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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide | Hard Disk Drives | Hard Disk Logical Structures and File Systems | Partitioning, Partition Sizes and Drive Lettering ]

Partition Type Conversion

Under certain circumstances, you may want--or even need--to change a partition from one file system type to another. The most common type of partition conversion is from FAT16 to FAT32, as PC users upgrade to newer operating systems like Windows 98 or Windows ME. I discuss conversion between FAT partitions here, on this page. In some situations you may also need to convert from FAT to NTFS, which I cover in the NTFS section. Conversions between FAT and other types of partitions are also possible, but are usually handled using special utilities or tools within the operating system used by the target file system.

There are two usual reasons for converting a partition from FAT16 to FAT32. The first, and most common, is to take advantage of the slack reduction and other features associated with FAT32. For example, converting a 2 GiB FAT16 partition to FAT32 will result in cluster size being reduced from 32 kiB to 4 kiB, and most of the slack on the partition being eliminated. The other reason is to allow a partition to be expanded in size after upgrading to a newer hard disk. If you have a 2 GB FAT16 and copy it to an 8 GB drive in a system that supports FAT32, you can resize the partition to 8 GB using a partition management program, but the partition must be converted to FAT32 first, since FAT16's maximum partition size is 2 GB.

To convert a partition from FAT16 to FAT32, you can either use a third-party partition management utility (which also provides many other partition-related features as described here) or the built-in facilities provided within certain versions of Windows. The Windows partition utility is "free" (not really free, but you don't pay extra for it) and accessed from the Start menu by going to Programs, then selecting Accessories and then System Tools. You'll see an entry for "Drive Converter". The process may take some time, and is non-destructive, meaning that your data will not be lost in the process. (Be sure to read the warning below, however!)

Note: The Drive Converter utility is not provided with Windows 95 OSR2, even though that operating system supports FAT32. The stated reason is that OEM SR2 is supposed to be only for OEMs and new hardware, and OSR2 wasn't intended for upgrading existing systems. Of course, millions of people upgraded to OSR2 anyway. In that case, a partition management program would be necessary to do the partition conversion.

The drawback to the Microsoft Drive Converter is that it has significant limitations associated with it. First, it is a one-way road: you can convert from FAT16 to FAT32, but not back again. Furthermore, doing this removes the ability to "uninstall" Windows 98/ME if it was an upgrade install. Neither of these are usually an issue for most users, but if you require the ability to go from FAT32 to FAT16, you can again use one of the partition management programs I just mentioned. If you are planning on any advanced partition work, such as resizing or moving the partition after converting it, you'll need one of these tools anyway.

Warning: All partition modification activities carry with them some risk of data loss, especially if power is interrupted during the process. Always back up your important data before doing a partition conversion. Avoid doing conversions if you are experiencing power instabilities, or if violent weather is in the vicinity. If at all possible, use an uninterruptible power supply when undertaking this sort of task.

Next: Drive Letter Assignment and Choosing Primary vs. Logical Partitions

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