Partitioning Your Hard Drive

Category: Hard-Drives

I just got a new computer 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 parititions for different types of data. Is this a good idea?

How to Partition Your Hard Drive

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 Mac OS, I recommend that you stick with one large partition.

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.
hard drive partitioning

Windows, Mac OS and Linux can all handle partitions of almost any size, even the multi-terabyte drives that are just showing up on the market. (See also: What is a Terabyte?)

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 about this 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 amount of space the operating system will need over time, or how large the swap file might grow. And it's NOT 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 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, practive safe computing habits and install some good anti-malware protection.

Along those lines, I recommend that you read my Free Anti-Virus Programs article, follow up with more info on Anti-Malware Tools and then get an answer to the question Do I Need a Firewall?

Just One Partition?

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 defragging your drive 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, because you can't simply shrink or grow partitions at will. There is software that allows you to change the size of an existing partition, but in order to do so, you need to move entire partitions around on your drive, and that can be time consuming. 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 OS 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? Post a comment below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Partitioning Your Hard Drive"

(See all 33 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

krampec
05 Sep 2008

Partition according to your needs!

Me: photo enthusiast (65 years), music lover (converting dozens of LP's to CD).

HD: Seagate 350GB. Partitions: C=100GB, Windows,ALL programs, swap, My Documents.

D=100GB, pictures only. E=150GB, music, video editing.

Backup=External HD (Trekstor 650GB, USB). Backing up: C-weekly, D+E every 2-3 weeks.

My conclusion: define your aims and needs first.

Happy partitioning.


Posted by:

Um
10 Sep 2008

I disagree only a little bit. Suppose I have C: for Windows, and D: for Data. When I want to do a clean install for Windows I just delete C: and re-install Windows or ghost the partition there. D is untouched so I don't need to backup my music/data, then copy them back again later. Well, I tend to re-install once a year for speed.


Posted by:

Keith B.
29 Sep 2008

I'm a DJ with (approx) 475k(+) song-files on 6 diff twrs each with 3-250gb & 1-500gb drvs. Two or 3 times per year I need to re-format & re-load MicWins' curse on several of my p.c.'s & now, I want to partition to save massive amounts of copying time. I am bldg another twr with 2-750gb Seagate SATA drvs (32mb cache). I have partitioned & installed OS's on literally hundreds of IDE drvs, yet, not one SATA drv (I need to keep moving forward). Any advise??

EDITOR'S NOTE: Partitioning a SATA drive should be no different than on an IDE drive.


Posted by:

Gerold Manders
04 Nov 2008

Also disagreeing here, Bob. My system is running as good as when it was installed 3,5 years ago. No reformat necessary, just a decent partitioning schema together with decent defrag software and a tool 'eRunNT' (makes a backup of your registry).

Regular registry backups saved my bacon once or twice, I have to admit but putting such a backup back and all problems were gone. My harddisk is divided up into 4 partitions (C=Windows, D=Programs, E=MyData, F=Temporary files and Swap).

It never takes more than 15 minutes to defrag C and D partition (with the most extensive defrag options enabled), because not a lot of files are moved/created/deleted there. I am a software junkie and (de-)install a lot, but as I said earlier...my system runs already for 3,5 years.

When I'm reading my mail in the morning my C and D partitions are defragged in the background and once a month I do a defrag from E and F (after a cleanup ofcourse) at night. This way I don't have to keep my machine running all day and all night, which saves in the power bill, I might add!).


Posted by:

Adrian
04 Nov 2008

Great article as usual Bob. I used to be into partitions. But these days prefer to use separate HDD. All the advantages, with better crash protection. Can even have an OS for each one if you like, as long as they can read each others file systems, no worries. Just about bullet proof! (: Keep up the good work m8.


Posted by:

bob
04 Nov 2008

Disagree w Bob. I create ~20 GB partition for the system.

Then a separate d: partition for data and documents, as well as an E: and possibly others for random crap.

The C drive is reserved for what I deem my normal and "essential" programs and utilities. All my data is on D:; all documents, Outlook psts, downloads, etc. I install non-essential stuff, like iTunes, VMware, test stuff, etc, on the E: partition.

This works great for me. I admit, however, that for my family I usually just install them into one partition.


Posted by:

Chas
04 Nov 2008

I partitioned one of my hard disks into C and D drives respectively. C drive (30GB) holds Windows and installed programs whereas D (470GB) has all my data. Thus it's a piece of cake to do fast automated nightly backups of C drive to a different physical disk.


