PartedMagic: An Open Source Alternative for Partition Editing

Tuesday Aug 5th 2008 by Bruce Byfield

Partitioning your hard drive is comparatively easy with this free tool.

If you want to add space to a drive, store personal data on a separate partition from your operating system, or run multiple operating systems from the same hard drive, then you need a partition editor.

Traditionally, this is a field where alternative operating systems have always lead in the available tools. PartitionMagic, the first partition editor, started life as an OS/2 program for users who wanted to dual boot, and GNU Parted brought partition editing to the GNU/Linux command line in 1999. Since then, various interfaces -- most notably, GParted -- have tried to bring GNU Parted's functionality to the desktop.

However, from what I've seen, by far the most successful of these efforts is the newly released PartedMagic version 3.0. The name suggests that PartedMagic is meant as a free alternative to proprietary tools like PartitionMagic -- a goal in which it easily succeeds, despite a mildly eccentric desktop.

Getting Ready to Use PartedMagic

PartedMagic consists not just of GParted, but also of a mini-distribution that includes tools you might need while re-partitioning a hard drive. Available in both a CD and USB flashdrive image, at 44.5 megabytes, PartedMagic is quick to download and burn. It is also noticeably quicker to run than the average live CD, which is a relief, given that a slow response time can easily cause you to make mistakes when you are resizing or moving multiple partitions.

Starting PartedMagic, you have the option of using the default Xorg graphics server, or, if that fails, Xvesa or the command line, from which you can use the plain but serviceable GNU Parted. As the graphical version loads into RAM, the CD ejects, relieving you of the need to worry about it later.

If you are new to editing partitions, then before you start, you should learn the difference between primary and extended partitions, noting especially why you can only have four primary partitions and must use an extended partition if you want more.

Similarly, if you are unfamiliar with how GNU/Linux names partitions, you need to know that your C: drive under Windows is probably labeled /dev/sda1 in PartedMagic, meaning it is on the first hard drive (a) and is the first partition (1). To avoid accidentally editing the wrong partition, you might want to use the label command in Windows to give each existing partition a unique name that you can read in PartedMagic.

The Desktop

If you choose a graphical server, PartedMagic boots directly on to an Xfce desktop that has unnecessary features such as wallpaper customization removed. For some reason, though, it still has four workspaces (that is, multiple desktops), a choice that eats up available memory and slightly slows performance.

The main desktop modification is that, instead of having the menu on the left of the panel, with other icons shifted to the left to be adjacent, PartedMagic puts its basic partitioning tools on the far right, with the main menu third from the right. These changes seem needless, but can be quickly detected. If you want, you can even move the main menu to its traditional place on the panel, then use the Saving Parted Magic script in the menu to back up your changes so you can re-use them in your next session.

There is also a system summary on the desktop, although it is of minimal use, since you are unlikely to care much about the kernel PartedMagic is running or the uptime of the live CD. Possibly, though, you just might care about the main processes that are running, in case you run short of space and need to kill one or two of them from the command line provided.

The toolkit

PartedMagic's basic tools are available on each side of the main menu icon. They include a terminal (useful for advanced users who know how to use the utilities for various partition formats, or for those wanting to make sure that all partitions are unmounted and ready for editing); a choice of PCMan or Midnight Commander for a file manager; and networking tools, ranging from XChat to Firefox (useful if you need more information on what you’re doing or want to connect to the Internet for help, though a browser with a smaller footprint might be a better choice).

From the menu, you can also choose from about a dozen other tools. These include a calculator that can help you as you figure the size of partitions, a partition image creator that you can back up to a USB device, and a script for creating a bootable USB device.

However, the basic tool is Gparted, which is placed on the left side of the icons, where you will encounter it first. Before using it, you may want to use the partition image creator to backup your data to a USB device since. Although partition editing is generally safe, accidents can occur if your power supply is interrupted.

Gparted is a near duplicate of PartitionMagic's main window, both in appearance and functionality. At the top right is a listing of available hard drives. Below that is a graphical representation of the hard drive, followed by a detail view that gives its size and format.

Gparted supports an even greater variety of filesystems than PartitionMagic, including not only the common Windows formats, such as FAT16, FAT32, and NTFS and the common GNU/Linux formats, such as Ext2, Ext 3 and Linux swap, but also the Mac's hfs and hfs+, and advanced journalling formats such as JFS, XFS, ReiserFS and Reiser4.

Probably, you should not choose one of the more exotic choices without looking them up on the Internet, but if you select GParted -> Show Features, you can see what operations Gparted can do with each. Gparted cannot, for example, grow or shrink Reiser4-formatted partitions, nor shrink XFS-formatted ones.

To work with a partition, select it in either the graphical or detailed view, and right-click for a menu of operations that you can perform. You should start by running a check on the partition to see if it has any problems that might interfere with your plans. If you run into a problem, you can use the online help or the Internet connection to learn what command line tools can help you correct it before you try to edit the partition.

You might also want to use Partition -> Label to add labels to selected partitions to minimize confusion, especially if you are unfamiliar with how GNU/Linux system names partitions. Usually, you can identify Windows partitions by their size or their NTFS format, although you should be sure you are oriented before you start editing.

After you have taken these precautions, you are free to create new partitions, and delete, move or resize most existing ones. You might, for example, want to shrink your Windows partition to give you enough room for an Ext3 and swap partition to which to install Ubuntu. Or possibly you need more room on your Fedora partition, so you want to shrink your Windows partition and enlarge the Fedora partition.

As you make choices, you will see the number of operations pending listed at the bottom left of the editing window. Your changes, though, will only take effect once you select Edit -> Apply All Operations. If you make a mistake, you can undo the previous operation, or clear all of them. Once you select Apply All Operations, you can wait anywhere from two minutes to several hours, depending on the sizes of the partitions that you are altering and the number of changes you are making.

When you are finished, you can log out of PartedMagic and enjoy the changes you made, either installing another operating system or taking advantage of the extra space you have gained. In a Windows system, you may want to defragment all the partitions you have edited to improve performance.

Why Go Proprietary?

PartedMagic's desktop and use of GNU/Linux partition names may be initially confusing for Windows users. However, these problems are easily overcome, and PartedMagic remains one of the best tools in its category, not only equaling proprietary rivals, but, in its selection of tools and support for multiple partition formats, far exceeding them. It’s another of the growing number of examples of how free and open source tools are overtaking commercial ones, and I would recommend it not only to GNU/Linux users, but to Windows users as well.

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