Disk defraggers for Windows 2000 reviewed
NOTE: This review was not conducted with the participation of the Windows 2000 Magazine Labs and does therefore not constitute the opinion of Windows 2000 Magazine.
The need for disk defragmentation should be clear by now: As files and folders are written to, moved, copied, and deleted from disks in the course of normal use, the disk becomes more fragmented. This results in longer read and write times and lower overall system responsiveness. Ideally, files should exist in a contiguous space as close as possible to each other, so as to minimize drive head movement. So disk defragmenters organize existing files into contiguous blocks, but they also ensure that the free space available on a disk is consolidated into contiguous blocks as well. This ensures that newly created files don't need to be spanned over a wide area of the disk.

In the 16/32-bit Windows utility market, disk defraggers have been a mainstay since the early 1990's and Microsoft started bundling basic defragging capabilities into the OS with Windows 95. However, Windows NT didn't obtain this feature until the release of Windows 2000 earlier this year, when the company licensed Diskeeper technology from Executive Software to fulfill this need.

But the built-in disk defragger in Windows 2000 is fairly limited, as it cannot be automated through scripting or Scheduled Tasks. To obtain this vital capability and keep your system performing at peak levels, you'll need to purchase a retail defragmentation product.

The Players
All of the major players in Windows NT 4.0/2000 desktop disk defragmenting were compared for this review. These products include Executive Software's Diskeeper 5.03 Workstation, Raxco Software's PerfectDisk 2000, and Norton Speed Disk 5.1.

Executive Software was one of the early pioneers of NT-based disk defragmentation and its NT-based products have been highly successful. Norton has supplied a version of its popular SpeedDisk application for Windows NT users since NT 4.0 and the latest version, 5.1, now supports Windows 2000. Raxco PerfectDisk debuted in October, 1999, though the technology that it employs has been available for some time. For performance comparison purposes, the defragmenter built into Windows 2000 was also tested, as was a non-optimized system.

Features Each of the products reviewed here offers a similar level of functionality. Norton SpeedDisk and Raxco PerfectDisk perform file optimizations that place the most-often-used files at the beginning of the hard drive. Executive Software eschews this feature, however, because its research shows that it provides little end-user benefit. All of the products can be automated in various ways, and they each defragment files, folders, the page file, and the MFT.

Feature Diskeeper Workstation Speed Disk PerfectDisk Built-in defragmenter
Supports Win2K Yes Yes Yes Yes
Supports NT 4 Yes Yes Yes -
Supports 9x Yes No* Yes Yes**
Defrags folders Yes Yes Yes No
Defrags page file Yes Yes Yes No
Defrags MFT Yes Yes Yes No
Single pass defrag No Yes Yes No
File placement optimization No Yes Yes No
Scheduling capability with UI-less mode Yes Yes Yes No
Server and Workstation support No*** Yes Yes Yes
Command line support No Yes Yes No
Simultaneous multipe drive defrag Yes Yes Yes No
Logging support Yes Yes Yes No
* Norton makes a separate product for Windows 9x.
** Windows 9x includes its own built-in defragger product that is unrelated to the version in Windows 2000.
*** There is a separate Diskeeper Server product.

The Process
The tests were conducted on a Pentium II 400 with 128 MB of RAM running Windows 2000 Professional on a 6.3 GB ATA-33 disk. This system included a "dirty" installation of Win2K with a number of large applications, such as Microsoft Office 2000 and Visual Studio 6.0. Two tests were run on each defragmenter, one with 21% free space and one with less than 5%. The second test, which included the addition of numerous small data files, was run to determine how these products would fare in near-full disk conditions. The results of the low-disk space test were, as expected, punishing. None of the products performed well with less than 10-15% free space.

But the initial problem I faced when comparing these products was ensuring that the disk image used for each test was identical. To achieve this, Columbia Data Products kindly supplied its SnapBack product. SnapBack creates hard drive images that contain every byte on the hard drive, making it far more applicable to this task than Ghost-like products, which compress images to save disk space. A special thank you goes out to CDP for the use of SnapBack to perform these tests.

Each of the products was evaluated in a variety of ways, including overall ease of use, time to defragment, and performance. For purposes of this review, the products were evaluated as they would work for single desktop users, though corporate roll-out and administration issues were considered as well. Server products or the use of these products in a server environment were not rated. I attempted to measure how the products affected the boot-up time of the system and overall system responsiveness. In all cases, small improvements were indeed seen, and even the built-in defragmenter, though lacking numerous desirable features, is a worthy addition to the operating system if you don't mind running it manually.

The Verdict
While the results were very close, the overall winner was Executive Software Diskeeper. Diskeeper provided the fastest boot-up times, and the fastest overall system responsiveness after defragmentation. However, Diskeeper requires multiple passes to completely defragment the disk. For users that wish to manually defrag their disks, this could be an issue, especially for those that are used to the color-coordinated "fully defragmented" displays in products such as Norton SpeedDisk. Indeed, SpeedDisk and PerfectDisk both defragment the entire disk in a single pass. And with the success of disk utility products on Windows 9x, there are going to be many users moving to Win2K that are going to expect the pretty display results of the single-pass defraggers.

Is this really an issue? At a technical level, no: For the most effective results, disk defragmenters should be scheduled to run at off-peak times, automatically, and continuously. And Diskeeper's results speak for themselves: Even after a single pass, Diskeeper obtained the fastest system boot and delete test times. And I expect the product to perform even more capably over time.

That said, none of these products fared poorly by comparison and all obtained similar scores on the system image with 21% free space.

