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WinLab Reviews
Partitioning Eases the Big-Drive Blues

-- by Amy Helen Johnson

When it comes to hard drives, bigger is not necessarily better. Unless you've intelligently divided the multigigabyte disk that comes as standard equipment on new computers, chances are you're wasting space.

A single partition-when File Manager and Windows Explorer show only one local hard drive, usually named C:-on a very large drive stores fewer files than the same disk with multiple partitions. A hard drive stores data in clusters, the smallest possible unit, and every file stored on that drive takes at least one cluster. But the size of the cluster is determined by the size of its partition. The remainder of a partially filled cluster is unusable.

For example, the smallest cluster size possible is 2KB. A shortcut in Windows 95 is 1KB, which fits into a single cluster with 1KB left over; that extra kilobyte is simply wasted space. If the disk partition uses 32KB clusters, storing a shortcut in one of them wastes 31KB of the drive. (Files larger than the cluster size use multiple clusters.)

The trick is to divide the hard drive into as many partitions as possible to avoid wasting space, without making so many partitions that the drives become unmanageable. The right partition size depends on how you use your computer.

If you work with many small files, you'll want a smaller partition. If you frequently build large graphics or database files, make the partitions larger. A 134MB partition, for example, uses 2KB clusters. Cluster size goes up every time the partition size reaches a multiple of 134MB:

Partition Size: 1MB to 134MB Cluster Size: 2KB

Partition Size: 135MB to 268MB Cluster Size: 4KB

Partition Size: 269MB to 536MB Cluster Size: 8KB

Partition Size: 537MB to 1073MB Cluster Size: 16KB

Partition Size: 1.074GB to 2.1GB Cluster Size: 32KB

You can create as many partitions on your disk as you have room for; they'll appear as individual drives with separate drive letters (C:, D:, E: and so on). Be careful, however, because files and folders can't cross partition boundaries. It's tempting to keep your partitions small, but once they start filling with data, you may wind up without enough contiguous storage space to install new applications or save big data files.

As a rule of thumb, 500MB partitions are a good compromise for people who use general office applications. You might also consider creating different-sized partitions for different uses. Divide your hard drive into separate partitions for your Windows swap file, your system files, your applications and your data. The advantage of this is that you only have to back up the partitions that contain files that change. Generally speaking, that means you'll only have to back up the partition containing data files.

If your drive is larger than 2.1GB, partitioning isn't an option, it's a necessity. The most common Windows file system, known as FAT16, won't recognize more than 2.1GB in a single partition.

In April 1996, Microsoft released FAT32, a new Windows 95 file system that raises the 2.1GB limit into the terabyte range. Right now, only system vendors can install FAT32-there's no retail upgrade available to consumers-so only the newest PCs use FAT32. If you've recently purchased a PC, you can check to see if it uses FAT32 by opening Windows Explorer, clicking on the C: drive, then right-clicking to bring up a context menu. Select Properties and look under the General tab for Type. If the type is "Local Disk (FAT32)," then you're using this new file system.

Eventually more and more people will migrate to FAT32 because Windows 97, code-named Memphis, will include FAT32 as a file-system option to the existing FAT16 format. Windows 97, scheduled for release sometime in the second half of 1997, will not only be standard equipment on new PCs sold during the latter part of the year, but Microsoft will put a shrink-wrapped software upgrade on the shelves of computer stores, allowing current computer owners to switch to Windows 97-and FAT32.

If you want to use FAT32 now, and your system vendor didn't install it on the machine, then you'll have to wait to upgrade to Memphis.

Microsoft has said that it has no plans to release the new file system as an upgrade for Windows 95 or Windows 3.x. In addition, FAT32 won't work with current versions of Windows NT. Not until Microsoft releases version 5.0-again, sometime later this year-will the NT operating system recognize FAT32.

And the transition from FAT16 to FAT32 may have some bumps. Microsoft has warned that some DOS block device drivers may be incompatible with FAT32, and older Windows 95 disk utilities may not work. If you have disk software that was released before the April 1996 debut of FAT32, you'll probably have trouble.

If these potential hiccups bother you, and you want to stick with FAT16 (and partition any disk drives larger than 2.1GB), you can. In fact, FAT32 and FAT16 can coexist on the same machine, so you could create a dual-boot system or use the different file systems on different drives. And if you're a Windows NT user, you still have the option of picking NTFS for your hard disks.

Windows Magazine, April 1997, page 118.

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