Disk partitioning is one of those topics that generates conflicting opinions.
Some swear that proper partitioning aids performance, makes backing up easier, and is just generally “better”.
Others opt to let Windows sort it all out, believing that improper partitioning might prevent the file system — already optimized for both safety and performance — from operating in the best way.
While I’m certain the truth is somewhere in between, I tend to fall into the latter camp.
I’ll look at some of the pros and cons to partitioning your hard drive, and make a recommendation if, after all is said and done, you’re still not sure.
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A partition is nothing more than a way to organize the physical space on a hard drive. We typically think of a hard drive as a single disk, but partitioning allows you to split a hard drive so it appears to be multiple different drives. It’s still the same single disk in hardware, but the space on it is divided up to appear as two or more drives in Windows.
There are two classic approaches to partitioning a single drive on a Windows PC:
- Single partition. Typically, your computer has a “C:” drive, and all of your programs, data, and operating system files are contained within it.
- Two (or more) partitions. “C:” remains, and typically contains at least the operating system and programs, but additional drives – perhaps “D:”, “E:”, or others, also exist and are used for data storage.
In addition, most contemporary computers or Windows 10 installations come with additional hidden partitions. We’re not talking about those here; they serve different purposes. This discussion is only about the partitions you see in Windows File Explorer when Windows is running.
Why might you partition?
There are several reasons to consider partitioning a hard drive.
- Organization. Some feel splitting data or components across multiple “drives” is a better way to organize their data than creating more folders on a single drive.
- Backup. It’s easier to back up partitions separately. Say your operating system is on drive C: and your data is on drive D:. If you ever need to reinstall or revert to a backup, it’s possible, depending on the situation you’re recovering from, that only drive C: would be affected, leaving your data on D: untouched.
- Security. Whole-drive encryption is often really “whole partition” encryption. With multiple partitions, you can pick and choose which to encrypt — typically, a single partition containing your sensitive data.
- Speed. Depending on how you use your data, it’s possible that moving less frequently used data to a separate partition can improve speed, particularly if you’re using a magnetic hard disk (HDD) as compared to an SSD.
- Multi-booting. If you want to install multiple operating systems on your computer and choose which to boot into, each must reside in a separate partition. It’s also common to create an additional data partition they all use.
Why might you not partition?
Again, there are several possible reasons.
- Drive letters. Each partition is assigned a separate drive letter. While there are ways around this, letters can become a scarce resource for machines with many local network connections, additional drives, or software also requiring drive letter allocation.
- Backup oversight. If you have multiple partitions, it’s more work to make sure they’re all being backed up properly, and it’s easy to miss it.
- Speed. Depending on how you use your data, if you use an HDD, it’s possible that by having data on separate partitions, your hard disk will have to work harder to access data spread further apart on the media, slowing things down.
- False security. Even though separate partitions look like separate drives in Windows, they are not. What that means is if the physical hard drive holding those partitions fails, all the partitions go with it. While you might be applying different backup criteria to different partitions, the fact is that underneath it all, they share common risks.
Once again, the “should I or shouldn’t I?” question gets my most common answer: “it depends”. It depends on you, your data, how you use your computer, and the hardware configuration of your computer.
Unless you have a specific reason to partition, don’t bother. Instead:
- Use the NTFS file system — the default these days — which does a pretty good job of optimizing for speed, space, and reliability, and won’t restrict the size of your partition.
- Back up regularly. Having separate partitions doesn’t remove the need to back up; it only makes it slightly more complex.
- Use folders to organize your data. This is what folders are for, and they’re significantly more flexible than separate partitions.
I used to recommend defragmenting periodically. Windows 7 and later versions automatically defrag hard disks weekly, and SSDs don’t need it at all.
If you have a specific reason to partition, then by all means, go for it. Don’t forget it’s still a single hard drive you’re using, and all your partitions need to be properly maintained and backed up.
It’ll be worth your time to read the comments on this article, as I expect lots of additional ideas to come in. As I said when I started, there are many different opinions on partitioning. You may feel differently than I do.