Dude, Where?EUR(TM)s My Data?

Published Date
01 - May - 2006
| Last Updated
01 - May - 2006
Dude, Where’s My Data?
We download and exchange data everyday. Here, we will introduce software methods to better manage the physical space and the myriad of forms that data can take. We will take a look at hard disk partitioning, spanning data over hard drives, OS features to better represent your data, and briefly touch upon software for cataloguing media, searching for media, and so on. While this has been written specifically for Windows XP, you can apply the same general principles to Linux as well.

Divide And Conquer
Today, an 80 GB hard disk is the norm. 120 GB hard disks, too, are cheap enough to consider. With drives touching these sizes, partitioning becomes important: first off, Windows XP only requires a certain amount of space, and allocating about 7 GB for Windows is comfortable enough for the OS. We also recommend moving the Program Files folder (where all your non-OS software is stored) to a different partition. The biggest positive of such a separation is reduction of disk fragmentation: with a big hard drive, fragmentation becomes more pronounced, especially as you add and remove programs in the course of daily use. Storing all your data on a single 80 or 120 GB volume will only exacerbate disk and file fragmentation. By keeping your programs separate from your OS, you minimise overall fragmentation, make defragmentation much easier, improve disk efficiency and speed, and keep things neat and tidy for OS reinstalls. Another benefit is that you can delete just your Windows install while keeping your program data and documents intact.

Moving The My Documents Folder
XP has a bunch of folders it terms shell folders, which store a certain type of data. Apart from the Program Files folder we've been speaking of, you have your My Documents, My Music, My Videos, Documents and Settings, and so on. The content of these folders is apparent, and both XP and programs running on XP use these default locations to their benefit. What we suggest is moving each of these "shell folders" to their own partitions. The good news is that you need not create a separate partition for all these. While we would recommend separating your videos and music to different locations, you should, at the very least, consider giving your My Documents folder its own little room on your hard drive. Since My Documents also lists the My Music and the My Videos folder, this is an encompassing move.

If you have multiple hard drives, you should consider moving the My Documents folder to its own partition on a separate hard disk from the one on which Windows is installed. While a separate partition in itself will reduce fragmentation, and allow for better data management, moving it to a separate disk will also give you performance benefits and a small degree of data safety-programs and your OS are more likely to access your OS/programs hard drive than the hard drive on which you move your shell folders to, potentially giving the latter drive a longer life.

So how do you move your My Documents folder? Simply right-click on the folder and click on Properties, then pick a target drive/partition under the Target folder location field. In our example, we are moving the folder to the H: drive which is located on a separate disk. In this case, the H: drive in itself will be your documents folder; specify H:My Documents if you wish to locate it under the My Documents folder under the H drive.

If you are going to store your music in the My Music folder and your videos in My Videos, then make sure you give this partition plenty of free space. If you wish to store only your documents (Word files, Excel files, Outlook mail backups, PDFs, HTML files, files transferred over the MSN or Yahoo! Messengers, etc), allocating it 5 GB of space should be quite enough.

Offer as much space as you can to your music and movie partitions. We recommend using separate partitions for these-judge the space to be allocated based on the amount of content you have. If you are the kind who moves your data to optical media for storage/ backup purposes, you can give each 20 GB of space. If you like to keep it all on the hard disk, the more the better.

To move other special folders to a new location, right-drag the folder to its desired location and select "Move Here". Note that you will need to move the Documents and Settings folder to another partition as well if you wish, at some point of time, to reinstall Windows XP without losing a program's data.

Which file system should you choose under Windows XP? FAT32 enjoys the widest support across operating systems and devices. NTFS, however, allows you to compress as well as encrypt your data

The My Recent Documents listing on Open/Save dialog boxes is a godsend. Click on it and then type out the initial letters of a folder or a file for quick access to something you visit frequently
You can use a custom icon for each drive/partition. Create a file called autorun.inf on the root of each disk/partition and add this content to it:
Save this file. Upon reboot, the disk in question will show the icon. Click on View > Icons under Windows Explorer for the best effect

Metadata is vital if you wish to search and organise your content. Make sure that you add this information to the documents you create under Microsoft Office (File > Properties), or the photographs you click, or the music you rip

