Partition Your Hard Drive? (my advice...)

Category: Hard-Drives

Here's a common reader question: “I just got a new computer with a 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. Sounds complicated. 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. Here's why...

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 over a decade 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 Free Anti-Virus Programs article.

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 "Partition Your Hard Drive? (my advice...)"

(See all 32 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

03 Jun 2019

Have to disagree. On C I keep only what has to be on C (windows, etc.). On D, all my downloaded software (if C has a problem, I don't lose the downloads). On E is my data, and on F my giant video files. I find no problems keeping track of which drive has what.

Posted by:

Mike in Colorado
03 Jun 2019

I stopped partitioning drives many years ago. It just doesn't make sense. With the cost of drives, including SSDs, being so low, I've been using two drives for several years, one for the OS and one for Data. Over the years, my hard drives have turned into SSDs. I put my OS and all programs on one SSD and all data on another SSD. This includes documents, pictures, videos, desktop, etc. When I reload the OS (which I do periodically), I tell the OS where to find everything. We've had the ability to redirect where Documents, Pictures, Desktop, etc are stored for years. I never have to worry about losing something important on my main drive by reloading the OS because all data is on the other drive.

The end result to all this is I still have a faster computer than most people. I built a first-generation Core i7 920 in 2009. Over the years, I upgraded the RAM from 6 GB to 18 GB, gone through three video cards, and the hard drives became Solid State Drives. It runs Windows 10 beautifully. I have no problems running games I like, sometimes at the same time, such as Guild Wars 2 and Eve Online. I sometimes have QuickBooks up and multiple Chrome tabs up at the same time as the games, TeamSpeak3, Discord, etc., with absolutely no slowdowns. I've been tempted to upgrade to a new i7 over the years but could never justify it. I'm may do it when the 10th gen processors come out, though.

I have had PCs of various flavors for 37 years and have owned my own IT business for about 16 years. People that advocate for various partitions on a single drive are generally older people who are rooted in the past and never bothered to educate themselves in modern IT techniques. It only makes sense if you are looking to dual-boot a system.

By the way, Bob, I participated in Patrick's listserv-based Roadmap Internet workshop in 1994 (I still have copies somewhere) and hopped on the Internet Toubus with you guys in 1995. Thanks for the memories and thanks for the newsletters!

Posted by:

03 Jun 2019

I "partition" my system files and data files by having the system on C and my data on an external USB drive. On the external drive, I have one folder and a bajillion subfolders. To backup, I tell Macrium to backup the top folder. Occasionally, I backup the C drive.
Incidentally, the C drive is a 7-year-old Hitachi 1TB drive. Let's hope Western Digital didn't screw up the works.

Posted by:

03 Jun 2019

I agree with Louise. I have used C for OS and software, and D for Data for upteen years. It makes for smaller, faster data backups and restore if needed. Never had a problem.

Posted by:

03 Jun 2019

Agree with Bob on most of this. I have two laptops with dual-boot Windows/Linux. Partitions are fine there. However, on Linux almost all the experts I read gave recommendations about partitions (real or virtual) INSIDE the Linux partition. For me, they were WRONG. Things (apps especially) don't seem to install where the experts indicated (the way I read it anyway). Now, although I made some partitions larger than recommended, I'm stuck with limited space in some areas. I can't even install larger new apps, although I have tons of room for pictures, documents, etc. THINK first, about whether you really want partitions AND how large to make them. Resizing is difficult and a virtual gamble on whether everything will still be there.

Posted by:

03 Jun 2019

On my Desktop I have 2 HDs. I put data (ie My Documents) on one HD and operating system and programs on the other HD. This makes for manageable backups. I also do regular system images of my operating system and programs. Without this approach I'd have ENORMOUS system image files and LONG waits.

On my laptop I just have 1 HD so I partition and follow the same rule. Works like a treat.

Posted by:

04 Jun 2019

I like Mike! I am an advocate of separate drives instead of partitioning. I have an OS drive (256GB SSD), a Data drive (500GB SSD) and a Games drive (2TB HDD). I don't backup my Games drive as often as my OS drive or Data drive because I can always download games again should the drive fail.

Posted by:

04 Jun 2019

Interesting that almost all the people who say here they partition are doing because it sounds like they have always done it. Few actually provide a valid reason WHY they still do it!

Seems some habits must be hard to break.

