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Over the past few months, my Windows XP machine has slowed down to a crawl. It takes about 10-15 minutes to go from power-up to reaching a responsive state. I have reasons to believe that this is a result of the hard disk slowing down. Questions:

  • Do hard disks slow down as a result of mechanical wear and tear ...or age?
  • How do I check if my disk has slowed down? Conversely, how can I verify that my disk is indeed running at the speed it's designed to run at?
  • Could drivers be at fault here? Do hard disks come with drivers or does Windows use a generic driver?
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4 Answers

Boot slow-down can be caused by products that you have installed yourself.
You can verify this by booting in Safe mode, which will be much faster in that case.

If boot is not the only operation that is slow, then the next likely reason is virus infection. The solution there is to download and scan with as many well-known anti-virus products as you have the patience for, being careful with all the fake ones floating around the Internet.

For verifying the health of your hard disk, you can use one of the products described in this article:
Best Free Disk Health Monitoring Utility

One of the described products also benchmarks your hard drive performance - HD Tune.

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I'm willing to bet that you have a virus or have installed some service(s) that take a long time to start up.

That said, it is possible for a hard drive to "wear out" and take longer to operate: as the drive's controller finds bad blocks on the disk, it will try to copy the contents of those blocks to another location. This often happens shortly before the hard drive stops working entirely.

Other answers have pointed you to Windows software to analyze your disk. I don't know if Windows will display any errors reported by the controller, but it's worth checking System Information. I do know that Ubuntu will display drive controller messages in the properties, so you might want to download the Live CD. And there's always chkdsk.

I suggest taking a backup regardless. And do it before you try to run a "surface check" on the drive, because there's a chance that could push a dying disk over the edge.

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  • I don't believe hard drives slow down as a result of wear and tear/age.
  • There are a number of benchmarking programs to measure performance. If your HD has been benchmarked by tom's hardware, you can compare it to their data at http://www.tomshardware.com/charts/hard-drives,3.html.
  • I understand drivers can make a difference, though I've never noticed anything. Ensure that you have the latest drivers and BIOS for your motherboard.

Also, harrymc mentions starting in safe mode to see the difference in speed. I'd be careful here, because safe mode disables the os file caching, which might negate some of the effects you'd otherwise see.

A good program to help you prune your startup list is autoruns, available at http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/sysinternals/bb963902.aspx. Don't disable anything you might need, but you might well be able to disable a number of things. Remember that stopping something from starting automatically doesn't prevent you from running it when you want. Personally I always remove any quick starters and update schedulers, amongst others.

You might also want to check out a prog called mydefrag (was jkdefrag) at http://www.mydefrag.com/ which uses a fundamentally different approach to defragmentation than Windows, and is supposed to improve disk speeds.

mydefrag works by moving files towards the start of the HD where the speeds are typically faster (check it with HD Tune). Because of this, I create a 20 gig first partition for Windows and software, and store my data in the second partition. This should help keep boot speeds more consistent.

Finally, I've also heard it can be useful to empty your prefetch: instructions at http://www.windowsnetworking.com/articles_tutorials/Gaining-Speed-Empty-Prefetch-XP.html.

Hope that helps,

Andy

PS A number of these points are assuming you have a traditional hard drive, not an SSD...

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What you're seeing is bit rot (or software rot). There's no single cause for this, but it does happen. If you'd reinstall the OS you'd most likely see a significant performance improvement. The hard drive is, in all likelihood, not responsible for the decreased performance, at least not physically.

There might be fragmentation that can decrease performance, but that can be easily cured by using a defragmentation app. However, fragmentation is not a physical problem with the hard drive. Also, I've yet to see hard disk drivers getting updated by Windows; so, if the drivers haven't changed, they're most likely not responsible for the performance hit.

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