Do we need to pay for disk partitioning tools anymore?

My early explorations of dual-booting of Windows and Linux led me into the world of disk partitioning. It also served a another use since any Windows 9x installations (that dates things a bit…) that I had didn’t have a tendency to last longer than six months at one point; putting the data on another partition meant that a fresh Windows installation didn’t jeopardise any data that I had should a mishap occur.

Then, Partition Magic was the favoured tool and it wasn’t free of charge, though it wasn’t extortionately priced either. For those operations that couldn’t be done with Windows running, you could create bootable floppy disks to get the system going in order to perform those. Thinking about it now, it all worked well enough and the usual caveats about taking care with your data applied as much then as they do now.

For the last few years, many Linux distributions have coming in the form of CD’s or DVD’s from which you can boot into a full operating system session, complete with near enough the same GUI that an installed version. When a PC is poorly, this is a godsend and makes me wonder how we managed without; having that visual way of saving data sounds all too necessary now. For me, the answer to that is that I misspent too many hours blundering blindly using the very limited Windows command line to get myself out of a crux. Looking back on it now, it all feels very dark compared to today.

Another good aspect to these Live Distribution Disks is that they come with hard disk partitioning tools such as the effective GParted. They are needed to configure hard drives during the actual installation process but they serve another process too: they can be used in place of the old proprietary software disks that were in use not so long ago. Being able to deal with the hard disk sizes available today is a very good thing as is coping with NTFS partitions along with the usual Linux options. The operations may be time consuming but they have seemed reliable so far and I hope that it stays that way in spite of any warning that get issued but you make any changes. Last weekend, I got to see a lot of what that means and I setting up my Toshiba Equium laptop for Windows/Ubuntu dual booting.

With the capability that is available both free of charge and free of limitations, you cannot justify paying for disk partitioning software nowadays and that’s handy when you consider the state of the economy. It also shows how things have changed over the last decade. Being able to load up a complete operating system from a DVD also serves to calm any nerves when a system goes down on you, especially when you surf the web to find a solution for the malady that’s causing the downtime.

Hard drive partitioning

It has to be said that hard drive partitioning isn’t something that most people do very often, if at all in these days of cheap storage and system virtualisation. I must admit to having several disks in my main machine and can vouch for the virtues of virtualisation: VMware allows me to run multiple operating systems on the same machine, a very useful asset so long as enough memory is available. We can expect to hear more about virtualisation with the likes of Intel and AMD looking at hypervisor solutions for this.

Partitioning does give you what appear to be multiple drives from just the one and that is very useful when you only have a single hard drive in your PC. This was very much the case in my early computing days when catastrophic Windows 9x crashes (some self-inflicted…) often resulted in the pain of a complete re-installation of everything that had been on there. The independence offered by partitions certainly offered me peace of mind back then but 100MB Iomega Zip disks were a very useful defence in depth.

Without partitioning, my curiosity regarding the world of Linux would not have been sated though an approach involving multiple hard drives certainly came into play later on. Having been a Sun Solaris user at university, Linux certainly aroused much interest in me and I have to say that it has come a long, long way since my first ventures into its world.

While the Windows tool FDISK could partition hard drives for you, it wasn’t non-destructive: you had be prepared to restore all of your files from a backup and do a complete software re-installation following its use. It was designed for setting things up at the outset and not changing them later and that thinking seems to have pervaded the design of the Disk Management console found in XP.

For more flexible and non-destructive partitioning, Powerquest’s Partition Magic became the tool of choice, though I did have a dalliance with a package called Partition It before taking the plunge. Partition Magic is now in the Symantec stable and not a lot seems to be heard of it. Version 7, the last from Powerquest before its takeover, has been my staple but 983 errors have been thrown by the application at times and one partitioning operation went awry, forcing me to depend on my backups. Version 8 still throws 983 errors so I started to look beyond Partition Magic altogether. In my search, I happened on version 10 of Acronis Disk Director Suite. It got a strong recommendation from reviewer Davey Winder in PC Pro magazine (backup software True Image 10 from the same company also got a thumbs up from a different PC Pro reviewer) which gave some reassurance and I have to say that I agree. An operation refused by Partition Magic was completed successfully and safely so I know where my vote goes.

Adding a new hard drive

Having during the week obtained a new 320 GB hard drive, today I am adding it to my system after yesterdays scare with the PSU. As with any such item, you need to format and configure it to work with your operating system, be it Windows, Linux or whatever. Good old Partition Magic can help with this (I have version 7 from the Powerquest days) but Windows XP (Professional, anyway) does offer its own tool for the job: the Disk Management console. Unfortunately, it’s a bit hard to find. The easiest way to get to it is to type diskmgmt.msc into the Run command box. Otherwise, it is a matter of setting your Start Menu to show the Administrative Tools group (Taskbar and Start Menu properties> Start Menu tab > Customise > Advanced tab) and accessing through the computer Management console for which there is a shortcut in this group. Of course, you need to have administrator access to your PC in order to to do any of this.