Windows Hard Drive Partitions vs Folders – A Couple Options


Windows Hard Driive Tweaks

Hard Drive Partitions vs Folders

Note: These are only my opinions. Take them for what they may be worth. ~ Richard

There are a couple main viewpoints regarding hard drive partitioning versus folder management. Neither one is right or wrong. It is simply a difference in the way people tend to look at things.

One school of thought, mine included, says that it is a good idea to separate the operating system from the programs and the programs from the data they generate. This is accomplished by partitioning the hard drive so as to keep these things separated. This can also be accomplished with a folder system.

The other group will say the same thing can be accomplished with folders, thereby keeping everything on one partition. Personally, I don’t see the advantage to this approach. It may be simpler in some respects, but the advantages of partitioning your HDD are lost, as I see it.


The bottom line is that these are two approaches to the same solution: separation of data, programs, and the operating system

Here we go-

Let’s say that you want to install Windows 7 on your multi-terabyte Hard Disk Drive (HDD). You could install it and the Operating System (OS) wouldn’t have a problem with that.

I, on the other hand, have a problem with that. The trouble is that Windows will ultimately install everything else to that hard drive and therein lies the rub. All the programs and data and games will all get put on that same partition. It’s a mess, especially when it comes to backing up your files and photos and music and movies and databases and spreadsheets and so forth, ad infinitum. Another problem becomes apparent when you don’t have a good file-naming convention. If you are not consistent in your methods, it will soon become difficult if not impossible to find anything at all.


Wouldn’t it be nice to know that all your favorite family pictures can be found by going to the family pictures partition, or maybe, all your videos are on a video partition, or maybe, all your work documents are on the same work-oriented partition? To me, that is a well thought-out system.

In all fairness to those who prefer a single drive divided by way of folders approach, I must agree that is is an option. I happen to prefer HDD partitions. That’s just me. I’m not sure there is a definitive  advantage by using folders over partitions. Perhaps it’s simply a personal choice.

Note: I don’t believe for a minute that partitioning a hard drive will in any way speed things up. It is merely a method to help you organize your data, make your backups easier to deal with, and nothing more.

Backups and Partitions

The one great beauty of partitioning a hard drive is the control you gain over its size. If all your partitions are equal in size to your backup medium, then you never have to worry about it. It simply fits.


I make all my partitions a multiple of the backup size. For instance, a 4GB DVD is going to equal my partition size. Perhaps, my partition will be equal to two DVDs., but never more than that.
This means that I never have to worry about data that exceeds the size of my backup media. And, yes, I still use DVDs to back up my computer.

Note: In recent times people have said that the CD/DVD media is obsolete. I beg to disagree. Their argument is that cloud storage is the next in-vogue thing. However, cloud storage is no more reliable than a simple hard drive. It can fail just as quickly and drastically as any other form of storage. Simply because they are a huge corporation does not mean their systems are immune to the occasional failures to which we are all susceptible. They all, in fact, deny any responsibility or liability for loss of data. Let that sink in for a moment. Make backups at a local level.

Let’s get organized

The first thing I like to do is keep the Operating System on its own partition. I also want the programs, and the data  they generate, on their respective partitions. So, let’s make a plan.

Windows is, by default, going to be installed on Drive C:. You probably have a CD/DVD drive that will be labeled Drive D:. Let’s presume you have a 160GB HDD. We certainly don’t want to give all of that to Windows 7.


Perhaps a better way would be to divide that drive into segments, that is, Partitions. Let’s give Windows 7, say, 40GB. That leaves 120GB for your Programs, Games, Music, Photos, Data, and whatever else you may have in mind. What this simple idea accomplishes it this: it separates the Operating System from the rest of the world.

Ultimately, this is a very good idea. When it comes time to back up your photos, let’s say, you will no longer have to include Windows in that back up. And when that disastrous hard drive failure occurs, you will no longer have to worry about your photos; they will be intact because of your diligent backup regimen (forgive me- I harp on that subject). And because they were on a separate partition, restoring them will be much faster because of the much smaller partition size. And their backups will be faster for the same reason. And you’ll always know where to look for your photos; right there on the Photos partition. They won’t be mixed up with the rest of your stuff, like Excel spreadsheets, Access Databases, Quicken data files, etc. Very neat, organized and clean.

