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Operating Systems, Hard Drives,
Partitions, and You!

By Ryan Morse - November 21, 2010

Your operating system: it’s that collection of data and programs that makes all your desktop PC or laptop computer hardware work together. Where your operating system is installed on your PC’s hard drive, as well as the type of drive it’s on, can have a big impact on your system’s performance.

Whether you’re starting with a fresh, blank hard drive or reinstalling, this
Tech Tip will tell you where you should put your operating system and why.

Your hard drive is where most of your system’s data lives and, in most cases, it’s a critical component. Without a hard drive, you don’t have much of a system. Similarly, without an operating system installed on that hard drive, you’re not going to be doing a lot of computing either. Since your operating system is in charge of making your hardware work together, it’s important for it to have as few bottlenecks as possible. This means the best place to install your operating system is on your fastest hard drive on its primary partition.

Your operating system also borrows a certain amount of space on the hard drive for something called paging, which treats a portion of your hard drive as spillover for your system’s random access memory (RAM) in the form of a pagefile. When your RAM gets full, operating systems switch to using the hard drive as “virtual memory.”

Depending on how much RAM your system has, you’ve probably experienced this at one time or another. When you’ve got a lot of applications running and your system begins to hang, paging is usually the culprit. But paging is also necessary, so you can do your best to avoid it by running only a few applications at a time or adding RAM to your system, but for the time being, paging is always going to be there waiting. The secret to less painful paging is using a fast drive!

For disk-based hard drives, like most of the drives found in PCs today, speed is generally determined by spindle speeds, also known as rotational delay, measured in rotations per minute. Spindle speeds, in turn, are limited by the physical size of the disk and the power required to move it. You can compare other factors like seek time and transfer time, but the difference in spindle speeds, compounded by the many times you access a hard drive during usage, is the most noticeable difference when dealing with hard drives.

Spindle speeds range usually from 4,200 RPM in notebook hard drives and low-power computers all the way up to 15,000 RPM in high-performance servers. With higher spindle speeds usually come higher costs and lower capacities since the power requirements to spin larger disks are too high to be practical. When selecting the drive you want for your operating system, choose the one with the higher spindle speed. If you’re looking to upgrade with a different drive, make sure you go with a higher spindle speed that your previous one, but keep in mind, if power requirements are an issue (and in notebooks that depend on battery life, they are), you’re increasing your consumption with a faster-spinning drive.

For solid-state hard drives (SSDs), there are no moving parts. That means greater durability, rotational delay, and much faster access times. Unfortunately, the cost per gigabyte of solid-state drives has kept them from completely knocking their disk-based predecessors off the market. You can get a couple terabytes (1,000 gigabytes) of disk-based hard drive capacity for the price of some of today’s solid-state drives. But what they lack in storage capacity, SSDs more than make up for in speed, and fortunately, you don’t need much more than 20 GB to install Windows 7 and even less for Mac OS X or popular Linux distributions. For this reason, solid-state drives normally play excellent hosts to operating systems. If you can’t afford a solid-state drive, a 7,200 RPM disk-based drive should hit your sweet spot between price, capacity, and performance return.

Once you’ve selected the type and speed of drive you’re going to use, you’ll go through the normal steps. If you’re reinstalling, back up your data to a separate drive first! Boot into an appropriate application, usually the disc you’re installing from is bootable. If you’re starting with a fresh drive, the drive is not partitioned and you must create at least one for files to be written to it. If you’re reinstalling, you’re going to wipe away the existing partitions (and the data they contain!) and create new ones.

Partitioning will let you keep your operating system separate from your lesser-used applications and archives, which, when stored on the same partition as your operating system, can decrease performance as the hard drive has all the data in one giant clump.
Partitioning a drive tells your operating system to treat each division as a separate drive with their own drive letter. If you have to wipe away the data in a partition, you can easily format it without jeopardizing the other partitions. This is handy for quickly reinstalling operating systems while keeping the rest of your data safe and sound in other partitions. Additionally, you can install more than one operating system to a hard drive if it is partitioned properly to create a multi-boot setup. Unfortunately, partitions are not actually separate drives, so if your partitioned hard drive fails, all the partitions and they data they contain could be gone. For this reason, I recommend a second hard drive, whether internal or external, as a back up option for your other files.

In most cases, the software you’re booting up with will include some partition tools, but if not, I recommend GParted. It’s easy to use, works with all major operating systems and is free to download. It even gives you a few more options when partitioning, like resizing. If you’re just using one hard drive, create a small partition that will be used only for your operating system and a few of your most-used applications. If you’re using a solid-state drive, you can create a partition that uses the full capacity of the drive or reserve a small section for your most-used applications.

Check your operating system for the minimum hard drive requirements and add a few gigabytes on top of that for what I like to call elbow room. You can create another partition that will be especially for storing your pagefile, but I can’t say that I’ve noticed a significant advantage in doing that. Use the remaining hard drive capacity to create as many or as few partitions as you’d like. These will be where you will install your lesser-used applications, store larger files like music, photos, and movies, or even secondary operating systems. When you’re done divvying up your drive, format your partitions and install your operating system. Once the installation is complete, you can begin installing applications and generally filling it up with data again.

I like to keep separate partitions for music and videos. If you keep your partitions organized, your operating system should be able to perform better and you’ll be able to manage your data more efficiently.

I Hope you have enjoyed this Tech Tip on operating systems, hard drives and partitions. If you have a learned anything and would like to share it with everyone or just have a question please leave a comment!

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