I am just about to upgrade from XP Home to Windows 7 Professional and have been thinking about ways of making and keeping the system faster. Putting the operating system on an SSD would be one thing, but how about also having a separate drive for all non-OS installed programs, downloads, and files? Would you recommend this or, indeed, one for programs and related files, and one for other data, such as photographs, audio files, text documents, etc. If so, how should I go about it? Alan
When you’re moving to a new PC, or even installing a new operating system, it’s important to think about where you are going to store data. This won’t necessarily make your PC run any faster. However, it will make it easier for you to keep track of irreplaceable data, and make backup copies.
One of the problems with the DOS-based versions of Windows (95, 98, 98SE, Me) and, to a lesser extent, Windows XP was a tendency to slow down over time, under the weight of accumulated cruft. I used to do a clean re-installation every 18-24 months. The good news is that Windows 7 doesn’t suffer from this problem, or at least, not to a significant extent. I’m running Windows 7 on a laptop and Windows 7 Pro on a desktop, and have not yet needed to reinstall either operating system. (Windows 7 has a Resource Monitor and a Performance Monitor so you can track how it’s doing.)
This also means there’s not such a big advantage to having your hard drive divided into two partitions, or having two separate drives. In the old days, it was useful to have the operating system and programs on drive C: and all your data on D: because if you wanted to reinstall the OS, you could reformat C: without worrying about losing data. That’s still the case, of course, but it’s not as important if you don’t expect to have to reinstall the OS.
Another advantage of having two drives was that it made backups simpler. Basically, almost everything on C: could be replaced either by reloading programs from disc or by downloading new versions from the net. Almost everything on D: couldn’t easily be replaced, such as personal documents and photos, and music files ripped from audio CDs.
I say “almost everything on C:” because Microsoft and various software houses don’t make it easy. Microsoft stores things on the C: drive under different user account names (C:\users\jack etc), while some programs like to store data in their own directories. This makes sense because the vast majority of PC users don’t pay any attention to where and how things are stored, so developers try to organize their data for them. But it means that if you do care, then you have to change each program’s default settings to point to the folders you want it to use.
Note that there are privacy implications to moving data. People who have limited or guest accounts on Windows – including children – only have access to their own programs and data on C:, and to common programs. But they can probably access anything on the D: drive, unless you block them.
Partitions, drives and folders
From a software point of view, it doesn’t usually matter if you have (a) two separate hard drives, (b) one large hard drive split into two or more partitions, or (c) a separate folder that you use in the same way as a hard drive. From a hardware point of view, having two separate drives provides more resilience: it’s unlikely that both the C: and D: drives will fail at the same time. But remember, having one drive with two partitions – also called C: and D: and working as separate drives — doesn’t provide the same resilience. If the physical hard drive fails, then both drives fail. You can copy files from C: to a partition called D: but you still don’t have a backup. You only have a backup if you copy the files to one or more external hard drives, and/or an online cloud-based service such as CrashPlan, Backblaze, Carbonite or Mozy.
My current desktop PC has one large (1TB) hard drive. Instead of partitioning it, I created a folder called MAIN, which I use almost exactly like the D: partition pre-installed on my laptop’s hard drive. (I have no idea why I picked that name, but the caps make it stand out.) I put all my irreplaceable data in that folder. Obviously, it has a large number of subfolders such as Audio files (for interviews, etc), Documents, Movies, Music, Photographs, Work etc. Each folder has numerous sub-folders, to make things easier to find. For example, my Work folder contains a Guardian folder, which has folders for Ask Jack, Netbytes, Obituaries, Technophile and so on.
The main point of MAIN is that I can quickly take a backup of this one 132MB folder, or use FreeFileSync to update the current backup on an external hard drive. It’s manageable, so I’m more likely to do it. But what you do will depend on how much data you have, and how often it changes. If you have a large collection of music or video files, you might want to have these in separate folders, outside MAIN (or whatever). This is a particularly good idea if you share these media folders over your home network.
I said “it doesn’t usually matter if you have two separate hard drives”, but sometimes it does. For example, as you suggest, you can put the operating system on an SSD (solid-state drive) and large data files on a traditional hard drive, to take advantage of the SSD’s extra speed. However, this is only because SSDs are so expensive. If you could afford a 500GB or 1TB SSD, then you could use that for everything.
Another case is when applications use such large data files that disk throughput makes a difference to performance. For example, professional photo and video editing programs such as those in Adobe Creative Suite have their own “scratch files” (temporary disk storage areas) where they store vast amounts of transitory data. Operating systems also have scratch files or “page files” such as pagefile.sys in Windows. In this case, you can get better performance if the two scratch files are on different physical hard drives, because that provides up to twice as much throughput to disk.
When rendering high-definition video, you may want to use one hard drive for read operations and caching but use a separate (preferably clean) hard drive for writing the rendered file.