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What is your Format, Style and Type?

The underlying Format of a hard drive and how it has been configured for Style and Type are just a few of the things we need to consider before carrying out any partitioning, imaging and cloning, or before installing an operating system or bootmanager.

examining hard drive

Determine What Lies Within.

There are several things we need to establish about a hard drive before embarking on any major surgery. The modifying of partitions and boot records has never been something to take lightly and recent changes and design updates will make our lives even more complicated. In addition to Format, Style and Type we also need to consider such things as system or recovery partitions, drive encryption, hardware RAID and several other things. See our Various Variables section for a more complete list.

When creating a new dual or multi-boot system we would always recommend starting with a clean drive so that there are fewer surprises or restrictions ahead. Re-configuring an existing system can be a challenge but even starting from scratch now requires a decent working knowledge of Format and Style and at least the ability to recognize Type and know which to choose. Hopefully this article can help to bring these three main areas into better focus.

Format - The size of a hard drive’s internal sectors - either traditional 512bytes or the new 4K Advanced Format.
Style -  The partition scheme used on a drive - either the classic MBR or the up coming GUID Partition Table (GPT).
Type -  A Microsoft classification to distinguish between a Basic drive or their own Dynamic drive system.

Both of the different Formats of hard drive can be configured by Style and so be given either the MBR or GPT partitioning schemes. These 4 different arrangements can all also be configured by Type and so be converted to the Windows Dynamic disk system, which means there are 8 potential products of Format, Style and Type.

advanced format logo

Is Your Format Advanced?

Don’t confuse file systems and the formatting of partitions and drives with the underlying Format of the entire hard drive. A recent major upgrade to the internal workings of mechanical drives has given us the first of what is being called Advanced Format hard drives. By implication I suppose we have to start referring to traditional hard drives as being Classic or Old Format drives.

The new Advanced Format drive requires its partitions to be specifically aligned with the new larger sectors that are at the heart of the updated specifications. Any tool, utility or operating system that is used to create or manipulate partitions will need to be advanced format aware and work to the new rules to correctly configure the new drives. The mis-aligning of partitions with the new sectors can cause a performance loss, but it is using an incompatible tool on a hard drive that is of the biggest concern as this can lead to the corruption or even the deletion of existing partitions.

Advanced Format drives first appeared on the market in early 2010 but the first PCs did not start to ship with them until early 2011. Uptake was gradual however and they did not really become prevalent until around mid 2012. If your machine was manufactured from January 2011 then it could have an Advanced Format hard drive. Solid State drives (SSDs) are different internally and don't have physical sectors, but they should be configured to Advanced Format specifications.
info icon A plain language introduction to Advanced Format hard drives.
info icon How to determine if a hard drive is Advanced Format or traditional.
info icon Our guide to safely creating and working with Advanced Format drives and partitions.


mbr or gpt hard drive?

Establish Your Style.

There is a new partitioning Style poised to take over from the traditional MBR partitioning scheme. The GUID Partition Table (GPT) will offer many advantages over the old partitioning style and may eventually make multibooting a bit easier. It was designed for use with the new Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) which is the new motherboard firmware that is about to replace the long standing BIOS firmware of traditional PCs. As of Oct 2012 it is expected that most new PCs with Windows-8 installed will come with UEFI enabled motherboards and GPT styled hard drives. Intel based Mac computers have been using this system for a few years now.

New PCs and most component motherboards will for a while retain an option to switch between UEFI and BIOS firmware so that MBR styled hard drives and older operating systems can still be used. The only Windows operating systems that can be installed directly to a GPT styled hard drive are the 64bit versions of Vista,7 and 8. All other Windows versions will only natively install to MBR styled hard drives. It is however possible to use a GPT styled hard drive as a data drive in a BIOS machine as long as the operating system on the MBR boot hard drive is GPT aware, which is any version of Vista/7/8 and the 64bit version of XP. Most Linux distros are also now fully UEFI and GPT capable.

