PLANNING YOUR PARTITIONS
Version 3.9 — Revised July 13, 2007
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NOTE: I haven’t yet comprehensively updated this article for Windows 2000/XP. Reading through it, although I see some different directions I might go, I don’t see anything that screams out for mandatory revision, so the rewrite will be a low-priority back-burner task. More multiboot issues could be addressed, and a different spin given to some of the other topics, but, substantially, I think the article is sound for Win 2K/XP as well.
In Windows 2000/XP, get used to using the term “volume” instead of “partition.” In practice, on most desktop systems, the two terms mean the same thing, though technically they mean different things. Since, on Win 2000/XP dynamic disks, “partitions” can include spanned volumes, I submit that there is no practical difference in the terms. If you want to dig further into the fine points, start with the “Help & Support Center’s” Glossary.
Partitions are “parts” — parts of your hard drive. That is, they are logical divisions of a hard disk, which show up to the operating system as if they were physically distinct hard drives.
Besides general convenience, the main advantages of carefully planning and optimizing your partitions are that it will make your computer
The main questions that confront a user are: Do you want to have your hard drive as one large single partition, or as several? and, If you want multiple partitions, what’s the best way to set them up?
There are two ways to partition your drives:
Before Win95B — specifically, before FAT32 — the most important reasons for partitioning were based on limitations in the FAT file system. The larger the partition, the less efficiently it stores data. Also, FAT (now usually called FAT16) has an upper limitation of 2 GB for its largest partitions. These limitations still apply to anyone using a version of Win95 earlier than Win95B (OSR2), or anyone still using FAT16 rather than FAT32 (for whatever reason).
With FAT32, the inefficiency of storing data does not appear until 8 GB, and even then the inefficiency is still small. With FAT16 systems, that problem first appeared at 512 MB, and was quite serious by the time a partition was a mere 1 GB — with up to one-third of the used space on the drive being wasted space.
Nonetheless, there are still good reasons to have multiple partitions today. With hard drive sizes measured in scores of GB, more good reasons appear every month! Here are some of the good reasons, along with suggestions on how to plan your partitions when setting up your hard drive:
Reserve the C: partition for just Windows, and for things that will not work unless they are installed on C:. There aren’t many, but there are a few. (In Windows 95, you can even install most of Internet Explorer off of C: to save lots of space, but this is not realistic beginning with Win98.) Once you decide how much room you really need on C:, allow a little extra “growing room” — at least 200-500 MB.
Besides the C: partition for Windows and a few other things, the majority of the rest of your hard drive can be saved for all of your programs — in fact, for everything else you want to put on it — except for a few specialty partitions listed below.
I am a strong advocate of having the swap file on its own partition. On Win95B/98, even if you are using FAT32 for the rest of your hard drive, I recommend that you make the swap file partition’s cluster size as large as possible, i.e., 32 KB. On Win95 this cluster size change had a definite effect of speeding up the computer’s performance; on Win98 this is less evident, and the gain may be totally negated by other factors — it is more evident on older, slower systems, and probably not worth the bother on today’s faster systems. I do not recommend 32 KB clusters on the Windows Millennium Edition swap file partition.
Make this swap file partition of generous size — perhaps as much as twice as large as you think you need it to be. Disk space is cheap these days. Even though my Win98 swap file never got much over about 180 MB in size, I set a 500 MB swap file partition. What size should yours be? Monitor actual swap file usage for a while and decide. Given today’s hard drive sizes, there’s usually no reason to be chinchy. I suggest you determine the largest your swap file ever routinely gets, and double it. (NOTE: This is important even if you are letting Windows handle the swap file entirely, with no user modifications: Make sure that the partition where it is located has ample free room. The guideline just given will work for most.)
You will get your best gain from moving the swap file if you have two physical hard drives. (For many reasons, I always prefer having two physical hard drives, rather than one larger one.) Put the swap file partition as the first partition on the second drive. If you do not have two separate hard drives, the performance gains from this placement will be offset by certain performance degradations, and only by experimentation on your unique computer with your unique usage pattern can you determine whether the net change is a gain, a loss, or no difference at all.