Posted by:

Tom
08 Nov 2008

Disagree Bob, but I'm an experienced user. Keeping only windows and apps that MUST be on the C drive makes my weekly imaging to DVD much quicker and allows me to use only one disk for the image. The other partitions don't see nearly as many changes and thus need backing up/imaging less often.


Posted by:

P D Sterling
01 Dec 2008

this was a very helpful article; I was wondering about partitioning, but I forget that Uncle Bill and the elves are making life better for us all the time.

FWIW, I like 2 HDs, one for applications and the stuff Windows generates, and one for data only. has worked for me for years. I had both drives fail sequentially, oddly I had just backed up the data and it fried. No prob.

Month later, the C:\ drive fried. With bookmarks and address books backed up, almost no prob, but a pain to re-install all the little applications I had picked up here and there. Note, of course, that I have bought and paid for Windows and Office in my hot little hands.


Posted by:

recca012
09 Dec 2008

I agree 50%. Putting swap or pagefile in another partition in the same disk is not a good idea since its just make the disk head more busy. But putting it into another disk drive is good since its use another disk head to write and read and will increase performance. i also dont recommend to install programs on separate partition as this will also increase seek time.

I disagree for the next 50%. Having only 1 partition on a single disk drive may invite many trouble to come. if some powerloss occur and that only partition that hold everythings is going to corrupt (corrupted mft or boot sector maybe), and chkdsk cant theorically solve that, then the new empty hardisk is waiting (means the data is unrecoverable). all 5-years effort to collect all that mp3 and movie will be such a waste. n i found that having multiple partition but not too many, will help manage the file in the better way, even beginer have the same feeling like this. we set c: as windows only(swap file n programs also) and d: as data only(mp3, movies, installer etc), we absolutely can easily remember on which partition the data resides. we dont have to remember our data in a folder that resides deep in the single partition. this will also decrease the size of mft for 1 partition and will prevent the mft to be easily fragmented. also if the single partition become fragmented, the partition will take much time to be defrag than having multiple partition. we know which drive to defrag and skip the aprtition that is not heavily fragmented. also when a single file become fragmented, the fragment piece will scatter throughout the drive. let say explorer.exe is fragmented and 2 piece in the top, 5 piece in the middle and the other piece separately in the bottom. explorer.exe will take much time to load as the disk head need to travel far from top to bottom of disk just for 1 file.


Posted by:

John P
17 Feb 2009

Guru Bob, When my FAT32 vs NTFS searches yielded (in technical terms) oodles and gobs of hits, and I saw the name Bob Rankin, I naturally checked this article first.

Interestingly, in spite of the article title ("Partitioning Your Hard Drive") and especially the first major section of the article ("How to Partition Your Hard Drive"), the article is about whether to (viz., why NOT to) partition a hard drive: It includes NO information on HOW to partition a hard drive.

For those of us who, after reading and considering your sage advice, still (think we) have a legitimate reason for partitioning a hard drive, could/would you tell us HOW to do so -- PLEASE? (If you have done so somewhere else, and I missed it, I apologize.)

EDITOR'S NOTE: In http://askbobrankin.com/changing_disk_partitions.html I mentioned that Windows has a command line utility called Diskpart, which I recommend for experts. Other commercially available and user-friendly programs for managing partitions include Partition Magic and Acronis Partition Expert.


Posted by:

Adrian J
11 Sep 2009

I also disagree with a single partition. OS and installed progs on C:, ALL data on D: and then arbitrary collections of downloads, mp3s, multimedia junk, etc. on E:

Reformatting C: is then relatively easy (keep copy of favourites and other user customised files or settings). Backup crucial data from D: and make sure any downloads from E: get archived off to DVD if you want to keep for good.

If HDD crashes, C can always be recreated from original media or archived installation file (that's the stuff I archive to DVD from E). D is the crucial Data that must be backed up rigorously.


Posted by:

Dave J
16 Sep 2009

I, on the other hand feel that the only way I can get done what I need is to partition. I need to be able to run some MS-DOS programs on my current (vista) machine. A lot of commercial radio programming software is still being released in DOS. As I understand the only way I can accomplish this is to partition and load DOS (prolly 6.2) in the new partition. Fortunately it won't take much room (smile).