Some might argue that 40GB for Windows 7 is puny. I maintain that it is more than adequate if Windows is the only thing on that drive. Actually, Windows 7 uses less than 20GB of drive space on its own. I chose the arbitrary 40GB value to afford some wiggle-room. If you start adding programs to that drive, then it will no longer hold true. You’ll run out of HDD space in short order.

I’ve been running Windows 7 on a 40GB SSD hard drive for many months now. It’s using ~23GB of that drive and it’s only that large because I’ve made errors when installing some programs. That is, not taking control of where the programs get installed. Also, because some programs don’t offer me the option (Google Chrome is a good example).


If you’re going to go this route, you have to be in charge. Don’t let the programs tell you what to do; tell the programs what you want them to do. Choose ‘Custom Install’ wherever possible. When they prompt you for an installation directory, point them to the Partition/Drive that you have chosen for Programs. If you let the programs choose they will invariably be installed on your System Drive and this is not what you want! Remember: Keep the Operating System (OS) and Programs separated. Your life will be much simpler in the long run.

Data

Data is what Programs generate. XCel spreadsheets, Access databases, photos from your camera software, financial files from your Quicken software, and the list goes on and on. Programs love to generate data- that’s what they do.

Don’t combine Data with Programs or the Operating System. Keep it separate. In fact, if you don’t tell your Programs to send their data to a particular place, they will happily send it to the C drive. Yep! Right there where I told you not to send stuff.

Not only do you have to take responsibility for where your programs get installed, you will have to do the same for where your programs send their data. I know this seems like a real pain in the neck, but ultimately it will save you a lot of problems in the future, and it’s all part of what operating a complex machine, namely a computer,  is all about.

And, too, remember the almighty backup,

Richard

About the Author

Richard Pedersen

Richard received his first computer, a C-64, in 1982 as a gift and began dabbling in BASIC. He was hooked! His love for computing has led him from the old “XT” boxes to the more modern fare and from clunky 10MB hard drives to smooth and fast modern day SSD drives. He has run BBS services, Fido mail, and even operated his own computer repair business.

16 Comments

  1. Hi Richard,
    Since many years I use ‘your’ partition approach. Very easy when there grows a minor or major problem in the OS. I always make a backup of the OS partition somewhere on the computer itself, maybe on the same drive as where the OS is or on a secondary drive. That way it is very easy and fast to place a recent backup on the first partition in case of a virus infection or some unexplainable misbehavior of the OS. Of course, when the primary HDD dies the backup is gone too but in case of a new drive you should do a new installation of the OS anyway.
    Greetings

    • Hi Henk,
      Thank you for your comment. I always like it when someone agrees with me 🙂
      It makes me feel as though I flow somehow.

      I am forced to mention, however, that keeping a backup on the original disk is not a backup.
      Richard

  2. I agree, I alway keep my data partitions (on D: and E:) separate from the OS (on C:), using the built-in My Documents, etc., redirection to access the data. I use EaseUS ToDo Backup to make a system backup on an external HDD – it’s amazingly quick, on the order of half an hour – then It’s easy to restore the system without affecting anything else. In fact it’s far quicker to restore a system backup made from a freshly-installed system than it is to reinstall the OS and programs. ETB is so effective in fact that I have even upgraded and paid for it! I felt guilty about not paying for such high-quality software.

    But I don’t see much point in separating out the programs onto another partition. You can’t restore them independently of the OS because they are so intimately bound in with the registry and the ProgramData and AppData stores.

    • Hello there J M Ward,

      I see your point about the separation of programs on a separate disk/partition, It is true that you will have to re-install them in the event of a Windows disaster. However, you will not have to back them up at every turn. I guess the backup issue is what is involved here.

