Should you partition an external drive on your Windows PC?

How to partition a disk and what you can use partitions for

If you have just bought a USB disk drive or added a second internal disk to your desktop PC you might wonder whether to partition it or not. Should you? Are there advantages? Let’s take a look at the options.

Should you partition a disk drive? How do you actually do it? What are the advantages? This article answers all your questions.

Disk drives have steadily grown over the years and they started out physically large, but small in terms of capacity. They were big and heavy, but they had a storage capacity of just 10MB. No, that it not a typo. Hard disk drives had a tiny capacity. Three photos from a modern mobile phone today would be sufficient to fill an old hard disk!

Now it is possible to get 10TB drives, which are a million times bigger.

With huge amounts of space provided by inexpensive disk drives, should you partition them?

What is disk partitioning?

Partitioning a disk means organising the space into two or more separate sections or partitions as they are called. Windows treats disk partitions as if they were separate physical drives.

For example, if you had a 1TB disk (1,000GB), then two partitions of 500GB could be created. In Windows it would look like you had two 500GB disk drives instead of one 1TB drive.

Partitions don’t have to be equal size and there can be more than two. For example, a 1TB drive could be partitioned as 500GB, 300GB and 200GB.

Why partition disks?

Partitions are like having separate disks and this means they can be used in a variety of ways. With two partitions, one could be used for backups and one for general purpose use.

Open the Control Panel and click File History. Click Select drive on the left. Select the disk (which can be a partition) from the list. File History will then automatically save backups of files to this location. You don't need to allocate the whole disk and a smaller partition can be used for File History backups instead.

Configure File History backups in Windows

Separate partitions could be created to store photos, videos and music. If you shoot a lot of video, you could keep raw footage on one partition and edited videos on another.

Partitions are therefore useful for organising your files.

Right click the Videos folder in an explorer window and select Properties. Select the Location tab and there is a Move button. You can move all your videos to a partition on a second internal disk or partition on an external disk.

Move the Videos folder in Windows to a new location

The Documents, Pictures and Music folders can be moved in a similar way and they could be moved to the same partition or different partitions on a disk.

If the boot disk on your PC is nearly full then this is a useful way to free up space. However, you must ensure that the external drive is always on or Windows will not be able to access your files.

Why you shouldn’t partition disks

It can get complicated if you create several partitions and use them for different types of files, or if you move your personal media folders to different partitions. It can make it more complicated to back up files when they are in different locations on different disk.

The simplest way to use a disk is to have one big partition that contains the whole storage space and all your files.

Should you partition a disk?

It is up to you and if it makes sense to organise media files by storing them on separate disks or you want to set aside some space for backups, or need some more workspace, then go ahead. If it just makes things more complicated then don’t partition it.

Related: How to encrypt an external drive so no-one can access it

How to partition a disk

Internal disk drive, external USB disk drives, SSDs, and USB thumb drives can all be partitioned in exactly the same way. If you want to play around with partitioning, try it on an empty disk or thumb drive, not on the boot disk. It works on the boot disk too, but it is safer to use a second disk.

1 Open Disk management

Click Start or the search box in the Windows 10 taskbar and search for diskmgmt.msc. Right click it and select Run as administrator.

Open Disk Management in Windows

 

2 Delete the volume

In the lower part of the Disk management window is a graphical display of the disks and partitions. Right click the disk you want to partition and select Delete Volume.

Warning: This will delete everything on the disk!

Notice that there are Shrink Volume and Extend Volume menu options, but they are greyed out. If a disk uses the NTFS file format (see later) it is possible to shrink a partition to make space for another partition. This disk (actually a Cruzer USB thumb drive), is FAT32 formatted and it cannot be shrunk or extended.

Use Disk Management in Windows to view disk partitions or delete them

 

3 Create a new volume

The disk is now marked as unallocated space. Right click it and select New Simple Volume. This command is used to create and format a disk partition.

Create a new simple volume in Disk Management in Windows

 

4 Simple Volume Wizard

Click Next when the New Simple Volume Wizard appears. It then shows the maximum size (the drive capacity) and enables you to specify the simple volume size. In my case, the maximum is 30530, so I will set the volume size to 20000 (that’s 20GB).

This sets the size of the first partition on the disk. It can be any size up to the maximum. setting it to the maximum will allow only one partition, but using less than the maximum enables more partitions to be created in the unused space

Set the size of a disk partition in Disk Management in Windows

 

5 Pick a drive letter

Now there is an option to select the drive letter to use as this partition. Usually the suggested one is best, but there is a list of drive letters that can be used.

Select a drive letter for the new partition using Disk Management in Windows

 

6 FAT32 vs NTFS

Select the option to format this volume. There are two file system options - FAT32 and NTFS. A disk drive or USB thumb drive formatted with FAT32 can be read on a Windows PC and Apple Mac.

If you use the disk or thumb drive on PCs and Macs, use the FAT32 format

If the disk is to be used only on Windows PCs, use the NTFS format

This is the last step and afterwards you are returned to the main Disk Management screen.

Select the disk format in Disk Management in Windows

 

7 Repeat

The size chosen for the new simple volume was less than the total storage space, which means that some of the space is still unallocated. As before, you can right click this and create a new simple volume.

You can either use all of the remaining space and have two partitions, or you could use only part of it and have some unallocated space left over for a third partition.

Create a new simple volume in Disk Management in Windows

 

MBR vs GPT

Just a quick word about very large disk drives. Old PCs that use a BIOS and format disks using the MBR partitioning scheme can access only 2.2TB of a large disk. Don't buy a disk drive bigger than 2TB if you have an old PC!

New PCs support UEFI and can format disks using the GPT (GUID) partitioning scheme. There is no limit on the size of disks. OK, there is a limit, but it so high it is effectively unlimited.


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