Tip o’ the Week #99 – Is your hard disk just “on”?

clip_image001One frustrating aspect of a modern PC is when it seems to slow down inexplicably, even when it’s not obviously busy. Sometimes that could be evidenced by the hard disk light flickering a lot of the time, or in extreme cases, solidly lit up. There are a number of reasons why this could be the case – here are some tips on finding out why and maybe what to do about it.

Your PC is just not good enough

A common reason why your disk is really busy (sometimes known as thrashing) is simply that the machine doesn’t have enough oomph to do what it’s being told to. It could be you just don’t have enough of some critical resources, such as memory. If there isn’t enough physical memory (RAM) in the machine, then when an application wants to hold information in memory, something else which is currently in memory needs to be “paged out” – written to disk, temporarily.

clip_image002That’s all very well, until the application that was using the data that’s just been paged out needs it back -then, something else is paged out, and the previous data is read back in. If you get to the point where you’re really short of RAM, the PC will be thrashing to the point of exclusion to practically everything else. The whole process is a lot like the juggling you might need to do when you’re trying to work with more than two things but are limited to having only two hands.

The only solution to not having enough RAM is to add some more (not always straightforward), or make the machine do less. Look in Resource Monitor (press Windowskey-R then enter “resmon“) under the memory tab, and you’ll see how much of your physical memory is being used. You can also look and see which applications are using up all the memory and maybe think about shutting them down, or making room for them by closing other clip_image003applications.

Modern day whack-a-mole

Curing performance problems can be like pushing a blockage from one place to another, or like the whack-a-mole fairground game where you hit one issue and another one just pops up elsewhere. If your PC isn’t running out of memory, maybe the processor (CPU) is the bottleneck, or perhaps it’s the disk itself.

If the CPU is slow, then everything else will feel pretty slow – the whole machine will just feel like it’s overworked. If the disk is slow, then the machine will bog down every time it needs to do something disk-intensive. Combine a possibly slow disk with running out of memory, and you’ve got the perfect storm – a PC that is constantly shuttling stuff to-and-fro between memory and disk, and burdening the CPU with all the additional overhead to do so.

There are some things you can do to mitigate the “disk light on” issue, however.

It’s probably Outlook

ToW #96 covered an issue where Outlook might use up a large amount of disk space, and maintaining that kind of volume will put something of a strain on the PC. Outlook is probably the heaviest desktop application most of us use, and if it isn’t hammering your memory or processor, then it will probably be nailing your hard disk.


It’s still worth making sure your hard disk isn’t badly fragmented, a situation where files end up scattered across the surface of the disk in lots of pieces or fragments. If you have a nice clean disk that’s largely empty, then Windows would write a new file out in one big splurge of “contiguous” fragments or clusters.

When files are deleted, all that happens is those clusters that are currently used, get marked as free so they can be over-written in future. If the disk gets increasingly full up, though, it may be that the only free space exists in small chunks all over the place – meaning Windows has to do more work to read and write files.

clip_image004You can run Disk Defragmentation by going to Start and typing in Disk Defrag, then you’ll be able to run the Defrag process interactively, or schedule it to happen in the background – ensuring that you pick a time that you won’t be really busy on your PC, otherwise it will be the Disk Defrag that’s making the light glow.

To allow fragmentation a better shot of cleaning up the disk, it may be a good idea to close applications that are likely to be using big files (like Outlook, whose OST file is probably the biggest file on your hard disk), and if you have a high degree of fragmentation, then it would be worth getting rid of the hidden Hibernate File on your hard disk – that’s where Windows writes the contents of memory if the battery on your laptop runs out, so it’s gigabytes in size.

clip_image005To delete your Hibernate File, you need to fire up a command prompt in Administrator mode – go to Start menu and start typing command then right-click and choose Run as administrator.

A quick alternative is to go to Start, then type cmd and press CTRL-SHIFT-ENTER, which tells Windows to run whatever you’ve typed in as an administrator. Try it: you too can run notepad as an admin.

Once you have your admin Command Prompt (denoted by the window title of Administrator C:\Windows\etc), then type powercfg -h off to switch the Hibernate functionality off, and in so doing, ditch the hiberfil.sys file. Once you’ve finished defragmenting, you can switch hibernate back on by repeating with powercfg -h on.


Is your disk just too slow? How would you know?

Finally for this week, there’s a possibility that your disk is just basically slow and there’s not a lot you can do about that short of replacing it. If you look in Device Manager (Start -> then type Device Manager), and expand out the Disk Drives section, you will see what kind of hard disk you have – try Binging the cryptic model number and you might find the specifications of the disk – does it spin at 5,400rpm or 7,200rpm, or is I solid state? Does it have any cache? Maybe reviewers on Amazon et al will pan that model’s performance, or even suggest that a simple firmware upgrade of the disk itself will solve performance issues. [Here Be Dragons – be very careful if you go down this route].