      By keeping the programs vs OS backups separate, it will make your backup life easier.
      Richard

  3. Hi Richard Pedersen,
    I highly agree with your initial premise that “…One school of thought, mine included, says that it is a good idea to separate the operating system from the programs and the programs from the data they generate… ”
    But I hope that you will allow me to add a third option that you have omitted in your next statement of “…This is accomplished by partitioning the hard drive so as to keep these things separated. This can also be accomplished with a folder system…”
    Partitioning and folderizing on a single HardDrive does absolutely NOTHING to avert a “Single Point Failure” catastrophe (including but not limited to mechanical end-of-life and/or corruptions) of the hardware and possibly when such single HardDrive becomes infected by malware.
    Thus, the third option to explore would be to have multiple drives to avert such disasters.
    Although I have religiously used imaging software for at least a decade, I am now to the point of using additional and separate HDD for UserData that are generated by installed programs/utilities.
    Unlike you, I don’t put the OS in a different HDD than the installed programs; even though most of my installed programs/utilities are separated from the default WinOS “Program Files” folder.
    Yet, all my programs’ data are routed to a third HDD.
    The second UserData HDD is in addition to third drive that is reserved for BackUps (and archives) of UserData, along with the AcronisTrueImage files of the WinOS HDD.
    In this fashion, I keep the actual size of the physical DiskDrives for WinOS (now transferred to a SolidStateDrive) and for UserData (10Krpm VelociRaptor) relatively small of about 300GB. The third BackUp HDD is a 1TB drive.
    I probably should not mention that a 4th drive in my system stores all my vital UserGenerated data (*.docs, *.xls, etc.) and all photo, music, and video/movie files.

    • Dear RandO,
      I am overwhelmed by your use of parentheses. It confounds my senses. Nevertheless, I will try to address your points.

      1. I never said that a single drive is the solution
      2. I don’t understand the confusing bit about how you keep the programs on the system drive and also keep the programs separated from the system drive; forgive me if I’m being slow here
      3. It would seem, if I am properly understanding your dissertation, that all your backups are on hard drives. This, to me, is a ludicrous approach. You virtually have no backup at all. I don’t care how many hard drives you have, they can all break. Granted, the more hard drives you have in the mix, the lower the chances of failure. That does not negate the chance of failure, however. I prefer a plain old-fashioned CD/DVD backup any day.
      4. Quote: “I probably should not mention that a 4th drive in my system stores all my vital UserGenerated data (*.docs, *.xls, etc.) and all photo, music, and video/movie files.” Then why did you mention it? I am totally confused.

      RandIO, I don’t understand a whole bunch of what you’re trying to say,
      Richard

  4. The best thing about partioning a hard drive is that if it crashes, you can at least retrieve the data that has been stored on the other partitions.

    How many times have I heard when people say their pc/laptop has crashed and they have lost all of their data.

    • Hi BobF,
      I am forced to make a correction in thinking here. A partition does not necessarily save you from a hard drive crash. You have to keep in mind that all the partitions may be on a single drive. In that case, the partitions go the way of the hard drive. There is no savior here.

      Keep in mind that hard drives and partitions may be very different animals,
      Richard

  5. Very interesting topic indeed initiated by Richard. I myself use partition C for OS and programs and partition D for program data. On partition D I have Dropbox sync. It already happened to me 1) that I had to reformat partition C and reinstall windows. Data on dta remained safe and 2) my HDD crashed. Thanks to Dropbox (any other cloud would have been ok though) I recovered all my data (about 70GB) downloaded in a fair time to my new HDD. If you are sensitive about leaving data in a cloud then the multiple HDD is a great solution as well.

  6. Hi Richard, This is very close to my heart right now. I bought this current win7 laptop with 2 HDDs divided into 5 partitions (1 for OS) & each of the others 369GB I think. I was naïve to expect the OS would farm out the data to each of the other partitions! So now all 99GB is jammed on the one HDD in 2 partitions (OS & everything else). I am big on folderizing so everything is neat & easily found. The system puts internal backups into 1 partition of the alternative HDD which is a good idea. But I am running out of virtual memory or paging when using my Photoshop movie editing.

    So now I want to spread my data to the empty partition on the alternative HDD. I sense that won’t be as easy as simply moving the folders then redirecting all future data. Windows likes to have control & it doesn’t like being over ridden! Plus how will a tree establish itself if I just grab folders & move them to the other HDD? There must be some formal process so the connections are kept intack.

