Hard Disk Partitioning Strategies

First of all, a word of caution. This article suggests certain strategies for boosting overall system performance and manageability of a Windows PC by creating Partitions (Drives) with customized sizes. Also, the strategy explained here is for a Home User, having a Single Hard Disk only.

Please don't employ these strategies without understanding the consequences of a system-wide change. I will not be responsible for any data loss or hard disk failure that may result from the careless application of these strategies. If you don't know what exactly you are doing, DON'T! That said, I assure you that if you get it right (which is not that diffcult - unless you have absolutely No Idea what you're doing), the performance and manageability of the hard disk space will increase without doubt.

Now, let's start!

When you buy a new hard disk, its will not contain any ' Drives ' such as C:, D: etc. Instead, it will have a single stretch of 'Unallocated Space', which you (or your computer shop's personnel ) will have to 'Partition' and 'Format' before you can use the hard disk to store data. Most of the time, the people at the computer shop will simply divide the available space into four equally spaced drives, containing one Primary Partition and one Secondary Partition. The secondary partition ( aka Extended Partition ) will in turn contain three Logical Drives.

This strategy in my opinion, is the quick way out (eventhough creating a single Primary Partition spanning the entire drive is even easier!) but at the same time, quite inefficient.

Shown below is the partitioning that most of us were given, when we bought our computers from the retailer.

  Primary Partition
  Secondary Partition
  Logical Drive
  Drive with Page File (Virtual Memory)
  First OS ( System Files ); Boot Partition.
  Drive with Programs Installed in First OS
  Second OS (Optional) - both System Files & Programs
  Drive for Data Files

Generic Partitioning (Suits-All)
Generic Partitioning (Suits-All)

The first OS (Win98) would be in the C: drive, along with all its programs. ( All installations done to C:\Program Files\ folder), the second one (WinXP) - if present - and its programs would go to D:, E: would contain music, and F: would have movies. All drives had the same size, a quarter of the total. So, for a 40GB drive ,it would be 10+10+10+10.

OK, its a start. But there are some performance & convenience problems here.


In all the strategies explained here, you will note that the paging file is kept on the very first partition. This is a proven norm, which places the paging file in the fastest portion of the hard disk. The first partition occupies the innermost part of the platters of the disk, and is hence the fastest.

What needs to be done is to design a strategy which will categorize the placement of different types of files, namely Page File, System Files, Program Files and Data Files, which will reduce the access time and degree of fragmentation of the files. The suggested strategy for a Single OS is shown below.

Note: The diagrams shown below are drawn to scale for a 40GB disk.

Partitoning Strategy for Single OS
Partitoning Strategy for Single OS

The first drive ( C: ) - Primary Partition - containing the pagefile ONLY has a about 3 times the size of your RAM (upto 2GB max.). The recommended size of PageFile is 2.5 times the RAM (upto 1.6GB), and we allow some extra breathing space.

The OS (XP is the highly recommended OS for Windows users) will reside in D: drive - the Active Primary Partition - (6GB), which can hold all the system files, and all those files which get automatically copied to the system32 folder during program installations. Plus, there will be more space left for Defragmenters ( Recommended Defragmenter : Diskeeper 9 ) to work on.

All programs are installed to the E: drive - First Logical Drive - (10GB), without any folders - fo example, we install Winamp to E:\Winamp, instead of inside the 'Program Files' folder. This will separate them from the system files, and thus increase access speed for the programs.

All the rest of the space can be used as you wish! However, it is recommended that you use NTFS File System, and then enable its compression technique in this space. I had a 10GB MP3 collection, which became around 7GB when compression was enabled! NTFS & compression are recommended only if there are tens of thousands of rarely used files with small sizes ( such as mp3 - you won't be listening to all your songs at all times, will you? ). For a few huge files (such as movie files), compression is not effective, and on top of that, it will slow down the access to those files.

For accomodating two OSes, a slight change can be incorporated into this scheme. We simply add one more 10GB drive as Primary partition for the less often used OS - in this case, E:.

Partitioning Strategy for Two OSes
Partitioning Strategy for Two OSes

The programs for the first OS will be installed to the F: drive (10GB), but we cannot give this luxury for the second OS. That is because too many partitions can mess things up - even degrade performance of the strategy. So the second OS, as well as its programs, are installed into the same drive.