Multibooting from a GPT hard drive is going to be a different game to the classic MBR styled drive, so if you are on UEFI and using a GPT styled hard drive then please be aware that much of the current material on our site will not be applicable. We will be covering everything GPT in due course, but for now you may need to seek direction elsewhere. As yet there are no simple and truly user-friendly bootmanagers for GPT styled systems so if you want a multiboot machine you will either have to keep it simple by following only Microsoft methods, or be up to configuring one of the few GPT capable bootmanagers, or revert to an MBR styled boot hard drive with a BIOS set motherboard.
info iconDetermine if a drive has been configured with the MBR or GPT partitioning schemes.
info iconHow to establish if a machine is using UEFI or BIOS firmware.
info iconIntroduction to UEFI Firmware and the GPT style of hard drive partitioning

Dynamic Disks graphic

Don't be the Dynamic Type.

A Dynamic Disk is a hard drive that has been converted by Windows to use Microsoft’s own proprietary software RAID and volume management system. A Basic disk is just what Microsoft calls a standard hard drive that has not been converted to be Dynamic. Mixing any kind of RAID or dynamic disk system with multibooting and cloning is not something we advise and so we would recommend that if your machine has been configured to use dynamic disks you should either think again about onboard multibooting, or return drives back to Basic type and start from scratch. To determine the Type of a drive have a look at it in Windows own Disk Management utility, where it will be clearly labeled as either Basic or Dynamic. The Linux world also has a similar volume management system called Logical Volume Management (LVM) and as with the Windows version we would advise against using it in combination with any multibooting or cloning.

fig:1 - Disk Management View
isk Management screenshot
Of the three hard drives in this machine the second and third are Dynamic and the first (disk 0) is Basic.

Dynamic Limitations.
Only Windows operating systems can see and use dynamic disks and then only the high end fully featured versions of Windows since Win2000. This can obviously be a bit of a limiter when multibooting with operating systems that are not dynamic disk aware. The other main problem is that on dynamic disks you are limited to only one bootable partition (volume) per hard drive, so if all your disks or your only disk is dynamic then you have even fewer options. We think it is wise to avoid the use of dynamic disks in any dual or multiboot system unless you really are a super-geek who understands what you are doing and truly appreciates the limitations and risks involved. Many of the steps necessary to configure a multiboot machine can easily break dynamic disks and you don't ever want to be in the situation where you have to try and repair or recover volumes or data from broken dynamic disks.

Extract from Microsoft TechNet article: - http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/dd163558.aspx
Real World: Dynamic versus Basic Disks
We used to be big fans of dynamic disks. They provided increased flexibility and functionality in a way that was pretty transparent. And they were a huge step forward when they were introduced in Windows 2000........ If using dynamic disks increases your options, isn't that a good thing? Well, yes. But. And it's a big but. A dynamic disk complicates the disaster recovery process, and we dislike anything that creates potential issues in a disaster recovery scenario. We definitely don't think dynamic disks are appropriate for a system disk........




Spanner iconTech Bench Extra techie stuff for the enthusiasts.
Both Linux and Mac can be installed to and booted from a GPT configured hard drive in a BIOS machine without requiring onboard UEFI firmware. Windows can also be made to install and boot from GPT drives without motherboard UEFI, but it is a major task and not considered reliable enough for required working machines, so enthusiasts and developers only. info iconHybrid MBRs info iconUEFI DUET (outside links)

There is an easier way to get Windows booting from a GPT styled drive in a BIOS machine, but it requires having a separate MBR styled drive as the boot hard drive where the Windows System partition must live. Windows has to be cloned to the GPT drive and then added to the Windows bootmanager on the System partition. This only works for Windows 7 onwards and we've had it working with most versions of 7 and 8, and Server 2008-R2 and 2012. It even works for 32-bit versions!
info gifRunning Windows from GPT styled hard drive on a BIOS based computer. aaMSDN - Using GPT Drives



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