Product System boot time (average) Application startup (average) Delete test (average)
Executive Software Diskeeper Workstation 1:47 :11 :06
Norton Speed Disk 1:56 :10.6 :08
Raxco PerfectDisk 2:05 :10.6 :08
Built-in defragger 2:00 :10 :06
No defragmenting 2:01 :10.3 :15

Tests of a heavily defragmented and almost-full disk, however, were almost impossible to complete. Most of the products provide a warning about results obtained in low-disk space environments and my tests bore this out. While I don't feel that the results of this test are necessarily relevant, it should be noted that Norton SpeedDisk never successfully defragmented the disk under this test, as I cancelled its execution after over 36 hours of work. The other products issued a warning and proceeded, often finishing in under an hour. But the results weren't measurably different from that of a non-optimized disk, even after multiple defragmentation runs, on any of the products.

Choosing a disk defragmenter may very well come down to deciding between the feature sets and user interfaces provided by the reviewed products, as each is available for roughly the same price and will perform in a similar manner.

Executive Software Diskeeper
CONTACT: Executive Software
818-547-2050
PRICE: $44.95, volume discounts available. $24.95 for upgrade (Server: $249.95, or $109.95 for upgrade)
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Best overall performance, OS integration, "set and forget" automation.
Cons: None.

Diskeeper is an excellent product, and the overall winner of this comparison though it was very, very close. It features a number of useful features, including scheduling support, networking support, multiple partition defragmentation, full file and directory defragmenting, MFT defragmenting, page file defrag, and a background defrag mode that requires fewer CPU cycles.

Diskeeper's scheduling feature, called "Set it and forget it," allows you to schedule defragmentation runs when the system is least busy. For corporate environments, this feature can be used to schedule client defrags over the network, lowering the burden on administrators. But this feature is very useful for individuals as well, especially for those who leave their systems on when not in use.

Other features include Frag Guard, which actively works to prevent disk fragmentation, and full compatibility with Microsoft's new Windows Installer technology.

Microsoft has also given it's blessing to Diskeeper: It was the first disk utility product to be certified for Windows 2000, on both the desktop and server. And the inclusion of a "lite" version of Diskeeper in the Windows 2000 product itself speaks volumes.

Norton SpeedDisk

CONTACT: Symantec Corporation
(408) 253-9600
PRICE: $49.95, multi-user licenses are available
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Ease-of-use, single pass defrag, automation.
Cons: Poor performance in very low free disk space situations.

Norton SpeedDisk should be instantly familiar to many Windows 9x users, as it has been a primary component of the popular Norton Utilities and, later, Norton SystemWorks utility packages. And the NT/2000 version of this product doesn't disappoint: In addition to disk and folder defragmentation, Norton SpeedDisk defrags the MFT (Master File Table), page file, free and NT metadata. SpeedDisk uses disk optimization to arrange files on the hard drive so that the most frequently accessed files are near the beginning of the drive, where they can be accessed more quickly. SpeedDisk also performs a full defrag in a single pass, which may be desirable for manual defrags.

Like the other retail products reviewed here, SpeedDisk can be automated and remotely administered in a number of ways. In addition to scheduled defrags, SpeedDisk can be configured to execute when certain conditions are met (for example, a high level of fragmentation).

Raxco PerfectDisk 2000

CONTACT: Raxco Software
(301) 527-0803 or 1-800-546-9728
PRICE: $49
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Automation capabilities, single-pass defrag, MFT defrag, simple interface.
Cons: None.

Raxco PerfectDisk 2000 uses a file optimization process the company calls SMART Placement, which attempts to place files on the hard drive based on actual usage patterns. This is comparable to the tack taken by Norton SpeedDisk, which uses a similar process for optimizing file placement. It offers a number of compelling features, including the ability to defragment sparse files and the MFT external attribute lists.

PerfectDisk can also defragment NTFS MFTs (Master File Table), which cannot normally be moved or changed when the OS is online because of security restrictions. So PerfectDisk, like Diskeeper, performs this operation while the system is rebooting and in offline mode. A Quick Scan can be performed to quickly determine whether a disk needs to be defragmented though, again, it's preferable to keep disks optimized automatically. On that note, PerfectDisk's Query Wizard makes it easy to view, set up, and change scheduled defrags.

The PerfectDisk user interface is simple and easy to use. But like SpeedDisk it doesn't integrate with the MMC console provided by Win2K. This doesn't hamper its functionality, though it isn't the preferred method in Windows 2000. PerfectDisk was the only product that didn't bark when confronted with a heavily filled disk.

Windows 2000 built-in defragmenter

CONTACT: Microsoft Corporation
PRICE: Free (included with all versions of Windows 2000)
DECISION SUMMARY:
Pros: Price, integration with operating system.
Cons: Cannot be automated in any way, requires multiple passes, single drive defrag only.

If you're only interested in a manual drive defragmenter, then you've already got what you need: Windows 2000 includes a built-in defragmenter, based on Executive Software's Diskeeper, that does a fine job. In fact, my tests show that the built-in defragmenter can hold its own against the retail products, as it came away with the top score in two of the three performance tests.

But don't be deceived by these numbers, which were obtained with manual runs of the defraggers: The built-in product loses ground when it comes to automating the process because it cannot be scheduled in any way, and it offers no scripting or command line support at all. To get the best results with a defragmentation product, it should be run automatically when the system is not in use, like late at night. Because this version doesn't offer that kind of functionality, it's severely limited for real world use, especially in the enterprise.

The built-in defragmenter suffers from many other limitations as well. You can't defrag more than one partition at a time, for example, and you cannot defrag disks over a network. I recommend the built-in defragmenter only to those individuals that balk at the price of one of the retail products. It's certainly better than nothing.