Second OS means that its less frequently used, and has less programs installed. So, its performance has relatively less importance. If you want, you can also switch between E: & F: to give more speed to your first OS's Program Fies. But then, the Second OS will be quite slow. Also, in many cases an OS can be installed into primary partitions only, so you may not be able to do this.

As for me, I don't like putting my OS on any other drive than C: drive, and so I've modified the Two-OS strategy above to suit my own needs, as follows.

Partitioning in my Hard Disk
Partitioning in my Hard Disk

Here, I've shifted the drive letters to the right, and mapped the Drive Letter P: (which means 'Pagefile') to the first drive. Also, my programs are in D:, and F: is for 'Fun!' - all the multimedia content (songs+movies+videos) and setup files (Backup) - all in correspondingly named folders, as well as my 'My Documents' folder. Did I forget E:, you wonder? Nope! Its for my 'Temp' purposes - such as for Burning CDs & DVDs, and Virtual PC s.

Note: To keep your 'My Documents' folder safe across installations, you can choose a different location for it in your Backup Drive. Just right-click 'My Documents' icon, choose 'Properties' and click 'Move' button. When doing this for the first time, opt to move the files to the new location. From now on, after fresh installations of the OS, choose not to move - otherwise, there will be duplicate folders like 'Copy of My Pictures', 'Copy of My Music' etc.

Partitioning with Windows XP Professional

When installing XP for the first time on a fresh hard disk, the next step after booting from the CD is to choose the drive to install. At this point, we can make the pagefile partition( with NO BOOT FILES ) & other partitions as shown above through the following steps

Note: I'm writing the following from my memory, and it may be slightly different from actual steps. If you do find anything different, don't forget to mail me! (Click Button at bottom) Thanks for the help in advance.
  1. If the hard disk is not new, delete the partitions by selecting the required one by arrow keys and then pressing 'D' and in the next screen, 'L'. Caution: This will delete all data on the drives!! Backup the files you need prior to this procedure. It is only necessary to delete those partitions which occupy the first 8GB - we can configure the rest after the installation.
  2. Select   the 'UnAllocted Space' entry and press 'C' - this will take you to a screen asking for the partition size, in MB. Choose 2050 mb if you have 1GB RAM( for 1600mb pagefile later ), 1545 mb if you have 512mb RAM ( for 1200mb pagefile later ), or 800 mb if you have 256mb RAM ( for 800mb PageFile later ) If you have less than 256mb RAM, an upgrade is recommended!

Now, I don't know about you, but I HATE to see drive sizes like '9.99GB' or '10.01GB' in ' My Computer ' - since we have to give the size in MB, and then will later see drive sizes in GB, its a little tricky to get it right. The values we will be dealing with are given below:

1 GB
: 1027 MB
: 6150 MB
: 10245 MB

The values above maynot be accurate, so don't try to burn my house if it doesn't work out to be exact !
  1. Repeat the operation for creating a 6GB drive. This time when you press 'C', you'll see a screen to choose 'Pimary' or 'Extended' partition. Choose 'Primary Partition'. If you don't see this screen, don't worry; proceed to next screen and enter the drive size. (refer table above)
  2. Now, DELETE the first drive we created. Why? See next step.
  3. Select the second partition using the arrow keys. It should now show 'C:' as the drive letter, since we have deleted the drive which was showing C: as its drive letter ! Also, the current partition will be marked as 'Active'. Press 'Enter' to proceed with installation.
* * * (means 'After looong time'!)  

Mapping Drives & Setting Pagefile Preferences

After installation, login to your newly installed copy of XP, and right-click the 'My Computer' icon and choose 'Manage'. The 'Computer Management' console will appear. Go to 'Disk Management'. You'll see diagrams similar in structure to those shown in ' Strategies ' section. Its all straight-forward, just right-click on the first unallocated space ( in Grey color ) and choose 'Create Partition', and choose whatever drive letter you want. As you saw above, I had chosen ' P: ' During creation, you'll be asked for the file system to set up during formatting, you should choose FAT32 as the format. Also choose a 'Drive Label' if you want.

You can also create an extended partition after the C: drive, spanning the entire space left unallocated ( It will be filled-in as the default option, just click 'Next'.) and then create Logical Drives D:, E: and F: (Size is again in MB, refer table above.) It is recommended to use 'NTFS' with compression enabled for F:, and FAT32 for the other two.