Posted by:

Rebecca
22 Sep 2009

Interesting article and reasoning. I came here to see if I could get any ammunition ;) because this is a topic that is the source of a longstanding family discussion. My father partitions every computer he buys using Partition Magic into at least 12 partitions. Why 12? I don't know. And every computer he has bought ends up with various unexplainable problems that no tech support can solve until ultimately the computer manufacturers take the computer back and give him a new one. And it starts all over again. He's convinced that partitions are perfection in the universal order of things (he can defrag in 5 minutes!); some of us think they cause his problems. He is not a geek and does not possess a great deal of technical knowledge. Years ago a few of the guys in his computer club (retired men) told him partitioning was great! and even though his IT-guru daughter-in-law said partitioning could be very problematic for little benefit, she obviously was wrong (did you know he can defrag in 5 minutes?!) because everyone is partitioning! Ah, the road to eternally crashed computers is paved with good intentions.

Anyway, thank you for the arguments. Since my father *just* went through this again with his new megamegaGB 64bit computer 2 weeks ago... maybe I'll try to talk some sense into him one more time.


Posted by:

PJ
24 Sep 2009

Here are my thoughts for Windows XP and Vista:
1.) Install only the core OS essential files on an appropriately sized "C" (core) partition - create a 40GB for Vista and 20 GB for XP regardless of the versions or service packs.
2.) Create a 20GB (or larger) "D" partition for other data and applications.
3.) Install Microsoft apps and any other critical apps on C:\Program Files directory. Install all other apps on D:\Program Files and/or C:\Program Files if need. Save other large data (e.g. music, videos, application logs or DBs) to directories on D:\ as well.
4.) Tell all applications to save their data and/or log files to a directory, DB, or repository on the "D" partition. The Windows OS registry should point and reference to entries on the "C" partition for critical apps and others required to be installed on C:\. The application preference settings would point to DBs, logs, repository files, etc. You could even put the DBs, logs, repository files, etc. on another machine and point to it across a data network, or even an external HD, flash drive, etc.
5.) Spend the time to get the core "C" partition carved appropriately, OS installed and optimized, critical apps installed, and then make an image of the entire "C" partition and store somewhere to push to other HDs for duplication or restoration.
6.) For Windows operating systems you'll want to keep as much off the CORE OS partition as possible to proactively reduce corruption to the operating system.

PJ


Posted by:

Bruce Fraser
29 Oct 2009

One more vote for more than one partition. I have Windows and all programs on C: partition. All data files are on D: partition.
I save an image of C: partition as you recommend, whenever major changes are made. I save a backup of changed files on D: partition every day, plus a full image every week.
WHAT IF everything was on one partition? Imagine having to make a full image of the entire disk every week -- perhaps a hundred GB, when only a few dozen files have changed. Sounds like overkill to me.


Posted by:

Mick Rogers
11 Nov 2009

After much loss of money..I got smart I agree with Bob I just put another HD in the machine and installed XP Pro..Vista on the other...I named the drives and have no problem...it is possible to save stuff to your other drive...you just have to reboot for the other system...for me this works quite well


Posted by:

Nancy
23 Jan 2010

Hello, all you very smart people. I can see the sense in many of these comments, however, one would have to be a guru herself to understand, create, and maintain systems like these. I used to be a technical writer, and even though I'm sure I could figure out how to set up my system like one of these, they seem overly complicated and a pain in the butt to backup and maintain. Because of this, I would tend to agree with Bob. For most people, the simpler the better. I am currently very irritated with my factory set 20GB/20GB partitions because C:/ filled up very quickly and started shouting at me to delete stuff. It's so full that I can't even defragment. I would have preferred one partition, or at least a very large C:/ for all the apps and a smaller D:/ for the data. Some warning that the partitions existed might have been helpful as well, but that's just the usability stickler in me. That's my $.02.


Posted by:

abcdefz
27 Jan 2010

Partition your hard drive so that you always remember that in the real world, knowing about mount points and fstab entries are useful tech factoids. Most web servers run on *nix based systems. Here endeth the lesson...

EDITOR'S NOTE: Well, Professor, I'm afraid your lesson plan needs a little tweaking. If you're a unix sysadmin, you might care about fstab entries, but even so, I don't think they have much to do with how your partition your disk.


Posted by:

Vijay
22 Dec 2011

I beg to differ with you sir, especially Myth 1. While you can't use the programs you installed on drive D: after a reinstall, other data on that drive are safe. Think of a scenario where you save all your files (including docs, music, movies, etc in D:) and your system gets infected. If you are confident that you have nothing to lose if you format C:, you can save lots of time by reinstalling Windows rather than troubleshooting. While I like like the idea of troubleshooting, it's not for everyone. Secondly, installing all your apps including huge games in C: will only make things difficult for your HDD as it has to seek for data within a huge partition and that increases the seek time.


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