Partition managers take on Vista's tools

Partitioning your hard drive can be useful for trying out a new OS or managing several terabytes of data.

Space is no longer the final frontier -- at least, not as far as hard drives are concerned. We are awash in a sea of high-capacity (1TB+) disks selling at relatively low prices.

One result of this abundance of storage space is the resurgence of partition managers, which help users create, format, resize, merge and delete individual partitions. These tools have traditionally been used to divide hard drives to accommodate different operating systems, or for quick data backup.

However, in these days of humongous hard drives, partitions can also help in simple disk management. For example, I recently added a 2TB Western Digital Caviar Green drive to my daily computer. Ordinarily, I'd simply format the entire drive and then start stuffing it with folders and filling them with other folders and data -- until eventually I lost track of where everything was.

This time, however, I created separate partitions for video, music, photographs and even my archived e-mail (which dates back to 1996). It not only helped me keep my life in some kind of order, but makes searches a lot faster -- if, for example, I'm looking for a specific image, I only have to search a single partition.

Whether you decide to follow my example and use partitions to organize your hard drive, or whether you've decided to install Windows 7 on a separate partition, partition managers make life easier. I could have partitioned and formatted the drive just using Windows' built-in tools. But what if I ran out of space in my video partition but had plenty of spare room in my music partition?

With Windows, I'd have to copy all the files from the video and music partitions to a spare drive, delete those two partitions, create new ones of different sizes and then recopy the files back again. However, with a partition manager, I can just shrink the size of one of the existing partitions and then add what I removed to the partition that needs more space. All of my data will be intact.

For this roundup, I looked at three Vista-capable partition management applications: Acronis Disk Director Suite 10.0, Easeus Partition Manager Professional Edition and Paragon Partition Manager. (One of the historically best known partition managers -- Symantec's Norton Partition Magic -- was never upgraded to work with Vista, and so was excluded from testing.) These are all midrange packages; I did not look at the upscale/up-priced versions that often had the word "server" attached to their names.

Since Windows Vista itself allows you to create and manage disk partitions, I also tested Vista's tools to see how they did when compared to the third-party software.

Commonalities

These three packages have much in common. First, all three use a multistep approach in which you first define one or more tasks and then tell the application to go ahead, rather than the application immediately performing each task as you request it. This process may sound awkward, but it allows for batch processing of tasks: You can shrink a partition, create a new partition from the leftover space and then format that new partition in one fell swoop rather than as three individual commands. You don't have to wait for one task to complete before you can define the next.

All three of the third-party partition managers use the same basic GUI as Microsoft does for its disk management tools. There may be a few more options available from the third-party vendors, but the look and feel is basically the same.

They have another thing in common: none of the applications, including Vista, could address any of three network-attached storage drives I had mapped to my computer. (USB and eSATA drives were no problem.)

Whichever partition manager you use, it's going to take a long time to complete its task. For example, don't expect to walk away from a full format of a 2TB drive in less than five hours. (Or perhaps you should walk away -- just come back later.) And when you're attempting any partition functions that require formatting (such as splits, merges or size extensions), the time factor can become onerous. In total, testing these three partition managers required nearly 25 hours.

And one final, very important note: All these tools give you the ability to utterly destroy the data on your hard drive if you're careless. If you're not familiar with the destructive power of a partition manager, I would strongly suggest that you pick yourself up a new and inexpensive USB or eSATA drive (which you should have anyway for backup) and practice a bit on it before you go for the live data.

Acronis Disk Director Suite 10.0

Acronis Disk Director Suite 10.0 uses the same basic interface as Windows' disk software management routines. In fact, its data integrity checking and disk defragmentation tools are the Windows CHKDSK and Defrag utilities -- only they run under Disk Director Suite.

There is a robust menu of icons arrayed across the top of the windows representing the available tasks. Duplicating that array is a text list of tasks along the left side of the window. Right-clicking on any of the drive representations also brings up a menu of similar tasks.

The process of installing Disk Director Suite 10.0 is unremarkable until you've just about reached the end, when a small box pops up telling you that the software is analyzing your hard disk partitions. It's not a big deal if you're working off a single-drive system. It may not even be an inconvenience with a two-drive system. With five drives installed -- four of them 1TB and one of them 2TB -- things can get a little tedious. (Well, just a little; it turned out to take only about two minutes, but it seemed like an eternity.)

Once it finished its analysis, Disk Director Suite said it needed to restart my computer. No fireworks, no brass band, no waving flags, just the computer equivalent of, "That's All, Folks!" There was no choice. And when I started Disk Director after the reboot, it again analyzed all my hard drives. In fact, any time you start a task that requires modifying or copying a partition, Disk Director will start this tiresome routine.

You can duplicate disks or partitions; you can also resize and merge partitions. I ran into a problem with a resize when Disk Director Suite asked me what, if any, data from the original (full-sized) partition I wanted to place on the new partition. There was no reason for the question, since I had only requested a resize. During the process, it ran into a bunch of write errors and finally aborted. When I went back and specified that no data be transferred, it completed the task without a problem.