    Am I right in thinking the OS & installed software should stay on the same HDD? I note you said you put yours in differing partitions but are they till on the same HDD?

    Whenever I save something do I have to override the default address created by windows & nominate the drive everytime or will the OS learn due to the folder being on the alternative HDD? Saving upwards of 100 things daily would soon p*** me right off! (8O

    Regarding images & backups. Win7 does a backup which I can use for general retrieval & rollbacks etc. That is stored in a particular pre-nominated partition on the alternative internal HDD (or I can nominate to store it externally) plus I can use the OS image program. I also make another image using Gentoo which is stored on an external HDD. I know these are still both HDDs which are mechanical so may fail but if a CD holds 4GB & the backup is 99GB that’s a hellava lot of backup discs!

    I’m glad you cleared up the thing about if the HDD goes down the other data on it’s other partitions can be rescued. I got a bit confused when I read that, because my best knowledge was that if the drive goes kaput so does everything on it whether partitioned or not.

    Great timely article which more people should think about I’m sure.
    Thanks Richard

    • Hi Clissa,
      “So now I want to spread my data to the empty partition on the alternative HDD. I sense that won’t be as easy as simply moving the folders then redirecting all future data. Windows likes to have control & it doesn’t like being over ridden! Plus how will a tree establish itself if I just grab folders & move them to the other HDD? There must be some formal process so the connections are kept intack.”

      When you run a program, it makes some default decisions about where it’s going to store its output. If you move its output folder you will have to notify the program from within its options menu That you want to change the destination folder.

      “Am I right in thinking the OS & installed software should stay on the same HDD? I note you said you put yours in differing partitions but are they till on the same HDD?
      Whenever I save something do I have to override the default address created by windows & nominate the drive everytime or will the OS learn due to the folder being on the alternative HDD? Saving upwards of 100 things daily would soon p*** me right off! (8O”

      I keep my programs in a separate partition from the operating system. It also happens to be on a different hard drive. I like separating the OS, programs, and data. Whether you keep them on separate partitions or hard drives doesn’t make any difference. Separation is the point.
      When you install a program, it generally offers you a choice of where you’d like to install it. That’s a one-time decision. If you decide to keep your program’s output in a folder other than the default, you will have to tell the program to use that new destination. That is also a one-time decision.

      “Regarding images & backups. Win7 does a backup which I can use for general retrieval & rollbacks etc. That is stored in a particular pre-nominated partition on the alternative internal HDD (or I can nominate to store it externally) plus I can use the OS image program. I also make another image using Gentoo which is stored on an external HDD. I know these are still both HDDs which are mechanical so may fail but if a CD holds 4GB & the backup is 99GB that’s a hellava lot of backup discs!”

      DVD’s hold ~4.8GBs. CD’s hold far less at about 700-800 MBs. My Windows installation easily fits on one DVD. My entire music collection fits on two. Now, your situation most likely differs from mine but a 99GB backup?!! Come now… perhaps you should re-think what it is that you are actually backing up. I’ll give you an example.
      Once you have backed up your programs partition, and if it doesn’t change, then why back it up again? That alone could represent a huge portion of your current backup scheme.
      I have 13 partitions set up (I know that’s extreme) and not a single one takes up more than two DVD’s to back it up.

      “I’m glad you cleared up the thing about if the HDD goes down the other data on it’s other partitions can be rescued. I got a bit confused when I read that, because my best knowledge was that if the drive goes kaput so does everything on it whether partitioned or not.”

      Apparently I did not make myself clear enough. I never intended to convey the idea that partitions on a single hard drive are immune to that hard drive’s failure. The only way your data will be safe is if it is on another physical hard drive that does not fail.

      I hope this helps and thank you for your kind comments,
      Richard

      • Richard thankyou for your very clear explanations.
        re my large backup. 50GB is photos. I take & use lots which need to be highest res & I edit them & go back & re-edit or modify regularly. Also I am writing a few books, some of which have lots of photos. Then there are the videos which can have several versions. I regularly go back through old folders & modify as new info comes available. I do keep a lot of info in file form & PDFs, all neatly folderized in a variety of libraries. I often update my softwares & load new ones.
        So all in all I find it easier to just do a new total back up or image each time. It’s too hard to remember what I have or haven’t touched since last backup.
        So with all that said, it is time for me to get off this machine now to let it do it’s image thing! 😉
        Clissa

  7. I like your Ideas but for the most part I use separate drives rather than Partitions. I have two different computers. One is a Dell with Windows 7 formerly Vista. The other a HP with Windows 8. They each have two HDs.

