Hard Drive Partitioning Myths, Mistakes, and My Advice...

Category: Hard-Drives

Occasionally I get a reader question like this: “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 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 accomodate a hard drive partition larger than 2 GB. 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

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

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

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.

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 My Advice..."

Posted by:

Cory McIntyre
14 Jul 2022

My C drive is a 500GB SSD. Due to the size I'm not able to use it for my documents. photos, and downloaded programs.

What I've done is to use Drive C for Windows and it's related program files. All my other data is on a 1TB HDD. The HDD is also where I have one of my local backups. This is not my only backup. I have two sets using two programs on 2 removable drives, one on iDrive and one using Carbonite. I lost data once and decided it will never happen again!

Posted by:

Walter T
14 Jul 2022

Bob, your article did not mention one other popular (well, it's the one I use) partition scheme:
- C: drive contains Windows, swap files, all installed software and programs
- D: drive contains _data_ only. Photos, music, e-books, documents that I created, downloaded PDFs, etc.

This makes the D: data drive pretty much "detached" from the O/S and the installed software. My 1 TByte drive has 250Gbytes for C: and 750 Gbytes for D:.

Posted by:

Bob K
14 Jul 2022

Mostly I agree. But:

In Linux I run with my home directory on a different partition. It is on a separate drive also.

Almost everything for my applications will be in the home file structure. Having it separate makes things easy for backups. I can install a second (or more) version of the OS, and still graft in that outboard home directory, and all my personal information is available to the alternate OS. Things like my emails, passwords, browser history all is shared.

That makes backups easier.

I think the same thing can be done in Windows with just the user files put outside the C: directory structure.

Posted by:

14 Jul 2022

C partition for "system" stuff and installed software. Only oddball system partitions, too.
External USB 3 portable SSD for everything else.

(I'm moving toward installing software onto the external SSD.)

Posted by:

Bruce Fraser
14 Jul 2022

I put Windows and all programs on C: partition.
I put all data folders on D: partition.
I save images of the C: partition every time I add or remove software. So if it ever goes bad, or gets hit by malware, I can restore it and be up and running in twenty minutes.
I save images of the D: partition every week. It would be overkill to save system (i.e. C: partition) images every week.
All images are stored on a separate drive.

Posted by:

14 Jul 2022

I agree that the multi-partitioning options described are not good. But I keep OS and programs on C: and data on a second partition D:. This works well for me. By keeping data separate I can restore the OS and programs from a backup without overwriting the current set of data files using the previous night's C: drive backup. I don't have to think much about the Data being on the D: drive.

Posted by:

Bernie Amler
14 Jul 2022

I still patition into 2. C: for the O/S, programs, swap, etc. and D: fo DATA. Then if things go west, i can restre the O/S, reinstall all of my programs, but still have my data intact. BTW, all of my program setup programs are stored on my D: drive.
I think that this is safer.

Posted by:

14 Jul 2022

I'm one of those nuts that run multiple operating systems on different partitions. I've got four working computers (and some others I'm "repairing" - at a snail's pace). On the four that work, one has Solus and Kubuntu, one Windows 10 and Linux Mint, one Lubuntu, Kubuntu, and Linux Mint, and one Zorin and Linux Mint, plus an unused partition with bits of Windows and (whatever)? I fully admit I'm a bit scared to mess with it since that computer always starts there with that partition at boot. The one working Windows partition takes up as much of my time (malware, defragmenting, updating) as the others combined. I also have several external drives I mainly use for backup, and which have saved my bacon several times. Why all that? Why not? It's fun!

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr.
14 Jul 2022

For Windows, I agree with Bob that a single partition for the OS and data is an acceptable solution, and this is how I set Windows up for the most part. Windows created a 100MB EFI partition, and a recovery partition during installation. After installation, I resized the EFI partition to 500MB to accommodate additional OS installations.

For GNU/Linux, I recommend setting up an 8GB partition for swap space, a 40 GB partition for the OS files/directories (the root partition), and a /home partition (consuming the remaining available space).

