually prioritize the files as they can determine what files are needed for bootup and can put those files toward the front of the drive so that they load that much faster.
What is the best option for defragmentation tools? There are so many on the market that we cannot really recommend one over another at this point. Something to look for, however, is the ability to set varying levels of defragmentation as well as scheduling a defragmentation process to take place regularly so as to keep your computer running at its full potential.