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Geek: Hard Disk Partitions Explained

Hard disks, USB drives, SD cards anything with storage space must be partitioned. An unpartitioned drive cant be used until it
contains at least one partition, but a drive can contain multiple partitions.
Partitioning isnt something most users will need to bother with, but you may need to work with partitions when installing an operating
system or setting up a new drive.
What is a Partition?
Many drives come with a single partition already set up, but all storage devices are just treated as a mass of unallocated, free space when
they contain no partitions. To actually set up a file system and save any files to the drive, the drive needs a partition.
The partition can contain all of the storage space on the drive or just some of it. On many storage devices, a single partition will often
take up the entire drive.
Partitions are necessary because you cant just start writing files to a blank drive. You must first create at least one container with a file
system. We call this container a partition. You can have one partition that contains all the storage space on the drive or divide the space
into twenty different partitions. Either way, you need at least one partition on the drive.
After creating a partition, the partition is formatted with a file system like the NTFS file system on Windows drives, FAT32 file
system for removable drives, HFS+ file system on Mac computers, or the ext4 file system on Linux. Files are then written to that file
system on the partition.

Why You Can Make Multiple Partitions and When You Might Want To
You probably dont want multiple partitions on your USB flash drive a single partition will allow you to
treat the USB drive as a single unit. If you have multiple partitions, multiple different drives would appear
when you plugged your USB drive into your computer.
However, you may want multiple partitions for other reasons. Each partition can be isolated from the others
and even have a different file system. For example, many Windows computers come with a separate recovery
partition where the files you need to restore your Windows operating system to its factory default settings are
stored. When you restore Windows, the files from this partition are copied to the main partition. The recovery
partition is normally hidden so you cant access it from Windows and mess it up. If the recovery files were
stored on the main system partition, it would be easier for them to be deleted, infected, or corrupted.
Some Windows geeks love creating a separate partition for their personal data files. When you reinstall
Windows, you can wipe your system drive and leave your data partition intact. If you want to install Linux on
your Windows computer, you can install it to the same hard drive the Linux system will be installed to one
or more separate partitions so Windows and Linux wont interfere with each other.
Linux systems are generally set up with multiple partitions. For example, Linux systems have a swap partition
that functions like the page file on Windows. The swap partition is formatted with a different file system. You
can set up partitions however you like with Linux, giving different system directories their own partition.


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Primary, Extended, and Logical Partitions

When partitioning, youll need to be
aware of the difference between
partitions. A disk with a traditional
partition table can only have up to four
partitions. Extended and logical
partitions are a way to get around this
Each disk can have up to four primary
partitions or three primary partitions and
an extended partition. If you need four
partitions or less, you can just create
them as primary partitions.
However, lets say you want six
partitions on a single drive. Youd have
to create three primary partitions as well
as an extended partition. The extended partition effectively functions as a container that allows you to create a
larger amount of logical partitions. So, if you needed six partitions, youd create three primary partitions, an
extended partition, and then three logical partitions inside the extended partition. You could also just create a
single primary partition, an extended partition, and five logical partitions you just cant have more than
four primary partitions at a time.

How to Partition
Partitioning with graphical tools is fairly easy if you know what youre doing. While installing an operating
system Windows or Linux your operating system installer will offer a partitioning screen where you can
create, delete, format, and resize partitions. (Note that deleting or formatting a partition will erase all the data
on it!)

You can also use tools like the Disk Management tool in Windows and GParted on Linux to manage
partitions on your system drive or other drives. You cant always modify a partition while its in-use for
example, you cant delete a Windows system partition while youre running Windows from it! so you may
need to boot from a Linux live CD or use an operating system installer disk to make many changes.
These tools allow you to partition your system drives as well as other internal drives, external drives, USB
drives, SD cards, and other storage media.


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How Partitions Appear as Disks, But Dont Offer the Same

Performance Benefits
Operating systems display separate partitions as separate drives. For example, if you have a single drive with
500 GB of storage on your computer, youd have a C:\ drive with 500 GB of space available to you in
Windows. But, if you partitioned that drive in half, youd have a C:\ drive with 250 GB of space and a D:\
drive with 250 GB of space displayed in Windows Explorer.

These drives may look like separate physical devices, but they dont function that way. Although they appear
as different disks, theyre still the same physical piece of hardware. Theres only so much speed to go around.
You dont gain the performance benefits from using two separate partitions that you do from using two
separate physical drives.