If you multiboot into Linux, consider creating a separate boot partition for Linux:  assign about 60 MB of space on your primary drive and make sure that this is a primary partition and not an extended one. You can then mount /boot here and install your boot loader here instead of overwriting your Master Boot Record (MBR). To use Linux's boot manager, use a partition tool (such as Partition Magic) to make /boot the active partition. If you uninstall Linux in the future, make sure you change the active partition back to Windows' C: before you remove Linux. This will avoid headaches pertaining to an overwritten MBR

If you have multiple hard drives and a motherboard with multiple IDE channels, install each of the main hard drives as masters on separate IDE channels, rather than slaving one to the other. A main hard drive can be one that hosts your operating system and your documents, for example. This will maximise system performance
On A Drive For More Partitions
If you are the gaming type, consider creating a separate partition for your games. No program will need a dedicated space more than your favourite games will. Those with multiple disks should consider moving the game's partition to a separate drive.

Finally, we have the last piece to this jigsaw-the cache used by Windows XP. The OS creates a memory cache on your hard drive which it uses as a scratch pad. As you might know, when XP runs low on available system memory, it heads to this scratch pad to read and write temporary data to. You can do two things to improve performance here. Assign a dedicated partition to your cache on a separate hard drive, and fix the size of the assigned cache. As a rule of thumb, assign 1 GB more than your system memory for your Windows cache: if you have 512 MB of memory, give it about 1.5 GB; if you have 2 GB of RAM, make your cache 3 GB large. After you've created such a partition, right-click on My Computer, click on Properties, then on the Advanced tab, and then the Settings button under the Performance section. Here, click on the Advanced tab once more and under Virtual Memory, click on Change.

Here, note that you can assign a cache file to any of your partitions, remove it from under the Windows partition, and assign it to the one you created. You can either ask Windows to manage the size of this partition, or you can specify the amount allocated. Giving the cache an Initial size and a Maximum size equal to the size of the partition will create a permanent, non-dynamic cache, which improves performance a bit (for example, if the partition is 2 GB, assign 2 GB as the Initial and the Maximum). Click on Set and then Apply these changes. The system will reboot to the new settings.

While we're on a drive to creating new partitions, add one to back up your most important data to. This partition could store data such as your Outlook PST files, your bookmarks, your contacts, your RSS OPML collections, your music/video library backup, your picture library backup, and so on. A 2 GB backup partition of this nature should suit most needs.

Moving The Program Files Folder
While moving your Documents folder is just a right-click job, Programs Files takes a bit more elbow grease to get moving. A very important thing to remember is that you will need to do this immediately after a system install for maximum benefit. We are going to do this via a Registry edit: the edit will essentially move the default path to your Program Files to the new location specified. It will not move the contents of the default folder (which is under C: or XP's install drive). What this ensures is that programs that you install in the future will be stored in the new location. This is why it is important to make this change as soon as you finish installing Windows XP.

To access the Registry Editor, click on Start > Run and then type "regedit" in the Run dialog box, and hit [Enter] to run the program. To locate the key we're looking for, press [Ctrl] [F] and enter ProgramFilesDir in the "Find what" field. This is generally located under this path: HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE > SOFTWARE > MICROSOFT > Windows > Current Version > ProgramFilesDir. You can now right-click on ProgramFilesDir and click on Modify to change its Value data to the new path you want.
A View To Change
Windows XP can showcase your folders in a variety of ways, each suited to its contents. These settings can be accessed from under Windows Explorer: look under the View menu. Here we are interested in the "Arrange Icons By" sub-menu and the Thumbnails, Tiles, Icons, List, and Details options.

The View > Thumbnails option is perhaps of the greatest benefit. It should be used to showcase two types of folders-your pictures folder and your music folder. Applying this view to a folder containing pictures will display your photos as thumbnails, allowing you to open one based on what it represents instead of having to recall its filename. And if you categorise your music into artist and albums, you can represent music folders by either the album art or the artist's profile photo. Click on Choose Picture under the Folder Pictures section to choose a representative photo. Such visual representations make your music collection far easier to browse through.

While thumbnails are nice for folders containing pictures, XP has an option for your documents as well. Windows XP can arrange a folder's contents into groups. Each group is based upon file type, such that you have all your folders together; similarly for your PDF files, your DOC files, your XLS files, and so on. To access this view click on View > Arrange Icons by, and then click on Show in Groups.