In either case, there are other significant advantages to having the swap file on its own partition, so you may want to do this even if you get no performance gain, or even if you get a small performance loss. Some of these issues are discussed more completely elsewhere in this article, but, to mention them briefly, they include containment of “fragmentation contagion” to the rest of the drive (which can have quite a significant positive effect on overall machine performance); a very significant advantage in protection against lost files in the case of accidental deletion and difficult recovery; and advantages if you boot multiple versions of Windows (a common custom when Beta-testing an operating system, or migrating from one version of Windows to another, or software development — among other situations), since you will only need to take up room on the hard drive for one swap file instead of two or more.
But what if you are dual booting Windows 98 or ME (which, by default uses win386.swp for its swap file) and one NT-based OS such as Windows 2000 or XP (which uses pagefile.sys for the same purpose)? Do you have to take up twice as much space by having two such files just because they use different names? No, you can simplify. Just change the default name of the Win98 or ME swap file to pagefile.sys and use the same file for both purposes. (Thanks to Pierre Griffet in the AumHa Forums for pointing out this obvious-now-that-I-see-it trick.) In the Windows 98 or ME system.ini file, just add the following in the [386enh] section (where x is whatever partition holds your swapfile/pagefile):
For some thoughts on the placement of the swap file (more properly, “page file”) on a Windows XP computer, see Alex Nichol’s article, Virtual Memory in Windows XP.
After the swap file partition, the next one to create is one to hold all of your temporary files and folders. These change most rapidly, and are easily discardable. If they are left on a partition with Windows, with your apps, or with the swap file, they can spread rampant “fragmentation contagion” that will slow down your computer and make it more vulnerable to crashes.
I have a 500 MB partition for this (just because I have the room), but rarely use even 25 MB of it. (For years I had it sized at 100 MB. A size of 50 MB should serve most people.) Sizing may have to be varied according to individual needs, however. For example, site visitor Ommadawn wrote me that the program AutoCad requires free space on the temporary file partition equal to the size of the image file being opened, so he increased the Temp partition to 1.5 GB. Most people, of course, will not need so much.
Transfer such folders as Recent, Temp, and Temporary Internet Files to this partition. Don’t just drag them! Move them as follows:
Move this from inside of Internet Explorer (Tools | Internet Options), or from the Internet Options applet in the Control Panel. In either case, it is on the General tab, Temporary Internet Files box, Settings button, Move Folder button.
In Windows 95, 98, and ME, you need to relocate this in two places. The first is in your AUTOEXEC.BAT file. To move the Temp folder to the H: partition, for example, the lines would be:
You also must make a change in the Registry. Go to the following key:
Edit the Folder value (in the right pane) to be the location you desire for the Temp folder.
In Windows XP the procedure is different. Go to System Properties (Win+Pause, or Control Panel | System, or right-click My Computer and click Properties), click Advanced, click Environment Variables, and edit the locations you want for Temp and Tmp in the top “User Variables” box (for your individual profile) and in the bottom “System Variables” box (which controls system-wide settings). You must be logged in as an administrator to change system variables such as Temp and Tmp.
You move Recent with TweakUI, in the “Special Folders” box. (In the current version of TweakUI, this is on the My Computer tab. On older versions, it is on the General tab.) Change the value for “Recent Documents.”
Unfortunately, the unnecessary complexities introduced into the Windows XP file structure (adopting the “Documents & Settings” folder model of Windows 2000) does not allow for an easy shift of this folder, which has been renamed My Recent Documents. Instead of attempting to force the system to relocate it, you may simply want a shortcut to the folder so you can frequently clean it out. TweakUI for Windows XP does not provide a way to relocate a user’s copy of the My Recent Documents folder. (The fastest way there, by the way, is to type “recent” — without the quotation marks — in a Run box.)
