Hard Drive Partitioning: Myths, Mistakes and Misconceptions

Category: Hard-Drives

One AskBob reader had this question about hard drives: “I just got a new computer with a big 2-terabyte hard drive and I'm wondering about hard drive partitioning strategies. A friend told me to create a very small C: partition for a swap file, put Windows on the D: drive, and create several other partitions for different types of data. That sounds complicated, so is this really a good idea?” Read on for my advice on hard drive partitioning...

Are Hard Drive Partitions a Smart Idea?

In general, I disagree with the idea of having multiple partitions on a hard drive. Unless you are running a dual-boot system, with one partition for Windows, and another for Linux or some other operating system, I recommend that you stick with one large partition. I know I'll get some flack for this, but read on to see why I think that's the best strategy for most users.

Years ago, some hard drive controllers, as well as older versions of the Windows and Mac operating systems, could not accommodate a hard drive partition larger than 2 GB. (That 2 TB hard drive is 1000 times larger!) In those days, if you had a hard drive larger than 2GB, you needed multiple partitions to make use of the full capacity of the drive. So a 10GB drive required five 2GB partitions, which would end up being the C:, D:, E:, F: and G: drives on a Windows computer. But the hardware and software to support large hard drives has been around for almost 20 years now, and these gyrations are no longer necessary.

Moderns versions of Windows, Mac OS and Linux can handle partitions of almost any size, even the multi-terabyte drives that are available on the market now. A terabyte is 1000 gigabytes, and a gigabyte is 1000 megabytes. (My first hard drive was 10 megabytes.)

Hard drive partitioning

Partitioning Myth #1: You Need Lots of Partitions

Some people go hog-wild with partitioning, and advise people to create one partition for the operating system, another for the Windows swap file, and still other partitions for installed software, music and photos. The rationale is usually along the lines that if your Windows operating system gets hosed by viruses or spyware, then you can simply re-install Windows and your programs will be safe on another partition. But they're forgetting about the Windows Registry, which tells Windows where all the user-installed software resides on the hard drive. If the Registry gets whacked by a virus, or you re-install Windows, ALL of your software will have to be re-installed.

Another problem with the "operating system on C: and programs on D:" idea is that some programs don't even ASK where you want to install them. They just plop themselves down on the C: drive. And if you blindly copy them to the D: drive, they may not work, due to Registry problems. And even if the installer does give you a choice, the C: drive is always the default. Novice or casual users will probably not remember to change the target drive to D: or E: and the result will be a mishmash of programs installed on multiple partitions.

Partitioning Myth #2: A Swap File Partition Will Boost Performance

Some people think that having a separate partition for the swap file will help with performance. But everything I've read indicates just the opposite. Your system performance will be optimized when the swap file is on the same partition as the operating system, because that mimimizes the movement of drive head. And what if you make your Windows or swap file partitions too small? It's easy to underestimate the how large the swap file might grow. And it's not so easy to tweak the size of a partition if you run out of space.

Partitioning Myth #3: Moving Your Windows Partition Makes You Safer

Others claim that putting Windows on some drive other than C: will provide protection from malware or ransomware because hackers are stupid and always target the C: drive. Well that's just not true. If you want to protect yourself from viruses, spyware and other threats, practice safe computing habits and install some good anti-virus protection. Along those lines, I recommend that you read my article on PC Matic and whitelisting.

Partitioning Myth #4: Partitioning Protects Your Data From Hardware Failure

Using partitions to separate different types of data is not a form of data protection. If the hard drive fails, all partitions on it are likely to be affected. Making backups of your data to a separate drive or cloud storage is necessary to protect from hardware failure.

Partitioning Myth #5: Partitioning increases disk space

Whoever came up with this idea has apparently never seen a pie chart. Partitioning your hard drive doesn't magically create more disk space. A partition merely divides existing disk space into separate sections. You may end up with LESS usable disk space in some situations. For example, let's say you split a 100 GB drive into C: and D: partitions of 50 GB each. If the C: drive has lots of space and the D: drive is full, you'll need to shrink the C: partition and expand the D: partition in order to add more files to the D: drive. That's an unnecessary nuisance.

One Partition to Rule Them All?

There are other reasons why I disagree with the multiple partitions school of thought. First of all, it makes using and maintaining your computer that much harder. You'll always have to remember where things are supposed to be stored. "Uhh, do I put Photos on the D: drive, and Music on the E: drive? Or is it Programs on the D: drive, Music on the E: drive, and Photos on the F: drive? Aaauuugggh!" With a single partition, you have a lot less hassle.

Also, tasks like maintaining and optimizing your computer and backing up your files become more of a chore.. And again, if you "outgrow" a partition, it's not trivial to make it larger. Oh, and if you think backing up one partition into another partition on the same disk is a good idea, think again. If the drive fails because of a power surge, head crash or other mechanical defect, ALL of your partitions will be lost. Always backup on a separate drive or external media.

Modern operating systems are very smart when it comes to managing large amounts on data on a hard drive. They don't need multiple partitions to take full advantage of the hardware, organize your files, improve performance, or enhance your security. Give your system one big chunk of disk space, organize it with as many folders as you like, and let it do its thing!