While arranging files based on their extensions is useful if you wish to locate an Excel file from within your document folder, you can also use this view to cluster files together based on date. Under the "Arrange Icons by" sub-menu, choose the Modified field to do so. Windows XP will now arrange your folder content according to when you last created or modified it. It arranges content in user-friendly language such as Today, Yesterday, Earlier this week, Last week and so on, stretching to Two years ago. This view thus offers a data timeline of sorts.

Cataloguing Your Data
Creating partitions, slotting data, and changing default views go a long way to allow access to your data in a more methodical manner. However there are times when you need to rely on software to do the dirty work for you. The most useful of these are programs that create a library of your content-for you to search and access from. Such a library can be built on top of almost any content type. We will make brief recommendations on the software to use to categorise each media type on your hard drive.

Your Music Data
Any music software worth its weight in MB creates, and searches within, a library of your music. This is done across all your folders, partitions, and hard drives. Software such as this will also allow you to search your music library based on ID3 tags and will even let you back up the library. You can choose between Windows Media Player 10, Winamp 5.x, RealPlayer 10.x, iTunes 6.x, and so on. For a player that can handle most of the media out there, apart from offering decent library functionality,we recommend RealPlayer. Apple iPod users should, of course, stick to iTunes for best results.

Your Video Data
A good music manager will also catalogue your video clips and movies. Once again, you can choose from Winamp, Windows Media Player and RealPlayer, but we recommend RealPlayer for its wide range of media support.

Your Photos And Pictures
The software to go for here is Google Picasa. It organises your photo content and then lets you perform rudimentary edits on it, and it lets you label it and change its metadata content, rate your photos, print them, create albums, password protect your collections, auto-resizes photos for e-mails… all wrapped under an easy-to-navigate interface.
Other Data: Online And Offline
After desktop search made a splash on the computer scene last year, today it's raining search software-and there is no real right choice, since they are all equally up to the basic task. For those unfamiliar with this concept, a desktop search tool indexes your data, or more specifically the metadata tagged to your files, for easy searching. Think of it as running a search engine on your local computer. Search solutions are available from Microsoft, Google and Yahoo!, to list the three most well-known. Each has its strengths.

Microsoft Live Toolbar: Microsoft's solution can be installed as part of either the Windows Live Toolbar or the MSN Search toolbar. Installing the Live Toolbar also gives you access to a bunch of plugins, one of which is Onfolio.

Onfolio itself is worth the price of installing the Live Toolbar. The software was recently bought by Microsoft; what it does is, it lets you collate, manage, search and share online content. Onfolio is an ideal Web browsing companion: it can capture online content and then sort it according to research collections, which can be annotated with personal notes, or attached to documents and e-mails.

You can also collate bookmarks, which Onfolio stores as a searchable database, complete with your notes on the Web sites. It can save local copies of Web sites, spanning multiple links, or saving only select elements therein. It also has a very capable RSS feed reader.

You can add comments, custom fields, keywords and flags to any stored content; searching for content is also made possible via integration with Desktop Search. If you're not too keen on using Internet Explorer to access Onfolio's functionality, you can also run it as a standalone application.

Google Desktop: Google seems to follow the mantra of "what Windows Vista promises tomorrow, today." The latest version of this tool not only indexes your files and assorted data, but also offers the Sidebar, which collates sundry information and content into, well, a sidebar on your desktop. The Sidebar is a single-access point to Google mail, Google Talk, Google Web or local searches, to RSS feeds, to Google Maps, and so on and on-a plethora of plugins for the Sidebar ensure that all your bases are covered. Plus it indexes not only your local content but also content from Gmail: that's content from all your local data, over 2 GB of possible e-mail data, and your chat logs a desktop search away. Note that some of these features work by sending data from your computer to Google's servers. Read the post-install notes carefully if you are concerned about your privacy.

Yahoo! Desktop Search: Yahoo! licensed its search engine from the X1 search company. X1 is a powerful search known for its speed, accuracy, and the wide range of data types it supports. All that made X1 so great is what makes this offering from Yahoo! one to consider, if all you are looking for is the best desktop search tool and are not interested in things like Sidebars.

Do note that by default, this offering only searches for a limited and common range of files. To enjoy the support for more than 300 file types offered, you will need to download an additional, free expansion pack.  

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