When I tried to merge two partitions, the application asked me to specify or create a folder to hold whatever data it found on the partition that was being merged. The process completed without a hiccup, although I would have preferred it if Disk Director had just merged the data on its own, querying me if it found a problem that needed resolution. It's not a big deal, just another small bit of tediousness.

There's nothing wrong with Acronis Disk Director Suite 10.0 -- it's just a lot like driving a 20-year-old Hyundai. You can get where you want to go, but it feels as if there must be a better way.

Easeus Partition Master 3.5 Professional Edition

The first time I finished reviewing Easeus Partition Manager for this feature, it was in release 3.02. A few days after I finished, Easeus let me know that it had just released Version 3.5, and later still the product name was changed to Easeus Partition Master. Despite the changes, the company missed one feature that really did require attention: the interface, which I found to be ugly and poorly implemented.

As with the other two partition managers reviewed here, Easeus employs the same basic user interface you've found in Windows for years. It uses graphical representations of the partitioned drive(s), showing their relative sizes and their free and used space, with text details below.

But the font Easeus has chosen to use for its interface (it looks like Times New Roman) is oddly proportioned for the screen. It's certainly readable -- with a little squinting -- but something better could have been used.

In addition, the interface is a bit limited. Resizing a partition can be done by either entering hard numbers into a text area for the values you want or by dragging the right side of the drive's graphical representation in or out to shrink or expand its size. However, only three drives appear in the upper-graphical section. You can view all your drives in the text listing below -- the text portion occupies at least five-sixths of the screen -- but if you have more than three drives (I had six), it's a hassle.

Task icons can be found at the top of the application window, and the equivalent text descriptions of those tasks are shown along the left side of the screen. If you right-click on a partition or disk, you'll see a repetition of those same options.

The package offers the usual tools; you can create and delete partitions as well as resize them. Easeus doesn't support partition-editing functions that allow you to change a partition from, say, NTFS to Linux, but you can change a FAT partition to NTFS.

Version 3.5 has also added disk and partition copy functions, but things can get odd. For example, copying a partition requires that unallocated space already exists. You can't just tell the application to use an existing partition and erase the data it might find there. This can make the task awkward and increases the number of steps needed to complete it.

The new version has removed the previous need to restart the computer before beginning a copy of a nonsystem partition. That's a boon to people who dislike unnecessary reboots, especially people like me who have multiboot computers with more than one operating system, and so have long waits during each reboot.

Easeus borrows Windows CHKDSK, if needed, when doing a surface analysis. If you want to defragment your disk, you'll need to resort to Windows' defragmenting tools.

Overall, while Partition Master Professional 3.5 does offer the same tools as the other partition managers I looked at, I feel it's a bit too unpolished to be a competitive alternative. I wouldn't throw away the free Home Edition of the software -- which only lacks 64-bit support and a few minor features -- but the Professional version just doesn't make the grade.

Paragon Partition Manager 10.0 Personal

Paragon recently moved from Version 9 to Version 10 of its Partition Manager Professional software. Along the way, it redesigned its user interface, and while that can often bring on apoplexy among existing users who have become comfortable with the old GUI, the new one only takes a short while to once again feel like an old friend.

Holdovers from the old style is a list of task icons at the top of the screen, a split window with text details about your drives at the top and graphical representations of the drives in the lower half of the window. Gone is the text clutter along the left side of the screen, replaced by tabs that you can click to access a variety of functions: Properties, Volume Explorer, Disk Editor and Partition List. You can also switch to an Express Launcher that simply provides a buttoned list of available topics.

Even with all of that, however, the easiest way to tackle the various available tasks in the expanded view is simply to right-click on the graphical representation of the disk in the lower half of the window. That pop-up menu provides you with all of the available options, some of which aren't available through the upper icons or left-side task assortment.

Paragon lets you change the partition size either by dragging the boundaries of a set of rectangles representing your various partitions, or simply typing the desired size (in MB) for each into a field. The granularity of the first method is not as good as the second, but more often than not it won't matter.

If you've downsized a partition and want to use the new available space, it's a two-step process. You create a partition (which undergoes an automatic quick format) and then assign the new partition a drive letter. Neither task is carried out until you click the "Apply" button, so you'll be doing a single-step batch operation rather than two individual processes.

Paragon won't let you recover space left vacant after resizing if you've created a new partition from it. If you leave that new space unallocated (or delete the partition you created in it), you can again use the "drag" method to increase the size of the partition you wish to change.

It has its own data integrity checker (the rough equivalent to CHKDSK) and defragmenter as well as a disk-cloning tool, which is important if you completely run out of space on a drive and need to replace it with something larger. And yes, you can clone your system (or "boot") drive.

Arguably, Paragon's Partition Manager 9.0 had the most comfortable interface of the three packages. Version 10 increases the flexibility of the GUI. More practically, it's the most robust of the packages reviewed here.

Microsoft Vista

If you're not familiar with Microsoft Vista's own disk management tools, don't beat yourself up over it. They're not exactly lying around the desktop in plain sight.

To find them, you need to open the Control Panel, double-click Administrative Tools, double-click Computer Management, double-click Storage and finally double-click Disk Management (Local). There! That was simple, wasn't it?

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