Agree or disagree with my advice on partitioning? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Hard Drive Partitioning: Myths, Mistakes and Misconceptions"

Posted by:

25 Apr 2024

My laptop computers have relative small drives, and I don't do any partioning on them. But for my main desktop PC, which has a larger drive, I do have two partitions:
a) Windows and all installed software;
b) data files that I created, movies, music, photos, and downloaded data files.

Posted by:

Alfredo Ramirez
25 Apr 2024

I agree 120% with Bob. Partitioning drives belongs to another era, and it sitll survives. It's like the floppy disk icon: it will take a while to go away. Great article, Bob, thank you!

Posted by:

25 Apr 2024

I couldn't agree more that partitioning is a relic from the past for most users.
But never forget that modern Windows install creates up to 4 partitions of its own!

Posted by:

25 Apr 2024

I agree with Leo mostly, but I prefer to keep my data IN a separate partition because if Windows has to be re-installed, I'm not reliant on a backup to recover the data. I do a nightly backup as well, but I have found the best backup software sometimes fails during recovery. A data partition is an added level of protection and not that complicated to manage.

Posted by:

25 Apr 2024

I agree with Walter; it makes sense to me to set up a separate large partition (D or E) to store all my
personal data files that are independent from the operating system in use at that time. This way, I can back up all my data at any time by cloning that "data" partition. This is simple, and avoids all the problems that Bob mentions in his article.

Posted by:

Bob K
25 Apr 2024

In my case, my primary desktop machine runs Linux. I have a 2nd HD on it, and that is for my /home directory tree.

Since most personal files end up in the /home/ folders, that makes backing up of things I don't want to lose easy.

I would suppose grafting the /etc things on that 2nd HD might also make sense.

Posted by:

Nigel A
25 Apr 2024

I just have one hard drive which has everything in one partition. But my wife has 2 drives in her PC, an SSD for a "C" d=rive which has all the operating system (Windows) and all programs, and a larger HDD for an "F" drive which has all her data - and there's a lot of it including photos. That works better in my opinion than several partitions. Both are backed up continuously on line. And yes the on line back up works, we've had to use it twice to restore data, due to finger trouble. All drives get replaced periodically with larger ones, which also reduces the risk of failure.

Posted by:

Doug W.
25 Apr 2024

I agree with Nigel. I too have two separate hard drives in my desktop PC, an SSD "C" drive for Windows and programs, and an HDD "F" drive for data. My "F" drive files are sync'd using Microsoft OneDrive. So I don't mess with partitions.

Posted by:

25 Apr 2024

In my tower I have 3 separate Drives.
Windows et.al. on one. 2 partitions, 1=OS, 2=data
A separate drive for backups and imaging.
And a separate drive for drag&drop data redundancy.
This lets me rebuild a busted system or replace faulty data, all on-board and waiting.

Posted by:

Daniel G
25 Apr 2024

I want to put the 'users' folder in a different partition. There are instructions on the internet on how to do it correctly

Posted by:

26 Apr 2024

I am going to agree with Bob Rankin with this one.Having to partition a disk drive on Windows is unnecessary.I would just leave the disk where Windows reside alone.

However,I would have a second disk on the same machine where I would have certain files and documents as a precaution.I could also decide to install a Linux OS on that second disk if I so desire. Many desktops have a disk cage where you can easily add a second disk.Having the proper mounting hardware and cables can make a successful install.

I find GParted to be a good tool for doing partition work.Just make sure to read up on its instructions.

Posted by:

26 Apr 2024

The way to go: use a SSD and let Windows partition it. It will have 3 or 4 partitions, but you will only see one in Windows. The ones you don't see are Windows system or recovery partitions - best advice, don't touch these. They are not given Windows partition letters, so normal Windows users never see these other partitions.

"But my SSD is too small in capacity and can't store all my stuff!" So add a spinning large HDD and make it just one partition, D: if available or any other letter you want. Then, for the standard user folders Documents, Pictures, Downloads, etc. right-click on the folder and select "Location." Using Documents for an example, it's usual location is "C:/Users/yourusername/Documents". Change that to "D:/Users/yourusername/Documents" and let Windows move all your documents to the second drive. Done!

Now, every time you select your Documents it will actually be on the D: drive, not the C: drive. You can move most of the standard Windows user folders in this way.

Posted by:

28 Apr 2024

Hello Bob! This is an interesting article, and I certainly understand the angle that you are coming from. I DEFINITELY have several partitions, simply, because it helps to keep things organized. In addition to the "C:" drive partition, I have a partition for image files, a partition for video files, a partition for audio files, a partition for document archive files, and a partition for project files. This truly helps to keep things very tidy, streamlined, and efficient for me. It also helps to avoid the nested folders, etc. All programs/software are on the "C:" drive. I never had this cause problems for me. Thankfully, I also have 2 hard drives with 1 TB each, along with a dual boot system for Windows 11 and Linux. I can see, though, where one can go overboard with the partitions. Thank you for the article!

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