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How to Partition a Hard Drive

When you buy a brand new hard drive, you can't just install and start using it right away. It must go through a couple of processes to be prepared - partitioning and formatting. Partitioning a drive allows you to decide to either divide it up into smaller drives (each with its own drive letter) or leave it as one big drive. A main reason to split a drive into pieces is if you choose to have a dual or multi-boot machine, in other words, install more than one operating system such as Windows and Linux. Each OS is on its own separate space and you will see a menu during the boot process. Most home users though, are satisfied leaving their drive as one big partition. You may also notice a partitioned drive when you buy a computer. Many manufacturers will install a recovery program on a small portion of the drive and the operating system on the rest.

There are two types of partitions:
  • Primary - A bootable partiton, but you don't have to install an operating system. You can simply use it to store data. Only 4 primary partitions can exist on a drive. One of them must be set to active because you've got to have a default booting option.
  • Extended (optional) - An extended partition was developed to get around the 4 primary limit. Within an extended partition you may make as many drives (called logical drives) as you wish, well that is until you run out of disk space or drive letters. Unlike the primary, an operating system can't be started from a logical drive, and you can have just 1 extended partition. Keep in mind that the extended partition is not formatted (discussed below), but the logical drives you make within them.
**Note: Some people consider logical drives as a third type of partition.

As mentioned earlier, a drive must be formatted. Formatting a hard drive determines how data is stored and retrieved by using what is known as a file system. Once a partition is formatted it's referred to as a volume. Long ago in the days of DOS and earlier Windows versions the file system was FAT. FAT is an acronym for File Allocation Table. There were different versions, the last being FAT 32. This system had limitations - a partition could be no larger than 2 terabytes, you couldn't store a file larger than 4 GB, and security options were lacking. Starting with Windows NT, a new system called NTFS (New Technology File System) was born, and every operating system based on NT (2000 - Windows 7) can utilize NTFS. NTFS supports much larger volume and file sizes, offers encryption, and provides improved security features. NTFS formatted drives can read drives using FAT but not vice versa.

Partitioning a Drive in Windows:
Windows makes partitioning and formatting a drive quite easy.

1. Click Start, Right Click on Computer, and Choose Manage. This opens the Computer Management Window.

Partitioning a drive

Partitioning a drive

2. Double Click Storage, then double click Disk Management. You'll see a window showing all of your drives and their properties.

Partitioning a drive

The top part of the window shows drives that have already been formatted (remember they are called volumes), including my removable flash drive. The bottom half shows volumes and new drives. Notice to the right of Disk 0 there are three listings. This tells you one drive is separated into three pieces. Also notice the CD/DVD Drive is also shown. In this example I don't have a brand new drive installed, but if so, it would be listed at the bottom as Disk 2 or some other number depending on how many drives are already installed. To the right you would see the word unallocated meaning it has not been partitioned.

If you have a brand new drive you would right click on it and choose New Partition. A partition wizard window will open and easily guide you through the process of choosing the type of partition (primary or extended), how large you want it, the type of file system, whether or not you want to assign a drive letter, whether or not you want to format it at that time, and other options. Click finish when done. Then repeat the process again if you decide to make another partition. To format later, right click on a partition or logical drive and select format.

At some point you may need to reformat or repartition a drive. Doing so will erase all your data. Make sure you back up everything you want to keep.

Related Tutorials:
Introduction to Hard Drives
Installing Hard Drives