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[ The PC Guide | Systems and Components Reference Guide | Hard Disk Drives | Hard Disk Logical Structures and File Systems | Disk Partitioning and Formatting Programs ]

Partition Management Utilities (Partition Magic, etc.)

Microsoft provides basic utilities that let you partition and format hard disks for use with their operating systems. These include FDISK, which creates and deletes partitions, and FORMAT, which allows you to format a hard disk to ready it for use. These programs are functional, but rather crude. They let a "typical user" do the basics, but nothing else. If you are someone who tinkers with hard disks a great deal, or works with many systems, you will quickly discover that the tools built into DOS and Windows are inadequate for doing many things you will need and want to do.

To fill this gap, several companies have created third-party partition management utilities, which can do everything that FDISK and FORMAT can do, and a lot more as well. The most famous of these is the Partition Magic program, which is produced by PowerQuest. There are also other programs that compete with Partition Magic, though PM is the leader in this segment of the market. (Quarterdeck used to have a program called Partition-It that was similar, but Quarterdeck was swallowed up by Symantec and the Partition-It product seems to have disappeared.)

Main screen of Partition Magic 5.0, with a pull-down menu
open to show some of the operations that the program offers.

In addition to the mundane--letting you see the partitions on each of your hard disks, partitioning and formatting disk volumes, assigning labels and so on--partition management utilities typically include the following features:

  • Non-Destructive Partition Manipulation: You can shrink, expand or move partitions without losing the data on them. This is the primary claim of fame of Partition Magic and programs like it, because this addresses a major weakness of Microsoft's FDISK: it does not allow you to change partitions in any way.
  • Partition Copying: You can copy a partition from one hard disk to another. This is very useful for those upgrading systems.
  • File System Conversion: If your system supports FAT32, you can convert disks of the appropriate size from FAT16 to FAT32, or vice-versa. You can also convert from FAT16 or FAT32 to NTFS, or vice-versa, on newer versions. This conversion is also non-destructive.
  • Cluster Resizing: You can change the cluster size of an existing partition, again, non-destructively.
  • Other: Depending on the software and its specific version, you can also do things like setting up a boot manager for multiple operating systems, creating rescue disks, and so on.

As you can see, this software provides you with a host of capabilities; you probably knew just from reading that list if this type of program is right for you. A typical PC user who buys a retail PC, uses it for a few years and buys a new one, doesn't need this kind of software. For the hobbyist, homebuilder, upgrader or system administrator, it's hard to do without...

Warning: An important caveat about partitioning utilities: some of their operations can take a fair bit of time. This applies particularly to tasks such as resizing partitions or changing cluster sizes. During the time that this work is taking place, your hard disk is vulnerable to data loss in the event of a hardware or power failure. It is highly recommended that you back up your data before working on your partitions; when I am doing this sort of work, I try to make sure the PC is plugged into a UPS, just in case. (This is also true of using FDISK and in fact any software that works intimately with the hard disk, but since FDISK is normally used when the disk is empty, there isn't the same concern about data loss.)

Warning: Some companies that produce hard disk controllers, such as Promise (the maker of the popular Promise Ultra series of IDE/ATA hard disk controllers) have publicly made warnings that third-party partitioning and formatting  utilities should not be used on drives connected to their hardware. Frankly, I have never seen a reasonable explanation for why this should be a problem, and I know that many people do use Partition Magic and other similar programs on such drives with no problems. I suspect that this exclusion exists primarily to let Promise "cover themselves" in the event of bugs in third-party software, or problems that arise due to software they have not tested. So, I provide this warning so you know their position, and you can decide for yourself what you want to do. Be aware that due to this statement, they will probably not be of much help if you encounter problems with their hardware after using third-party software.

Next: Partition Copying Utilities (Drive Copy, etc.)

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