Posted by:

Bernie Crowley
04 Jun 2019

I have a second hard drive that I partitioned just to see if I could do it, but I don't see any advantage to doing so. I take an image file every two weeks on an external drive.

Posted by:

04 Jun 2019

What about fragmentation?
Surely if everything is in one partition then the whole drive becomes fragmented and slows the whole thing down, also takes a lot longer to de-fragment.

Posted by:

04 Jun 2019

I am a little apprehensive about not being fullin accord with Bob, especially as I know Leo Notenboom fully agrees with him!
Nevertheless, I am with those who believe in using two physical drives, one for the system and one for the data. This is faster than a single drive (unless SSD) as both can be accessed simultaneously; furthermore, in the event of a system failure requiring a reformat the data remains intact. I use a Rollback program to protect the system drive in the event of problems, but I don't wish it to be continually backing up my data, so I would separate the two even if I only had one physical drive.
I also have a swap drive positioned at the beginning of the D drive, which I am told speeds access, but wouldn't bother if my C drive were SSD.

Posted by:

04 Jun 2019

Miger: You ask why, here's why: SSDs are great, but relatively small and expensive. HDDs are huge and cheap, but relatively slow. Current modern computers will have both a SSD and a HDD.

Windows and all program go on the SSD (the C: drive) as usual. User data will go on the HDD (the D: drive). As Mike in Colorado notes, Windows has the ability to redirect the user folders to other locations than the C drive - and if done, the user seldom even notices it. Documents, Pictures, Downloads, etc. all reside on the huge HDD and Windows and Program run from the fast SSD. Win-Win!

(The newest SSDs don't even look like HDDs - they look more like RAM sticks in a dedicated motherboard slot than a big boxy block. That's both smaller and faster, another win-win.

Posted by:

04 Jun 2019

On my 2011 W7 desktop I have 3 physical drives:
C=200gb SSD;
D=500gb HD (data, emails etc);
E=1tb HD(backups).
I also have a 500gb external HD which I do not use as frequently as I should for off-site backups...

Posted by:

05 Jun 2019

Back in the day, when I fooled around with partitions, I placed Win10 & Win7 on separate partitions. Win10 got hungry one day and ate it's older sibling....good ol' partitions ;}

Posted by:

05 Jun 2019

Seems like some commenters are getting confused between partitioning one drive, and having more than one drive.

Posted by:

Bruce Fraser
08 Jun 2019

Miger wrote "Few actually provide a valid reason WHY they still do it!"
Here's why I partition my computer's single hard drive. Backups/images are stored on an external hard drive.
1) I put Windows and programs on C:, and data on D:.
2) Why D: on a separate partition? I regularly backup the D partition: it's small and fast.
3) Why C: on a separate partition? I make an image of the C: partition once a month, or after significant additions or changes to the software. If the system has a issue I can't resolve, I can restore it to a perfectly working system in twenty minutes. And I don't lose any data by reformatting the C: partition.

Posted by:

17 Jun 2019

I agree with several of the comments.

I have a 498 MB SSD as a primary C: drive where Windows and all software are installed. I have a 750 GB conventional HDD as a secondary drive where I store all data files. I don't use the Win library folders like My Pictures and My Documents for anything except temporary junk. So, if I have a failure or corruption on C:, I'll just re-install or revert to a previous configuration. Data on D: is mostly cloned in the cloud, so now I care less and less if my laptop gets stolen or has catastrophic HDD failure.

In the past, I would always partition my single physical hard drive to match the two physical drives I have described above. If I ever have a new PC with a big enough single SSD, I'll probably still partition it into C and D drives as described. I don't want to wade through the stupid Windows named folders/libraries on C: - I know exactly where I put my stuff on D:

Posted by:

Louise Smith
22 Jan 2020

I admit to being a geezer.
And one who likes to try new things.

I have always and will always partitioned my drive into a C:\ OS and programs and a D:\ data partition.

I have been known to reload Windows (less now than in the past) at least once a year to clean up leftover bits and pieces of things I have tried and played with. Very simple when all the DATA is never touched on a separate partition!

Posted by:

John Tyler
22 Jan 2020

You didn't answer the question on how to partition a hard drive just your reasons not to.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The answer was in today's article:

Posted by:

30 Aug 2020

Mr Brankin, a most excellent article. I was planning on partitioning my HDD for my new Mint 19.3 installation, however, after reading your piece I decided it was not necessary.

I also read several article are this issue and all of them said there were pros and cons in partitioning.

Thanks again for sharing your knowledge.

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