Windows 10

Maintaining Drives

Rotating drives (hard drives, CDs, DVDs, even those ancient floppies if you can still find one, and other types of storage media) seem to cause more computer problems than all other infuriating PC parts combined. Why? They move. And unlike other parts of computers that are designed to move (printer rollers and keyboard springs and mouse balls, for example), they move quickly and with ultrafine precision, day in and day out.

That's what Galileo said in 1633, after being forced during the Inquisition to recant his beliefs about the earth moving around the sun. "And yet it moves" - and that's the crux of the problem.

As with any other moving mechanical contraption, an ounce of drive prevention is worth ten tons of cure. WD-40 may cure other moving mechanical contraptions, but WD-40 is not recommended for PCs. Duct tape and baling wire are another consideration altogether.

USB key drives and solid-state drives (SSD) are a whole different kettle of fish. SSD manufacturers typically offer diagnostic and health maintenance tools to keep their products in top shape, but they contain no moving parts, and thus aren't subject to the vagaries associated with moving drives.

If you're looking for help installing a new hard drive, you're in the wrong place.

What is formatting?

Drives try to pack lots of data into a small space, and because of that, they need to be calibrated. That's where formatting comes in.

When you format a drive, you calibrate it: You mark it with guideposts that tell the PC where to store data and how to retrieve it. Every hard drive (and floppy disk, for that matter) must be formatted before it can be used. The manufacturer probably formatted your drive before you got it. That's comforting because every time a drive is reformatted, everything on the drive is tossed out, completely and (almost) irretrievably. Everything.

You can format or reformat any hard drive other than the one that contains Windows by starting File Explorer (in the taskbar) and scrolling down to This PC. Then right-click the hard drive and choose Format. You can also format rewritable CDs, DVDs, USB (key) flash drives, and SD or other removable memory cards - delete all the data on them - by following the same approach. To reformat the drive that contains Windows, you must reinstall Windows.

Introducing hard-drive-maintenance tools

Hard drives die at the worst possible moments. A hard drive that's starting to act flaky can display all sorts of strange symptoms: everything from long, long pauses when you're trying to open a file to completely inexplicable crashes and other errors in Windows itself.

Windows comes with a grab bag of utilities designed to help you keep your hard drives in top shape.

  • Storage Spaces:
    The best, most comprehensive of the bunch is Storage Spaces, which keeps duplicate copies of every file in hot standby, should a hard drive break down. But to use Storage Spaces effectively, you need at least three hard drives and twice as much hard drive space as you have data. Not everyone can afford that. Not everyone wants to dig in to the nitty-gritty.
  • Basic utilities:
    Three simple utilities stand out as effective ways to care for your hard drives, and one of them runs automatically once a week. You should get to know Check Disk, Disk Cleanup, and Disk Defragmenter because they all come in handy at the right times.
    You must be a designated administrator to get these utilities to work. I explain how to use Check Disk and Disk Defragmenter in the following two sections.
  • Task Scheduler:
    If you're really short on disk space, you can use the Windows Task Scheduler to periodically remove temporary files that you don't need by scheduling runs of the Disk Cleanup utility. Task Scheduler has other uses, but most Windows users never really need it.
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