IN WINDOWS 95, 98, and ME, leave the old (empty) versions of these folders in their old locations. This prevents some general problems with Windows thinking they are there. (Every now and then, some program has the default locations hard-coded. It costs you nothing to leave the old ones in place.) The methods recommended for relocating these folders in Windows XP don’t require that old copies be left behind, however.
I have devoted about 10 GB of one hard drive to holding downloads of the entire contents of some CDs that I can execute right off the hard drive, rather than off the much slower CD-ROM drive. Most importantly, I have downloaded the entire Windows CD to my hard drive (not just the .CAB files), and actually installed the OS from there instead of from the CD. That means that any time I want to make any change in my Windows installation, I do not have to put in the CD — it is all onboard and works very fast. Same with the complete Office 2000 CD contents (the first two CDs). Notice that this type of partition (like the swap file partition) does not need to be backed up in your routine backups, since nothing is modified on it. In the event of a crash and data loss, just recopy the CDs to the hard drive anytime you want.
Part of “keeping C: simple” is setting aside a specific partition just for your installed applications. Don’t move this one too far down the hard drive, though — you probably want these on a relatively fast part of the hard drive, and relatively close to C:. I’ve found the best balance to be having the program files partition separated from C: only by the data partition discussed immediately below.
Using TweakUI ver. 1.33, under “Special Folders,” you can reassign the location of Windows’ standard “Program Files” folder to be a partition of your choosing. For example, I have mine set to be F:\. This has another convenience: When you install a new application, the Windows installer will automatically select this location as the place to install your new program.
Speaking of backups — and, despite the fact that I strongly encourage regular backups of 100% of your computer system (entire OS, programs, data, etc.) — most computers today are horribly lacking in adequate backup media. You say you have a CD writer? Well, I don’t know how that’s going to help you backup the entire contents of the multi-gigabyte hard drive you also have. So, quite understandably, some people backup only their data — word processing and spreadsheet files, other data files, and program product/output of all sorts.
This is one of the great advantages of the My Documents folder on Win98 and later. It gives one common location for all such content. You can just backup the one folder (and all of its subfolders, and their subfolders — your entire document hierarchy). But, you might consider moving My Documents from its default location. I have one partition set aside for this. Using TweakUI, as you did for the “Recent” folder, move My Documents to its own partition. (I have mine defined as E:\.) On some versions of Windows, this is even easier: Right-click the My Documents desktop icon, select Properties, then edit the “Target Folder Location” box.
This has several advantages beyond those already mentioned. For one, it ensures greater protection against data loss in the event of a crash or bad shutdown, and especially for a wrongly deleted file. When you delete a file, it is usually possible to undelete it so long as the same part of the hard drive hasn’t been overwritten. The Windows partition, and especially the partion(s) of the swap file and temporary files, will have quite a lot of write activity, even during the course of a reboot. By isolating data files from these, you decrease the chance your wrongly deleted data will be overwritten.
Also, MS-MVP Alex Nichol has observed a relationship between the very slow folder opening problem in Windows Explorer that users often report, and the default My Documents hierarchy. He reports that by moving My Documents as indicated here, the problem is resolved in many cases.
If you are booting multiple operating systems, in most cases you will want separate partitions for each one. This isn’t the only way to do it, and there are many things to take into consideration; but this is one of the most popular ways to do it. And, by now, Microsoft specifically recommends each separate OS have its own partition: see MSKB 217210.
An exception to this is if you are booting Windows 98 and Windows NT/2000/XP. NT/2000/XP will install itself right on the C: partition with Win98, and provide a multiboot menu at startup. Just make sure, before you start, that the C: partition is in a file format all of your operating systems can read. Use the table below to determine what file format each OS can read:
There are other reasons you might want multiple partitions.
