Thursday, December 11, 2008

Plugged in: Low-cost computer fixes for tough times

Now that it’s official that the U.S. has been in a recession since December 2007 and North Slope crude oil sold for $35.61 a barrel last Friday, it’s even more critical to get the most for your money when upgrading your computer. It’s even better if you can boost your computing performance for free.

Hard disk performance has a much greater impact upon a computer’s performance than most nontechnical users might realize. Speeding up hard disk performance can make as much improvement as upgrading to a new computer with a later generation processor. Luckily, increasing hard disk performance can be straightforward and doesn’t require you to replace your entire computer system.

The newest locally available Western Digital and Hitachi hard disks, typically holding 300 to 500 gigabytes or more and spinning at 7,200 rpm, really pack data tightly. As result, not only do these hard disks have a very high storage capacity, but they also move a great deal more data under the read-write heads every second, making them potentially much faster under the right conditions than older, lower-capacity hard disks.

Sensible hardware upgrades

In some cases, just replacing the boot-up hard disk and reinstalling Windows and your programs and data can greatly rejuvenate a computer that’s a few years old and seemingly too slow. The local cost of a suitable new hard disk is well under $150 locally, even for a very high-capacity one, but replacing your primary hard disk and reinstalling Windows, programs and data is not a job for those who are technically faint of heart.

However, there are programs like Acronis Migrate Easy 7.0 that can simplify and ease the task by automating the entire hard disk upgrade and transfer process, particularly if you make the transfer using a USB portable hard disk enclosure to temporarily run your new hard disk during the transfer process. A free, 15-day trial copy of Acronis Migrate Easy 7.0 is available from

If the thought of opening your computer case causes trepidation, then include the cost of having this upgrade done by local professionals. If you have a professional open up your computer, then it may be worthwhile to upgrade the existing CPU processor if a significantly faster compatible CPU is still available, and to upgrade the RAM memory, preferably at least doubling it. If you plan to use Adobe’s new Photoshop CS4, then also consider replacing your existing video card with a fast new display card that has lots of memory onboard. The newest Photoshop CS4 uses the video card’s own processor to greatly increase Photoshop’s performance.

Improving existing hard disk performance

The performance of all hard disks, whether old or new, gradually degrades as they are used and files are stored and moved around. This is an inherent problem with the Windows operating system, not the hardware. The Windows operating system has a tendency to scatter partial fragments of each computer file all over the hard disk. That makes the hard disk’s read-write heads work much harder to load an application program or to read and write a data file, thus greatly slowing down a computer’s overall operation, regardless of how fast its processor might be.

The best solution is to continuously defragment your hard disk. In an ideal world, Windows should defragment every drive automatically in the background in order to maintain optimal performance, but Windows does not do so. Windows does include a disk defragmenting utility under the Start, Programs, Accessories, System Tools, Defragment menu item, but that Microsoft utility is mediocre. It has few options, must be run manually by the operation, slows a computer to a crawl while running for an hour or two, and does not really optimize disk performance. Still, it’s better than nothing and it’s provided free with the Windows operating system.

Several other system utility collections, such as Norton, include somewhat better hard disk optimization programs. However, in my experience, the clear choice for hard disk defragmentation and performance optimization is the Diskeeper family of products, available as downloads from Diskeeper allows you to download a free trial copy of the program that remains fully functional for 30 days, after which you must purchase a license and activate the product to continue using it. A free 30-day trial is useful as a one-time shot in the arm for a slowing computer, and allows you to evaluate whether purchasing the product is worthwhile.

Diskeeper’s “Home” version sells for $29.95, the “Professional” version for $59.95 and the “Pro Premier” version for $99.95. I suggest that the “Professional” version makes the most sense economically. It continuously optimizes and defragments your hard disk in the background without imposing a serious drain upon computing resources. There is no reason to buy the optional “Hyperfast” add-on module unless you have one of the new, cutting-edge, solid-state hard drives, and I don’t know a single person who does.

Even if you should replace your old hard disk with a new, faster drive, you’ll still notice a substantial performance improvement with continuous defrag-mentation.

Removing junk and temporary files from your hard disk and compressing the data can also improve system performance under some circumstances and, in any event, maximize your available storage. To access Microsoft’s hard disk cleanup tools, click on My Computer, then right click to select the hard disk to be cleaned and compressed, then click on the Properties menu item. A graphic display shows how much of the total hard disk space is in use.

In the graphic display for that hard disk, first click on the Disk Cleanup radio button. This will scan the selected hard disk for unused old files, temporary Internet content files, and other files that can be safely deleted. Then, left click on the Compress drive and the Allow Indexing Service check boxes, and start these operations by left clicking on the Apply button.

Then, sit back, make some coffee, and find a good book. You’ll not be using your computer for some time. After you’ve completed these tasks, and they must be performed separately for each hard disk, click on the tools menu item at the top of the disk’s graphic display.

You’ll see several options, including Error-Checking a hard disk and Defragmentation. Run Error Checking prior to defragmenting the drive. Otherwise, any disk errors may spread during the defragmentation process. If you have purchased Diskeeper, then that optional program will start when you press the Defragmentation program. Otherwise, Microsoft’s defragmentation accessory will run.

At the end of this rather tedious process, your hard disk should be in pretty decent shape and running noticeably faster.

Next week, we’ll discuss some nifty system cleanup programs that measure and fix computer system performance from a different angle.

Local attorney Joseph Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and has been writing and lecturing about technology throughout the U.S. since 1990 for American Bar Association, Alaska Bar Association and private publications. He also owned a computer store in Soldotna between 1990 and 2000.

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