Should You Partition Your Hard Drive?

Category: Hard-Drives

A reader once asked me: “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 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, 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.

Windows, Mac OS and Linux can all 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 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, 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 "Should You Partition Your Hard Drive?"

(See all 44 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Misterfish
21 Oct 2016

Hello Bob
Yet another thought-provoking article. I use separate physical drives for OS & programs, another for data. But I use freefilesync to regularly backup my data to the OS disc, and occasionally use disk cloning to make a back-up copy of my OS & programs on a third drive.
I'll shortly be installing Linux, so will need to partition my C drive to accommodate it.
My helpful suggestion, to manage these different locations, is to keep a small notebook as a log of which back-ups/syncs I have done, when and to where. Been doing this for thirty years and occasionally found it invaluable.
Oh yes, don't forget to back up your registry and email client files regularly.....


Posted by:

Ewan Christian
21 Oct 2016

I, too, have wondered for ages why must I have partitions. I'm just about to invest in a new laptop and I bet it will have at least two drives. Is it possible to then make it into just one drive - or is that totally fraught with danger? And if it is indeed possible - how?


Posted by:

Old Man
21 Oct 2016

Many of the responses seem to be mixing banana with oranges. They talk about using multiple drives, whereas the article relates to using multiple partitions on a single drive. They are not the same.
I used to use multiple partitions with Win 3.x, 95 and 98. Partition Magic was a great tool for making dynamic partition changes. One advantage was that each partition was viewed as a separate drive, which allowed for smaller sectors. Thus a single extra bit would waste less space.
I had my OS, application programs and data in different partitions. This was OK at first as back then most programs were self-contained. As more began using shared folders (on the C drive), it became more of a hassle. When (not if) I needed to reinstall the OS, these programs also had to be reinstalled.
When my OS allowed NTFS instead of FAT, I quit using partitions. NTFS made much more effective use of the space. I found using individual folders for each type of date (labeled to show the type), much like Windows does. This was more useful than partitioning – no size adjustments needed. Unfortunately, with a single computer and only 1 HD, backup was restricted to removable media (Span Disk allowed putting large files on several floppies).
When people I knew wanted to upgrade their computers, they wanted some way to dispose of the old one. I was happy to accept the free castaways. This gave me a lot of extra drives – by then many computers had room for 3 or 4 HDs. Later I was able to buy some good inexpensive external HD cases for them. Thus I entered the second category – multiple drives. But that is a different topic.


Posted by:

Tony
21 Oct 2016

For some time now I have used the internal drive for windows 10 and programmes. All my user data is on a 1 Tb sshd. I feel safer doing this and if I go away can put the sshd in my pocket and have all my data safe and relatively secure. (I do manual backups of the ssd). If everything is on the internal hard disc a disc failure is going to take a long time to sort.


Posted by:

Dopey Dave
21 Oct 2016

I used to create a second partition for data, so that if the OS died, my data was "safe." Unfortunately my wife's computer, set up this way died during one of Microsoft's Windows 10 upgrades, and destroyed the data partition (not as well backed up as I thought) as well as the OS partition. I decided a second partition was not as useful as a good back-up plan. I now have her data backed up three ways daily.


Posted by:

Clay
22 Oct 2016

Hi Bob.
I used to partition my drives. But my last couple of computers I have been using multiple drives, instead of partitions. I run an SSD as the primary for the operating system, then 4 terabyte drives dedicated to documents, photos, programs, and everything else. Easy way to remember what goes on which drive is to rename the drive!That way it shows in the directory as drive D: Documents!


Posted by:

Mulakush
22 Oct 2016

I have tried partitioning on my W7 laptop. I wanted to make a smaller programs partition (about 75 GB) that I deemed sufficient. The system disagreed! Minimum partition size allowed by W7 was 225 GB! I had a 500 GB hard drive. This meant that 150 GB of disc space was simply not available for data. I nixed the idea. I have no problems and do not miss partitioning.


Posted by:

Sheri
22 Oct 2016

I have always kept my OS and programs on C: drive and all my personal data on another drive because that way, I can re-install my OS without having to worry about losing any of my personal files! And I'm very surprised to hear that someone who is supposed to be a techie doesn't.

Also ONE BIG reason you might want to have your OS and programs on C: and all your personal data on a separate disc entirely is if you buy a small SSD, to use for your OS.


Posted by:

Fred
22 Oct 2016

We always need more storage as our data grows, so we buy a new, larger, hard drive. This gets a new drive letter, so it's natural to re-arrange our data to put things like photos (which really eat up the gigabytes) on the new drive and leave the other data on the old drive.

Using this philosophy, I now have six internal drives in my main computer! The C drive is a small (240 GB) SSD, which has Windows 10 and all the installed programs. The next 2 drives have photos (which I take lots of) and other data. The other 3 have older (slower) drives to backup the first 3. All these drives are installed in two "StarTech 3 hard drive mobile racks," which only take two slots each. This makes it easy to remove the backup drives when they're not in use, just in case the whole PC crashes. And if I go on vacation, I lock up all the drives in a safe.

If you don't have a large enough case to hold multiple drives, you can buy external enclosures to do the same thing. Or use several external hard drives (which often are on sale.) Hard drives are so cheap, there's no reason not to have several.

And for safety, don't keep your data files on the same drive as the OS. As Bob empathized, if the OS drive gets hosed, you lose any data stored there too. And, although it takes some time, you should be able to re-install the OS and all your programs if you need to. Your data is safer on a separate drive and even safer if it's backed up.

Sheri posted this same idea on 22 Oct 2016, and I agree completely.