    The Dell has a 60 GB SSD as drive C, with Windows being the only thing on it. The D drive has everything else on it.

    The HP has a 120 GB SSD as the Windows C drive and the D restore partition. The second drive is E with everything else on it.

    Now both computers have cards installed with e-SATA and port multiplication. I have a 4 bay disk case populated with 3 TB HDs in each of the 4 bays. ! drive is for downloads which is like a stepping stone before it gets relegated to a specific other drive. One is called a network drive where I keep my series collections like Star Trek, The Sopranos and the like. One is my movies drive where I keep all my DVDs in CD format as back-ups. The 4th drive is used for back-ups of the 2 systems and my wife’s as well.

    Now I manualy plug-in the external enclosure to whichever computer I’m using at the time. If needed I can hook both at the same time using USB-3 on one and e-SATA on the other. The prices on HDs has gone down so much recently I picked up the 3 TB drives for less than $100 each and the enclosure was $80 the two cards were $15 & $39. Not too bad for all that storage.

    • Hi Alan M. Izzo,
      It sounds like you have a lot of storage available to you– that’s great!
      I realize that today’s latest trend, instead of using the more cumbersome approach of backing up to DVDs is to simply buy another very affordable external hard drive. But I insist that these drives can break, too. If that happens then you are still left without a proper backup.

      Maybe I’m being old-school here, but I like knowing that all my stuff is backed up on something that cannot break, at least in the electronic sense of the word.

      Just a passing thought– don’t you think a 160GB partition for Windows ends up wasting a huge amount of fast disk space? Heck, I’d make a 120GB partition and put my favorite game in there– or something…

      Thank you for your comments Alan,
      Richard

  8. Hi my setup is similar to yours but more expanded. I keep win7 on the C: partition, programs & download folder on D: partition. I have an E: partition for the default win7 personal folders & desktop. The partitions C: & D: are on one HD. I have 2 partitions (F: & G:) one for my wife and one for me for personal data. E:,F:,G: are on a second HD. Since I like to play some games to now and then. I use an third drive just for installing games (H:). I have 3 aditional extra drives installed but have not figured out what to do with them jet. So an additional I: J: K:. I don’t backup win7 cause I have the feeling that it would make errors ie to my system setup. And I am aware of the fact of sudden death of HD’s the setup is for a relative safe. I use it this way for 6 years now and lucky I never had a sudden HD death. Like to read your opinion on my setup. Sincere from a reader in the neterlands .

    • Hi dave d.,
      I have three physical hard drives: C (OS), D(Programs), and all the rest on a third 750GB drive. the C and D drives are solid state.
      My partitions on the spinner are used for photos, games, music, videos, virtual machines, Delphi programming, daily backups, temporary and cache files, and my web site, There are 13 partitions in all. I also have a TB external hard drive that I use for temporary storage.

      I have my backup software scheduled to run daily and most definitely make incremental images of my OS and programs drives. It makes re-installation a snap. Consider an hour or so vs several days.

      If all four drives were to break tomorrow, I’d still have my trusty DVDs which I update on a monthly basis. I use RWs so I don’t end up with a stack of useless DVDs. It’s also less costly that way. I’ve been using the same DVDs for a couple of years now and, knock on wood, they’re still working just fine.

      You seem to be on the right track but you might want to reconsider keeping your programs and their respective data on the same drive as your operating system. If that drive breaks you’d lose everything at once unless you are diligently following a backup system of some sort.

      At this point moving all your programs to another drive/partition might seem troublesome but it is pretty straightforward. All you’d have to do is copy all your program folders to another drive, then use Windows Drive Manager to change the drive letters to match your old setup. Once you know it is all working properly, you can delete the originals.

      Hope this helps and thank you for your kind comments,
      Richard