You can see if your disk is the bottleneck to PC performance by looking at the Disk tab in Resource Monitor, clip_image007expanding out the Storage section. You’ll see Disk Queue Length as one of the columns on there – that’s a measure of how much stuff Windows is waiting for to be read from or written to the disk. If the machine is busy and doing a lot of disk work, this might be legitimately quite high (maybe double figures) but if it’s sustained then it could be illustrating that the disk is struggling to keep up with the requests the PC is making of it.

That could be a symptom that it’s just not quick enough, but it could be a forebear of the disk being faulty – maybe the reason it’s taking ages is because it’s physically about to fail. Best get it checked out.

And don’t forget ReadyBoost

After sending this original tip above within Microsoft, a reader (Rob Orwin) responded to remind me about ReadyBoost – so I added the following in a subsequent tip. In Rob’s own words.

clip_image001[1]Whenever my computer is being a bit sluggish, I stuff two memory sticks, which I always carry around in my laptop bag, in the USB ports and as if by magic everything starts running as if it’s on steroids. It’s instantaneous as you only need to dedicate a device to ReadyBoost once, and then every time you put it in the USB drive it gets automatically used as pseudo-RAM. Another option is to get a ReadyBoost compatible SD card and stick it in the laptop’s SD card slot – which pretty much no one ever uses. [and 4Gb SD cards can be picked up for a few £s]

Yes, it’s not quite as fast as actually adding RAM but it’s a lot easier and a great deal faster than having to use the HDD for virtual memory. I learnt this from a friend who’s a graphic designer. She uses ReadyBoost whenever she needs to do huge batch operations in PhotoShop. The ReadyBoost feature was apparently the main reason why she got her company to buy her a PC instead of a Mac. When a Mac is out of RAM, it’s out of RAM.

I even use ReadyBoost at home to run Windows 7 on a laptop that is 12 years old and has 256Mb RAM.

Tip o’ the Week #98 – OneNote calendar front-end

clip_image002[4]Here’s a doozy of a little application that provides a great front-end to OneNote 2010, from Omer Atay of the OneNote development team.

clip_image001In short, it’s a separate app which shows a calendar view of all the OneNote pages you’ve written, arranged by date. If you have several notebooks open (maybe a Work one, a Home one that’s synchronised with SkyDrive etc), and like to have lots of sections and subpages, it’s an ideal way of referencing what you’ve been doing, chronologically.

Omer initially released the app inside Microsoft, but I’m pleased to see he’s making it available externally, for free, too.

To use, visit the application page from Omer’s own web site. It’s available as a stand-alone app from here, the idea being that you’d save the executable file to your PC somewhere and just pin it to your start menu to run. Alternatively, enter %programdata%\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs into the search box on the Start Menu, and create a shortcut to the OneCalendar executable in there, so it’s not pinned but can be easily found again – either by name, or just by typing “OneCal” into the Start Menu to find the program again.


OneCal. ah, those of a certain age can reminisce about 1980s TV adverts, too.
(check out the YouTube collection of classic ads from 1983. they sure don’t make ’em like they used to.!)

Another was of getting hold of OneCalendar would be to install Omer’s Onetastic addin to OneNote – it allows you to pin an individual OneNote page to your desktop, cleans up multi-page printouts (where you print from another application into OneNote) and also launches OneCalendar from within OneNote. See more here.

Tip o’ the Week #96 – Reining back Outlook’s file size


Outlook likes to cache lots of information on your PC – which is generally beneficial. All of the email in your mailbox, for example, is already on your hard disk, so when you open a message or an attachment, it can open it clip_image003quickly. This is a Good Thing. In fact, it’s the reason why Office 365 works.

One feature added in 2007 was that Outlook also cached other users’ calendars after you’ve previously opened them, so that if you open them again, the data is already there. That is also good (pretty much).

In fact, Outlook will happily trundle through a long list of calendars, updating them in the background: you might find that since it caches all those users’ & meeting rooms’ calendars, that you have rather a lot of space being consumed by the offline file. If you’re running a laptop or desktop with a traditional spinning hard disk, you probably won’t even notice – but if you’re lucky enough to have a Solid State Drive, where storage capacities are typically much lower, then it could cause you a problem.

Outlook’s OST file (that’s the offline cache), can get pretty large – by default (in Outlook 2010), it won’t warn you until the OST is 47.5Gb in size, and it won’t let the file grow to more 50Gb. Note that we’re talking about the size of the offline cache file, not the size of the user mailbox, which will typically be an order of magnitude smaller. Nevertheless, having such a big OST file will cause the machine’s performance to suffer somewhat, since it will be indexing all of the data as well as probably maintaining lots of calendars or other shared folders (as well as whatever is in your own mailbox). I first hit this problem when the Outlook cache file was taking up about one quarter of my disk space, meaning the PC was running low of free space.

