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  PC-Net's PC News - July 1998
Don Watkins

Disk Hygiene

By Don Watkins



I don't think the screaming "sky is falling" headlines represent what goes on. Certainly disaster sells (with the exception of movies about large lizards), but the prospects of your computer catching on fire from opening email are thankfully remote.

The reality is, however, that we are using complex machines with complex operating environments. Any time you bring together a complex system, you introduce the possibility of failure. Forget everything else: When you have so many moving parts you're going to run the risk that one of them will fail. My saying is that the question isn't "if" it's going to fail, it's "when" it'll fail. This, of course, applies equally to your television or your car, but since you usually use your computer to store fragile and valuable information, a computer failure can cause more trauma than a broken dishwasher.

Outside of outright hardware failures, there are other dangers to data. While they may always strike, there are steps you can take to prevent them, foremost among them, disk hygiene.

Without a doubt, your hard disk can get confused. Files are "stored" in two areas: a directory area that points to a certain area of the disk and that certain area of the disk where the information is stored. This method works well most of the time, but when a problem occurs, the two elements can get out of sync, resulting in "lost clusters," or areas in the data file that couldn't be linked with an area allocated to them in the directory area. In addition, it's possible for "cross linking" to occur when a single data area is claimed by two different entries in the directory area.

Fortunately this isn't an uncommon problem. It's been going on since the early days of PC operating systems and every version of the operating system has come with a utility to correct it. The current version of this utility is the SCANDISK program that comes with every version of Windows.

Many user guides will suggest you run SCANDISK once a month. This would be frequent enough in my book—if you used your computer once a month! I firmly believe that the couple of minutes you take to run SCANDISK each day are a good investment. It doesn't matter if you run SCANDISK when you start your computer, in the middle of the day (perhaps fire it up before taking a break), or before you quit. The important factor is to check your disk status each day and then on restart if your computer crashes and you're not using a version of Windows (officially dubbed "OEMSR2") that automatically runs SCANDISK after a crash.

Running SCANDISK is easy. You can set it up to run automatically, but I find that often intrudes right in the middle of doing work so I like to run it manually. You can create a shortcut for it on your desktop or travel the start/programs/accessories/system tools menu or just click start/run and type in SCANDISK and that'll start it up.

If you have multiple drives, SCANDISK will ask you for the drive letter of the drive to test. In addition it provides options for the type of test, either "standard" or "thorough." Unless you've run into a situation with disk errors the "standard" option will suffice. The other option is "Automatically fix errors." I don't recommend that option; you want to be in control of what gets "fixed."

By far, the most common error SCANDISK will detect are lost clusters, the situation where the "data" has become disconnected from the directory. When SCANDISK detects this condition it will ask you if you want to convert the data into a file or discard it.

I recommend that you discard the data. You can save it and view it in Notepad or your word processor, but my experience is that it's rare that it will contain any usable data. If you do select the save option be sure to delete the file after you view it. The file (or files) will be saved to the top most folder of your primary hard disk (usually C:\) with the filename FILEnnnn.CHK where nnnn starts with 0001 and increments by one with each file.

Running SCANDISK daily won't keep you from experiencing the eventual disk crash, but until that day it will keep your disk data in top condition and put your mind at ease that you've done everything you can (you are taking backups now, aren't you?) to keep your data loss to a minimum.

Tip of the Month
Want to know what's going on behind the scenes when Windows starts? Hit the ESC key when the Windows "splash" screen appears and you'll see the action.

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