Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Hard drives can last a long time if properly cared for. More often than not issues result not from hardware, but from easily managed data and software.

How does one go about cleaning the hard drive? Does using scandisk and cleanup clean it?

There are several schools of thought on this, and really there's no right or wrong answer.

So, rather than try and stake out what everyone should be doing, I'll list the steps I take and things I do to keep my hard disks working well.

First, "clean" is kind of a vague term, so let me be clear on what my goals are:

  • Data on my hard drive can be accessed quickly. Put another way, the drive doesn't slow down my system any more than it needs to.

  • There's enough room on the drive for what I need to do.

  • The drive isn't likely to corrupt data or fail, to the extent that I can prevent it.

  • If the drive does fail or corrupt something, I can recover.

There's a lot more I could go into, like data security or going beyond just "having enough room" to removing unneeded items, but those are either outside the scope of what I'd consider to be simple cleaning or represent needs or desires that most folks simply don't need to worry about.

Turn off the indexing service. The problem here is that I never use the search feature that uses the indexes ... so why build the indexes at all? Even at low priority the indexing service will occasionally interfere with other activity on the machine.

Right-click on My Computer, select Manage, click on Services, right click on Indexing Service, select Properties, press Stop, change the Startup Type to Manual, and press OK.

Defrag weekly. I used to run the defragmentation tool nightly, but that's actually overkill. I now defrag once a week, in the wee hours of Sunday morning. More on that in this article: What is 'defragging', and why should I do it?

Periodically delete system temporary files. I'm not talking about your internet temporary files; those are managed and controlled just fine by your browser (though you're welcome to delete them if you feel a need). This is about "system" temporary files in the Windows temporary folder. Quoting an earlier article Can I delete the contents of my TMP folder?:

Much of the contents of your temporary folder is not only temporary, but stale. Unfortunately many programs fail to clean up properly when they shut down, and any program that crashed has no chance to clean up at all. The result is a temp folder full of "stuff".

So, "every so often" I go in and delete the contents of that folder to free up disk space that would otherwise remain "used" and unavailable. (That referenced article includes specific instructions on how.)

Monitor disk usage. A common question I get is "why is my hard disk filling up?" It's a fair question, because it's not always obvious. In my case my nightly backup and maintenance script actually runs the process outlined in this article: How can I tell what's taking up so much disk space? That reports to me each morning the folders that are taking up the most space on my hard disk. You don't need to be that watchful, but periodically looking into what's taking up space on your hard disk is a very good idea. The first few times you do so you'll probably think "oh, I don't need that" and free up a bunch of space. Thereafter you'll quickly notice when something unexpected starts to take more and more space. Knowing that you can take whatever steps are appropriate for your situation.

"If you ignore all the rest of the items on this list, don't ignore backing up."

In addition to the command-line approach listed in How can I tell what's taking up so much disk space? the free version of SpaceMonger can quickly and graphically identify folders that contain large amounts of data.

Run ChkDsk periodically. In reality I do this rarely, typically only when I suspect a problem. In addition, Windows will sometimes do this automatically on a reboot after a system crash. Running it without "/R" will often recover disk space, or long lost file fragments that you can delete to recover disk space. Running it with "/R" will do a surface scan to detect bad sectors, but as we'll see in the next item, I have a different preferred solution for that.

Run SpinRite periodically. Everything I've listed so far uses tools that are either free or already included with your system. Spinrite is not free (and there's no "affiliate program", so I make no money by recommending it).

Spinrite is a hard disk surface analysis and data recovery tool. That sounds complex, and it is, so I'll summarize it down to two bullet points:

  • Run periodically Spinrite does what can best be described as a "format" of your hard disk, without losing any data. Spinrite does it in a way that repairs sectors on the hard drive that have gone or are going bad, and in the worse case, safely moves data off of irreparable sectors.

  • Run after certain types of hard disk failures, Spinrite can often recover and repair lost or corrupt data.