Most people wont have to worry about this, as drives generally come with a single partition set up, operating
systems partition automatically, and so on. However, its helpful to know how partitions work when you need
to get your hands dirty.

HTG Explains: Learn How UEFI Will Replace Your PCs BIOS

While most people may be familiar with a PCs BIOS, they may not know what it is or what it does. Since
UEFI is poised to take its place, lets take a geek retrospective on these two technologies.

Understanding BIOS (Basic Input/Output System)

(Image from richardmasoner)

The BIOS (pronounced bye-ose) is a computers Basic Input-Output System. Its a low-level software thats
so important integrally that resides on a chip thats built into the motherboard. When your computer starts up,
its the BIOSs job to wake up the various components and make sure theyre functioning, then it passes off
functionality to your operating system or another boot loader. A long time ago, computers used very
different and proprietary ways to do this, but over time IBMs 5150 sort of became a standard on which to
base hardware compatibility. It used the Intel 8088 processor which was 16-bit, and so the BIOS itself is 16bit and is allowed 1MB of address space. It also uses a Master Boot Record, or MBR, to specify the
computers partition table, which in turn tells the BIOS where the operating system is.
POSTing is a BIOS-governed process. Its a power-on self-test which checks the validity and correct
functionality of your components. If something is wrong, youll see an error displayed or hear a cryptic series
of beep codes. You may also see the acronym CMOS. This refers to the battery-backed memory which is used
in conjunction with the non-volatile RAM used with the BIOS. Its actually not accurate anymore, since this
method has been replaced with flash memory (also referred to as EEPROM) in contemporary systems.

All in all it was a good system. It provided an interface from which you could enable/disable individual
components and advanced hardware options. Of course, as with everything in the silicon world, BIOS
obsolesced in comparison to the newer hardware that was developing. In order to make up for a lot of its
shortcomings, extensions were developed. The prime example of this is Advanced Configuration and Power
Interface, or ACPI, which was put in place to help device configuration and advanced power management
functions. But, over time, its limitations needed to be overcome by a brand new system.

The Successor: UEFI

The Unified Extensible Firmware Interface, also known as UEFI (pronounced oofy or U effy) was
originally developed by Intel to circumvent these issues for its 64-bit Itanium-based servers. Over time, it was
renamed from the Intel Boot Initiative and given over to the Unified EFI Forum, which governs the
specifications for it. UEFI brought some major changes to the pre-boot environment.

Many implementations of EFI just look like the traditional BIOS, but others customize the visual layout
fundamentally. While pretty pictures arent really necessary, they can be really helpful for things like
overclocking. Take a look at the differences:

As you can see, its easy to use, mouse-capable, and has a lot of potential.

MSI calls its version the EFI Click BIOS.

16-bit vs 32- and 64-bit

While the BIOS is limited to 16-bit processes and 1MB of memory addressing, UEFI isnt constrained in that
way. It can function in 32-bit and 64-bit modes, allowing much more RAM to be addressed by more complex
processes. It also can be architecture independent and provide drivers for components that are also
independent of what kind of CPU you have.

The MBR is limited to 4 primary partitions per disk and bootable disks are limited in size to 2.2 TB. UEFI
uses the GUID Partition Table, which utilizes Globally Unique IDs to address partitions and allows booting
from hard disks as large as 9.4 ZB. A terabyte (technically, a tebibyte) is 1024 GB, and a zettabyte (zebibyte)
is 1024x1024x1024 GB. Seems pretty future-proof for the moment, no? And the benefits dont stop there;
UEFI allows more boot options, doesnt prescribe particular file systems, and has excellent network booting
abilities. OS boot loaders can also serve as extensions to the UEFI, which itself can function as a proper boot

UEFI supports older extensions, like ACPI, which arent dependent on a 16-bit runtime environment. Cryptic
beep-code errors are also a thing of the past, as extensions can better test components (unless something more
dire is wrong, like a bad processor). In addition, it support EFI-based partitions on hard disks which
manufacturers can use to add more functionality. Asuss Splashtop instant-on OS is a good example. While it
works with BIOS, UEFI can offer better boot times and loading for something like that.