The size of your primary drive depends on your needs and how you use your computer. If you use your computer for personal use (read email, use media sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc. and play a few games), in most cases you can get by with about 250 - 500GB for storage and the OS. On the other hand, if you use your computer for business purposes, your needs may be an order of magnitude greater. I always recommend getting the largest hard drive/SSD you can afford.

As a rule of thumb for dual-booting Windows and GNU/Linux, if your primary drive is much more than about 50% full, you should double the size of your drive. This is because your computer will work the most efficiently when the drive is about half full. When the drive becomes more than 75% full, things slow down a lot, and your system may become a bit unstable. If your C: drive is about 25% full, you can probably dedicate about half of your drive to GNU/Linux.

This has been my experience. I hope it helps others,


Posted by:

14 Jul 2022

If I get a machine with a Windows OS on it,I usually end up dual booting with a Linux distro. I put either a Mint or Ubuntu OS alongside Windows.I haven't had any issues these arrangements.

I don't find it necessary to install several partitions for a different kinds of files on one single disk.I will sometimes install a second disk as a backup for files if needed,but not always.

Posted by:

Gil Forbes
14 Jul 2022

I built my first computer in 1981 using the "Bigger Board" which had to be manually populated with discrete components. I paid $27.00 apiece for 8, 8K RAM chips. That's right $216 for 64k. I no longer remember what I paid for the HDD, but it was a massive 8" drive and gave me whopping 5MB of storage. I thought I was in heaven

Posted by:

14 Jul 2022

As others have said, the way to go with a small and fast SSD and a big but slow(er) HDD is to allow Windows to install itself on C: (and create a couple of other partitions that don't get letters) and put all your data on D:

What they don't say is how *easy* that is to do; and it is indeed easy: Right-click a data folder like documents, select properties. Click the "Location" tab, then change the "C:" to a "D:". (I keep the path as is.) and a couple of obvious prompts later, done.

Repeat for whatever user folders you want to move. If any, repeat for each user account. Done.

Windows know the documents and other folder have been moved, you may not even notice it - only if you manually navigate down to C:\Users\{username} to see no documents. It's now at D:\Users\{username}\Documents.

Easy Pesy

Posted by:

14 Jul 2022

I agree with the majority about putting Windows and programs on C and put your personal data on D, including documents, pictures, music, photos, etc. That way, if you C drive crashes, you don't lose all those personal files with it. By the way, speaking of partitions, I just learned a hard lesson about Windows 11. It puts a "recovery partition" on your boot drive, and if you delete that recovery partition, then your computer may refuse to boot. I ran into that problem with a laptop that I wanted to erase Windows 11 and re-install Windows 10. I ended up taking the computer to a repair shop where they reinstalled Windows 11 and told me it was because I deleted the recovery partition. Bob, if you have any insights about this, it would be greatly appreciated.

Posted by:

14 Jul 2022

I generally agree with you about partitioning your C drive.
The best solution to not losing your files when your windows system needs to be installed is to install another hard drive. Put the files you don't want to lose there and keep the C drive for windows and those programs that you can be reinstalled. Keep the extra hard drive for program/files that you don't want to lose. Hard drive are cheap!

Posted by:

14 Jul 2022

I agree with Bob. I run my Windows OS and all software on "C" and all data on "D" (separate drive). Not only do I back up as Bob has warned all of us but I also "clone" each drive. Only got hit once but recovery was a snap with the clones. All I need to then do is reformat and reclone.
With my removable drives and internet interrupter switch I just pop the "D" (data drive) before flipping the internet switch on and my personal data is unavailable to the world.