There are other advantages to multiple partitions which I have not mentioned (some of which were suggested by partitioning and multiboot wiz, MS-MVP Lee Chapelle). Besides the broad, important issues of keeping fragmentation down (and thus enhancing system performance overall) with swap file and temp file partitions, separate partitions also makes defragmentation of your hard drive contents go much faster. (Do you know how long it will take to defrag that new 80 GB drive you just bought if you leave it in one partition?!) Other system maintenance, such as ScanDisk / Norton Disk Doctor are accelerated, as well, if you have smaller individual partitions. You can isolate data on particular partitions, and even hide it easily, by clicking off the partition’s drive letter on the TweakUI My Computer tab. On networked systems, it gives you easier control of selective file sharing. And, quite simply, it makes the logical organization of your hard drive a great deal easier.
Also, having data divided into more partitions gives a further edge of protection when you need to recover lost files: In recovering a deleted file, the main thing to fear — yes, that’s right, fear! — is the file getting overwritten. Windows creates many temp files as it works, so if these are on the same partition as your programs and data, there is a high likelihood that the deleted file will be overwritten before you get around to recovering it. With multiple partitions, there is only a risk of overwrites by other files on the same partition.
Commonly, I am asked how I partition my hard drives. Over time, this changes, of course. This article was originally written when my two drives were a 3.5 GB and a 2 GB. This changed to a 6 GB and the 3.5, then a 15 GB and the 6, and then a 20 GB and the 15. Pretty much all of the advice given above is appropriate for drives across this entire range of sizes, and even larger. At that point, I had the following structure (numbers are rounded a bit):
|Drive 0 (15 GB):||C:||1.0 GB||Alternate primary (hidden), Windows 98|
|C:||2.5 GB||Alternate primary (hidden) Windows ME|
|C:||2.9 GB||Primary partition (active): Windows XP, & as little else as possible|
|E:||3.2 GB||Data: “My Documents” is defined as E:\. Also, IE Favorites folder & OE data store.|
|G:||675 MB||Downloaded programs: Original downloads preserved to assist in future reinstallations|
|Drive 1 (20 GB):||D:||500 MB||Swap File / Pagefile (primary partition)|
|H:||500 MB||Disposable Temp files|
|I:||5.0 GB||Downloads of various program CDs|
|J:||13.5 GB||Multiple backups of partitions C:, E:, F:, G: (usually 4 generations of backups, plus a few interim partials, fits in this space, when backed up with MS Backup)|
Currently, the 15 GB has been replaced with an 80 GB, with the 20 still kept as the secondary drive. This is way more room than I need at present, so my partition structures are very spacious, almost sloppily wasteful. Here is my present partition structure. (2007 Note: This is updated. My drive size has just kept growing over the years! :-) But the following examples are left as represenative of what one may wish to do.)
NOTE: A so-called “80 GB” drive, or one with about 80 billion bytes, is really 74.5 (binary) GB (1 GB = 2 to the 30th power). Similarly, a so-called “20 GB” drive is less than 19 (binary) GB. Binary-based computer terms such as KB, MB, and GB, are based on a number system where the “thousand” is really 1,024 (2 to the 10th power). But if you were a hard drive salesman and, by a trick of language, were able to take a 74.5 GB drive and call it an 80 GB drive... which do you think would appeal to your customer more, eh?
|Drive 0 (80 GB):||C:||5.25 GB||Primary partition (active): Windows XP, & as little else as possible|
|C:||7.25 GB||Alternate primary (hidden) for future OS|
|E:||5.0 GB||Data: “My Documents” is defined as E:\. Also, IE Favorites folder & OE data store.|
|G:||1.5 GB||Downloaded programs: Original downloads preserved to assist in future reinstallations|
|H:||500 MB||Disposable Temp files|
|I:||10.0 GB||Downloads of various program CDs|
|J:||35.0 GB||“Reserved for future expansion.” (That is, sitting empty.)|
|Drive 1 (20 GB):||D:||500 MB||Swap File / Pagefile (primary partition)|
|K:||18.5 GB||Multiple backups of partitions C:, E:, F:, G: (usually 4 generations of backups, plus a few interim partials, fits in this space, when backed up with MS Backup)|