Now, lets configure the Pagefile. Right-Click 'My Computer' and choose 'Properties' . Go to 'Advanced' Tab -> Performance -> 'Settings' button -> 'Advanced' Tab -> 'Change' button. Now, choose the P: drive, and enter the value we mentioned earlier (according to your RAM size) into both the textboxes, then click 'Set' button. Then, select the C: drive, and enter '50MB' into both columns (Microsoft Recommends atleast a small pagefile in the OS drive!) and click 'Set'. Now, keep clicking OK buttons until the system reboots!

Do remember, that you must install ONLY to drive D: (if you don't plan to install another OS) or to E: ( If you install a second OS to D: ). That means, every time you install any software, substitute C:\Program Files\ with D:\ in the installation path. In case this is your only OS, you can use the 'E:' drive for installing Huge programs such as Visual Studio or Huge Games (like UT 2004 - 5.5GB Installation!! ) .


This is the first thing you need to do when buying a brand new hard disk. If your computer shop personnel have not partitioned it already, a brand new hard disk will have so called UnPartitioned or UnAllocated space, which cannot be accessed by programs or the Operating System itself. Partitioning is done to divide this unallocated space into different sections, so that they become visible to the Operating System as Drives, but it will still be unusable - until you Format it.
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Primary Partition
A Primary Partition is a section of a hard disk which can contain a Boot Sector, which means that the system will check this section when it is booting (when you turn on the computer) to find the Operating System(s) which are installed in the PC. So it goes without saying that any system will have at least one Primary Partition. A Primary Partition is a Drive by itself, which means we need not create anything separately inside such a partition. It will contain only one Drive (Usually C: ), as opposed to Secondary Partition, which can contain multiple drives.

If there are multiple Primary Partitions, one of them can be marked as 'active' , which will be checked for a boot-sector when the system is booting. You can easily change the so-called Active Partition if you are using WindowsXP, or using softwares such as Partition Magic™.

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Secondary partition
A Secondary Partition is just a frame-like structure, which needs to be populated with (or, divided into) drives (aka Logical Drives) before that space can be used. Secondary Partition (aka Extended Partition) is capable of containing multiple Logical Drives, but there can only be one such partition. Unlike Primary Partitions, such Drives are NOT bootable, but can contain Operating System(s) which boot via boot sectors residing in a Primary Partition.
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Logical Drive
A Logical Drive (referred-to synonymously as Drive in this article) is the storage space we are much more familiar to. It is the Partitioned Hard Disk Space, and show up in 'My Computer' as C:, D:, E: etc, along with CD-ROMs, Floppy Drives ( A:, and also B: in rare cases where there are two Floppy Drives ), as removable drives. ( Z:, Y:, X: etc.). All Data present in a hard disk are present inside drives. We can Install Operating Systems or Programs into different drives, provided they are formatted.

There can be a maximum of four partitions on a single hard disk, out of which only one can be secondary. So, if there IS a secondary partition in a disk (which would always be located at the rightmost end in the diagram - nearest to the rim of the platters of the disk), there can be only three primaries. Otherwise, there can be four primaries.

Either way, there can be a total of 26 drives in ' My Computer ', because of the limitation of the number of alphabets. Out of this, A: and B: are reserved for Floppy drives, and you'll have to use one or two for CD / DVD drives. That leaves 22, and any network drives you have will take some more. If you have multiple hard disks, its possible for you to run out of drive letters. But Relax - NTFS to the rescue! In NTFS, you can mount a drive to a folder in another NTFS Volume (oh! don't worry, its means drive too.) - no need to assign a drive letter to the mounted drive. Whatever you put into this folder will go to the mounted drive! It won't show up in ' My Computer ', but so what? You can still use it as a folder, evenif the mounted drive is in another hard disk!! This way, we can have virtually unlimited number of drives, as we can have any number of different names for folders!

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Before the Operating System can use a Drive, we need to arrange the space into one of the 'File Systems' accessible to Windows, such as FAT, FAT32 or NTFS. Some versions of Linux ( proper name - GNU/Linux ) also are able to access drives formatted in these formats, but Windows cannot access Linux File Systems such as ext3 and swap without the use of third-party software.

  1. Formatting a Drive will erase all its contents. This is a sure-shot method to get rid of Viruses if 'Quick Format' option is NOT selected.
  2. NTFS File System is supported only by Windows 2000 and above.
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