Its potential is what makes UEFI so promising. Not everything is optimal yet, but it operates already at BIOS
level, so manufacturers have been starting to use it more on their motherboards. They can use older extensions
with the new system until newer ones can take over, and the older visual style can also be used in the
interim. The switch has been rolling out at an ever-increasing pace over the past few years. Its not possible to
put UEFI on BIOS-based motherboards, but odds are that when you buy a new system or perform an upgrade
in the next few years youll be making the switch, perhaps without even realizing it. Its a slow switch, but it
seems to be an inevitable one.

Whats the Difference Between GPT and MBR When Partitioning a Drive?

Set up a new disk on Windows 8.1 or 8 and youll be asked whether you want to use MBR or GPT. GPT is
the new standard and is gradually replacing MBR.
GPT brings with it many advantages, but MBR is still the most compatible and is still necessary in some
cases. This isnt a Windows-only standard Mac OS X, Linux, and other operating systems can also use

What Do GPT and MBR Do?

You have to partition a disk drive before you can use it. MBR (Master Boot Record) and GPT (GUID
Partition Table) are two different ways of storing the partitioning information on a drive. This information
includes where partitions start and begin, so your operating system knows which sectors belong to each
partition and which partition is bootable. This is why you have to choose MBR or GPT before creating
partitions on a drive.

MBRs Limitations
MBR standards for Master Boot Record. It was introduced with IBM PC DOS 2.0 in 1983.
Its called Master Boot Record because the MBR is a special boot sector located at the beginning of a drive.
This sector contains a boot loader for the installed operating system and information about the drives logical
partitions. The boot loader is a small bit of code that generally loads the larger boot loader from another
partition on a drive. If you have Windows installed, the initial bits of the Windows boot loader reside here
thats why you may have to repair your MBR if its overwritten and Windows wont boot. If you have Linux
installed, the GRUB boot loader will typically be located in the MBR.
MBR works with disks up to 2 TB in size, but it cant handle disks with more than 2 TB of space. MBR also
only supports up to four primary partitions if you want more, you have to make one of your primary
partitions an extended partition and create logical partitions inside it. This is a silly little hack and shouldnt
be necessary.
MBR became the industry standard everyone used for partitioning and booting from disks. Developers have
been piling on hacks like extended partitions ever since.

GPTs Advantages
GPT stands for GUID Partition Table. Its a new standard thats gradually replacing MBR. Its associated
with UEFI UEFI replaces the clunky old BIOS with something more modern, and GPT replaces the clunky
old MBR partitioning system with something more modern. Its called GUID Partition Table because every
partition on your drive has a globally unique identifier, or GUID a random string so long that every GPT
partition on earth likely has its own unique identifier.
This system doesnt have MBRs limits. Drives can be much, much larger and size limits will depend on the
operating system and its file systems. GPT allows for a nearly unlimited amount of partitions, and the limit
here will be your operating system Windows allows up to 128 partitions on a GPT drive, and you dont
have to create an extended partition.
On an MBR disk, the partitioning and boot data is stored in one place. If this data is overwritten or corrupted,
youre in trouble. In contrast, GPT stores multiple copies of this data across the disk, so its much more robust
and can recover if the data is correupted. GPT also stores cyclic redundancy check (CRC) values to check that

its data is intact if the data is corrupted, GPT can notice the problem and attempt to recover the damaged
data from another location on the disk. MBR had no way of knowing if its data was corrupted youd only
see there was a problem when the boot process failed or your drives partitions vanished.

GPT drives tend to include a protective MBR. This type of MBR says that the GPT drive has a single
partition that extends across the entire drive. If you try to manage a GPT disk with an old tool that can only
read MBRs, it will see a single partition that extends across the entire drive. The MBR ensures the old tools
wont mistake the GPT drive for an unpartitioned drive and overwrite its GPT data with a new MBR. In other
words, the protective MBR protects the GPT data from being overwritten.
Windows can only boot from GPT on UEFI-based computers running 64-bit versions of Windows 8.1, 8, 7,
Vista, and corresponding server versions. All versions of Windows 8.1, 8, 7, and Vista can read GPT drives
and use them for data they just cant boot from them.
Other modern operating systems can also use GPT. Linux has built-in support for GPT. Apples Intel Macs no
longer use Apples APT (Apple Partition Table) scheme and use GPT instead.

Youll probably want to use GPT when setting up a drive. Its a more modern, robust standard that all
computers are moving toward. If you need compatibility with old systems for example, the ability to boot
Windows off a drive on a computer with a traditional BIOS youll have to stick with MBR for now.