Posted by:

Jack
25 Oct 2016

If you have multiple partitions on a hard drive and then that drive fails, you lose all of the partitions.

Even if you have backups, will you remember exactly where everything was, on which partitions, when they are all gone? And what size each partition was, so that you can re-create the same partition scheme on a replacement hard drive?

Short answer: NO.

A hard drive may go bad years after you set up multiple partitions, and your memory of the partitioning scheme will have faded. Just don't do it. It's a hassle you don't need. Use a single partition.


Posted by:

Peter
28 Oct 2016

I agree completely with Bob's single partition strategy BUT I have separate partitions for system & programs (C:) and data (D:).
Why? Because my C: drive is an 256Mb SSD and the D:drive is a 2Tb hard disk. Performance and load times are great! Couldn't afford a big SSD, so two partitions necessary.


Posted by:

Dick Bryant
28 Oct 2016

I partition my hard drive because I have some important programs that run only on Windows XP. They are on one side, the up-to-date Windows is on the other.


Posted by:

Don
28 Oct 2016

I agree - these days, multiple partitions usually just needlessly complicate things. And separate partitions and separate hard drives are two different animals.
And lol to the hard drive size sub-thread - I had (and still have) a 16K plug-in RAM expansion for my Timex-Sinclair ZX81, and it uses a cassette tape recorder to record and load programs. Ah - those were the days! :-D


Posted by:

Grant
29 Oct 2016

I echo Sheri's comment. I fail to see how it can not be a good idea, for the reason Sheri specified. Over the years there have been many occasions, for various reasons, where I have had to re-install Windows on mine or friends PC's. I agree that it is better to use an external drive but it would seem very good sense to me to partition the drive to provide C for system and D for personal files and to also back up to an external drive.


Posted by:

Clairvaux
29 Oct 2016

I have sysprepped my install. Windows and programs are on C physical drive. User folders and data are forced on D physical drive.

I image everyday C and D with Macrium Reflect Home on two swapped external E drives. If something happens, I am free to restore C only. However, I can also chose to restore C and D to have the exact same picture that was taken at backup. This might be necessary in case something is out of sync between programs and "data" (data being an elastic notion here). However, that would make me lose the more recent actual data, such as documents I have created.

I also have a Z partition on the system drive, next to C, for playing with Linux some time in the future. I also have an F temporary partition on my data disk next to D, which I used for a data restore. I did not want to dump the restore on D and risk the consequences. So I'm slowly choosing and picking manually from F to put back into D - not finished yet.

Separation of programs and data in Windows is a mess. It can and should be tweaked, but there's no way to get it fully right.

I did read somewhere, by a credible source, that the swap file is better separated from C.


Posted by:

Nelson H Ferrari
31 Oct 2016

I have been using 3 partitions/disks for ages: Windows, programs and data. Data has been put into a different disk as soon as I could afford (20 or so years ago), so remembering is not really a problem.
What is a problem now is that Micro$oft, since Windows 10, refuses to install its programs on drive D! Office is one that I tried a couple of times before giving up. It won't run from a drive other than C, no matter how much you change your registry.
And program settings in the registry is the stupidest idea I ever heard. It gets impossible to do a simple program transfer/recover.
That's what we get for using Windows :-(


Posted by:

Mark Matis
31 Oct 2016

Running dual boot, using Ubuntu as the primary OS and Windows 7 for those tasks where I don't have a good Linux alternative, I partition one drive for Windows, a second for Ubuntu, a third for the Ubuntu swap, and a separate D: drive labeled as "Data Drive" and formatted NTFS. That way I can read/write any "data" from either Ubuntu or Windows. And by the way, at least for Windows 7 Home Premium, you WERE stuck with more than one partition. Windows itself throws a small partition at the very front of the disk, before the C: drive.


Posted by:

Wilson Baptista Junior
01 Nov 2016

I've always partitioned my internal drive as C:\ for Windows and programs, and D"\ for data.
This way I can periodically image my system partition and restore it whenever necessary without disturbing my data files. This has saved my bacon a few times. Using Macrium Reflect I have never needed to reinstall Windows, just restore the last image and I'm good to go.
Of course, my data is backed up externally. If I get a hard drive failure, only thing I need to do is restore the last system image to the new drive and copy my data files back to the data partition.


Posted by:

S Ross
05 Nov 2016

The biggest reason for me to use two partitions, is to isolate the C:Drive for just the system, and use D: Drive for programs and everything else.
Where this becomes important, is when you image the C: drive, i use Macrium Reflect and the whole partition takes up less than 6gb, so you keep numerous backups in case your system takes a hit. It's far more reliable than System Restore.


Posted by:

Lady Fitzgerald
04 Jun 2017

I agree that one should never use partitioning for organizing data into categories. Folders are far more efficient since they will automatically adjust to the sized needed for the data within.

on my desktop rig, I have one SSD for my OS and programs and it has only two partitions: the C: and the System Reserved. My data is on four SSDs only because a single SSD that is big enough handle all my data is unavailable to consumers. None of them are partitioned. I use folders to organize the data.

My notebooks are another story since they are little one drive wonders. They have four partitions: the System Reserved, the C: (which has only the OS and programs: the E: drive for data only, and the factory recovery partition. Again, I only use folders for organizing data.

Keeping System files (OS and programs) segregated from data with partitions allows me to use imaging (Macrium Reflect) to backup the System and folder/file syncing (FreeFileSync) to backup my data. Imaging (and, although not as efficient, cloning) are the only practical ways to backup System files but are too time consuming and inefficient for backing up data. Folder/file syncing is far more efficient and faster for backing up data.


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