Running Spinrite periodically for the first bullet point often avoids needing it for the second.

Back Up regularly. Even after the best of intentions, with all the best plans and procedures in place, "stuff" happens. Hard drives die suddenly and without warning. The only sure-fire way to recover is from a backup of your data.

If you ignore all the rest of the items on this list, don't ignore backing up.

In the middle of every night my computers are replicating data between themselves like crazy. And at 5 AM every day my "primary" machine launches a backup program that backs it up to an external hard drive.

One of the most frustrating aspects of what I've just laid out is my use of the phrases "every so often" and "periodically" without being specific about how often you should do something.

Sorry about that.

The problem is that there's no one answer for everyone. My wife and I are extremely heavy computer users, so backing up daily, watching our disk usage nightly, defragging weekly and performing disk maintenance monthly or even more often makes a lot of sense.

And all that may be overkill for you. Or not. I can't know.

For the "casual" home computer users the frequency might be quite different. Backing up weekly might be enough. Watching disk space usage monthly, or even only when there's a problem might make sense. And running chkdsk or a tool like Spinrite once a year might be all that's needed.

You'll need to judge for yourself.

But don't forget that backup, ok?

Article C3152 - September 17, 2007 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

Dan Ullman
September 17, 2007 10:26 AM

An affiliate program ran by Steve Gibson. I am not sure but the very idea frightens me... (grin)

Leo A. Notenboom
September 17, 2007 5:14 PM

Hash: SHA1

He actually mentioned it on a past episode of Security Now. He elected not to
do it because of the potential for abuse.

All I know is that if he did do it ... assembly language would be involved
somwwhere. :-)


Version: GnuPG v1.4.7 (MingW32)


Dave B
September 17, 2007 8:55 PM

As you mentioned, there are several schools of thought; I've managed to jump from one to another several times. I used to kill the indexing service, but I am finding it useful in Vista. I've grown quite addicted to tapping the Windows key, then banging out a few key words to locate documents and images. I have nearly 9,000 images in my "Pictures" folder and 12,600 files in my "Documents" folder - sometimes having an indexing engine to find old documents can be handy! I don't even want to think about how many e-mail messages I have saved... While I don't tag each of my images, I have done a pretty good job of putting key words on to the subdirectory names - narrows my search to a reasonable number of images. The other items (text, doc, pdf) are indexed nicely.

Bob Pease Jr
September 22, 2007 2:21 PM

I block spam & peoples e/m I don't know.Does this clog up the hard drive? I notice I have aguired rather many.Should I clean and if so, how do I do this? A prior item I ask 'bout my videos being said screen too bright..I found out it was the monitor.. given to me I know why it was free!!! ;-)

Dennis Anthony
September 24, 2007 2:52 AM

I tried the 'Turn off indexing service' which is good until select Properties. This gives dialogue box of 'Indexing Service Properties' which has two tabs - 'Generation' and 'Tracking' with various tickable boxes none saying 'STOP'. There is nothing about changing the Startup Type to Manual etc.
Please advise.

February 9, 2008 1:04 PM

Besides spinrite which is an excellent hard drive tool, try also HD tune. Another way to free up space is to use ccleaner and choose options to delete old prefetch files and temporary files that might chug up your computer in the long run. Ccleaner also has the ability to delete junk registry entries that might cause errors when uninstalling programs .

james palo
July 13, 2009 11:42 PM

my brand new hard disk drive is become failure or not detected on the bios. after my reformat of my hard me...

August 19, 2009 10:23 AM

Dennis, in order to disable indexing service, go to run then type
press enter. click on indexing service. press enter. click stop button. change the type to manual.(it is a drop down option showing "automatic," "manual," or "disable(d)"

transfer to ipod
March 18, 2010 7:15 AM

I often clean up my unit to avoid dust. And I see to it that unused files were deleted to lessen the consumption of space. Before I format my computer, I see to it that my files were being backed up most especially my songs. I usually transfer to ipod my songs.

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