Review: 3 partition managers take on Vista's built-in 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.

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