To see your OST file size, copy %userprofile%\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Outlook to the clipboard, bring up the Windows Start menu and paste that into the search box and press Enter. That will open up the folder where Outlook keeps all of its offline files, so don’t worry if you see lots that you don’t expect. If there are any big files with a really old date, then they are not being used by Outlook and might be safe to remove… though take a backup copy just in case…

clip_image005How to reclaim your disk space

If your OST file is particularly large (ie several times the size of your mailbox – and you can find out how large that is from the File menu in Outlook), then there are a few things you can do to reclaim the space back.

Delete the OST

You could quit Outlook, delete the OST file altogether and then restart Outlook – causing it to rebuild the whole thing from scratch. The downside to this approach is that it will take ages to complete, your PC will need to re-index all of the content to make it searchable, and you might end up with a similarly-sized file anyway since it will re-cache everything your Outlook profile tells it to.

clip_image006Be rid of Calendars

It is possible to get Outlook to discard some of the data it’s cacheing – a simple bit of housekeeping would be to prune the list of other calendars shown on the list to the left of your own calendar, thereby reducing the amount of background work it has to do to keep them up to date, and reducing the size of your offline cache file.

You can remove them one by one (though this could be laborious, it at least will let you decide which – if any – to keep), or simply right-click on any groups of calendars and ditch the lot. You can always add people back as and when needed. Go on, it’s quite cathartic.

clip_image007Stop the cacheing of other folders altogether

If you’d rather not cache calendars at all, you can switch off the whole functionality – simply (!) go into File | Info | Account Settings | Account Settings, and then double-click on the Exchange Server account that’s listed there. Within the ensuing dialogue box, click on More Settings then Advanced Settings. Now, you can choose to just not download (and cache) the shared Calendars or other shared folders. The downside is that you can’t see other people’s calendars when you’re offline, but that isn’t important, you might want to look at this option.

Compact the file

It may be worth trying to reduce the size in your OST file, and if you have done either of the previous 2 options, then you will definitely need to compact it. Outlook will reduce the OST file size in the background over time, reclaiming unused space in the file, but if you make large changes by deleting lots of infomration, you will need to force it to do some maintenance. A word of warning though – this will take a long time. We’re talking many hours, maybe even more than a day – so, it’s one to do overnight at best or over the weekend.

clip_image008To compact the file in size (and mine went from well over 30Gb to less than a third of that), follow the instructions to get to the Cached Mode Settings above, and click on the Outlook Data File Settings button at the bottom, and you’ll see the properties of the data file. Click on the Compact Now button and wait. Oh, and you can’t use Outlook whilst it’s compacting, so do not try this during the work day….

Hopefully this will help you keep your Outlook OST file size in check. It will free up space, it will give your PC less work to do in keeping a list of calendars updated and maintaining the searchable index of all your data.

Tip o’ the Week #95 – the new Windows Phone lock screen

clip_image002One of the most immediately user-friendly aspects of Windows Phone 7.5, aka Mango, is also one that is not automatically enabled… Try this out, and I bet you’ll love it. Show to your friends who’ve upgraded: they’ll love it too.

Windows Phone supports having a PIN lock policy so that if you haven’t used your device for a period of time, you’ll need the PIN to wake it up again. Pretty much every phone that supports the Exchange ActiveSync protocol has something similar, and many companies will not allow any device to connect & sync email unless the policy is active and set up.

With Windows Phone 7, the lock policy also kicked in every time the screen went off, either by the user pressing the power button to switch it off, or because of a time-out. Not an amazing hardship to have to enter a 4-digit PIN, but it’s a slight annoyance.

clip_image004Deliverance from the PIN

Mango introduces a number of new and useful capabilities to the Lock Screen – the principal one being that you can set a time-out before a password needs to be entered.

So, you can “lock” the screen with the power button and unlock it again with only a press of the button and a swipe upwards, rather than having to enter your PIN again – up to 15 minutes after the phone was locked. Really handy if you’re walking along the street and need to consult the Maps app again; a simple press and swipe and you’re straight back in.

To set, simply go into settings -> lock + wallpaper.

The first time-out is the one that automatically switches the screen off (and that would have PIN-locked the phone in WP7 too). The second time-out specifies how long a grace period you have before you need to unlock with a PIN.


If you want to customise your phone’s wallpaper, there’s an option (just off the top of the screenshot above) to do so, or you can press and hold on any image, and it will let you set it to be the wallpaper – even pictures that people have emailed you (just open the pic from Outlook, press/hold, and bingo).

The new lock screen in Mango lets you show the Zune-supplied artist’s photo as your wallpaper whilst you’re listening to music. When you stop the track, it reverts back to whatever wallpaper you had before.