How to Unpartition a Hard Drive

By Dan Stone

Partitioning storage devices like hard drives is an efficient way to organize and protect your data. However, juggling those partition, or volume, sizes can lead to problems when one partition needs more space than you planned for. In order to resolve the problem, you may opt to unpartition the storage device's volumes and build new volumes from scratch. You can also try extending and shrinking partition sizes to work around storage space issues.

About Partitions And Allocation

Without partitions, data storage devices are big piles of unorganized data. Partitioning a storage device defines and applies a file system -- a method for making sense of how and where data is stored on the device so the computer knows where to write new data and recall stored data. Storage device space that's part of a partition, or volume, is called "allocated" -- if it's not allocated, it's unallocated. Removing a partition changes allocated space to unallocated space. Once unallocated, the space can be used to extend an existing partition or merge with other unallocated space to form a new partition. For example, you can change a partition file system from New Technology File System to Extended File Allocation Table (NTFS is more secure, but proprietary to Microsoft products, whereas almost any device works with ExFAT).

After Pulling The Plug

Back up the data stored on a partition before deleting the partition. Unless you're a data recovery expert, you're going to have a difficult time getting any data off of unallocated space. While removing a partition doesn't delete the data on the storage device, it does the equivalent of removing page numbers, the table of contents and the index from a book. All the information is still there, but good luck finding it.

Strategic Partitioning Practices

Partitioning is required, even if the storage device uses only one continuous volume. There is a method to the madness of running multiple partitions on a single storage device. Often, people use partitions to organize data between multiple users. Also, isolating your operating system to a smaller partition of a hard drive and storing your personal data on a different partition makes it easier to reinstall or upgrade the operating system -- clearing the operating system partition doesn't delete your personal files. You cannot delete a partition on external storage devices -- you can only reformat them -- because Windows reads only the first partition on these devices unless you modify the system.

Removing Partitions With Disk Management

Windows has a built-in program called Disk Management that can remove partitions for you. While the File/Windows Explorer methods vary between operating system versions, Windows Vista, 7 and 8 all feature a functionally identical Disk Management tool. To access the tool on any Windows version, press "Windows Key-R," type "diskmgmt.msc" and press "Enter." The Disk Management tool lists all the connected storage device partitions under the "Volume" column; use this information to identify the partition you want to remove. Right-click on the volume you want to un-partition and select "Delete Volume..." from the menu. Select "Yes" in the pop-up menu to complete the process.

Using Third-Party Partition Management Tools

Microsoft isn't the only game in town for partition management. If the Windows Disk Management tool isn't up to par, third-party programs like Paragon Hard Disk Manager, EaseUS Partition Master, AOEMEI Partition Assistant and CompuApps SwissKnight can handle partition deletion as well (see Resources).