Posted by:

15 Jul 2022

Have always kept the O/S and programs on C:. When beginning, there is a drive with a BU of the O/S.
Next another drive D: is used for ALL Data unless some programs like NEO like to use C for storage of edited image files. I can live with that as other image program I use are on my D drive and it will be used for exported images from NEO whether .tiff or .jpg.
Next come the BU's. BU BU BU. One is in the tower and I prefer to have that as continuous so that no matter what is done to data it is placed in a BU immediately. Next are two external portable drives. One BU is done the last Sunday of the month and the other is done the first Tues of the month.
One BU is in the safe and one is off premises. Are there some mistakes? Sure but so far small. For some reason I lost from 4 different folders in the D drive and the 2 BU drives some images of collectibles. Fortunately, the items still exist and so a few minutes later all was well as I still use a camera also.
Just waiting now for info and pricing to be available as well as the products to build a new computer and one for my son. Well have built really by a competent computer tech as it is not a job I tackle. My son also is pretty good at figuring out the best product at the best time at the best price so it is a nice cooperative effort.

So far for 27 years it has worked but guess who is one of my guided for all that time -- the Tourbus!

TIA and the past.

Posted by:

15 Jul 2022

I agree with Bob, no point diving up your principal drive unless special circumstances apply -
1. I store all my data on an external drive which I transport from PC to laptop and back.
2. I have another large external drive which I have partitioned into three, which I use for cloning my system drives from the PC, laptop and data storage drive. I use Farstone Driveclone which works very well for me.

Posted by:

Eli Marcus
15 Jul 2022

I haven't used Windows in many years... :-)
Most Linux installations automatically create a small boot partition and sometimes additional functional partitions, I just go with the default in most cases...
Regarding Windows, I definitely favor the C: drive for the Windows operating system and applications, and an additional partition or two for data and maybe backups - it really makes it easier to keep track of your data and to rescue the data when Windows goes wrong. For users that are not 100% with all of Windows temp and junk files, it is better not to have them mixed with your data partition, just for the sake of knowing what's what when you need to do a cleanup or recover data.
In institutional setups such as schools or offices, it is often necessary to keep the operating system partition locked so that users can't tamper with it, and that is another good use case for multiple partitions, which can save the IT department from many headaches...

Posted by:

16 Jul 2022

My system has a SSD (C: drive, used for all windows files) and a HDD (D: for my data files, F: for files, M: for music, P: for pictures and V: for videos). This makes finding anything fairly simple and backups simple to do

Posted by:

13 Aug 2022

The following is NOT a brag post.
I have learned a lot about hw/sw failure modes in Windows since Windows3.1. I have also learned to adapt to newer storage media techniques and technologies. I also learned a long ago that partitioning the same physical drive just complicates matters.
*I reserve "C:\" drive (250GB SSD) strictly for the OS and installation of applications (ignoring the recovery partition).
*I leave the "D:\" designation un-assigned; as it used to be the letter for CD-drives by default. *I assign "E:\" drive (less than 1TByte large SSD) as my primary personal "Dataz" drive.
*Drive "F:\" (500GB SSD) is reserved for "DLz" (downloads) mostly anything (programs, utilities, their updates,etc.) incoming from the network, as a 'holding-tank' or as a temporary 'quarantine' area.
*Drive "G:\" (4TB HDD) is "VidCamZ" storage for the 2 surveillance camera live recording footage (24/7 @4k resolution).
*Drive "H:\" (250GB SSD) is called "AppzDataZ" and does nothing but stores user generated data (and meta-data) for all of the programs installed in "C:\".
*Drives "Y:\" (4TB HDD @10k rpm) for "MusicZ" and "Z:\" (8TB HDD @7200 rpm) for MovieZ" are part of a NetworkAccessStorage (NAS) box, for Local/Web streaming of my audio/video collection.

That unassigned "D:\" drive-letter gets used when scheduled data back-ups, imaging and archiving are done using USB portable drives that are kept off-premises.
I have lost drives (HDD/SSD) due to years of usage and I have had to migrate to larger and larger drives over the decades but I am proud that I have NEVER lost any of my data... EVERRRRRRRRR!
It is NOT about Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder, it is all about preserving my data.

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