How PC makers destroy the Windows experience

Building a PC should be easy. Design great hardware, add an operating system and any specialized tools that your hardware needs, and delight the user. So why do some PC makers insist on screwing things up?

Update Dec 5 2012: Lenovo has released an official hotfix that adjusts the partitions and restores most of the previously unusable disk space. Details here .

How can PC makers screw up perfectly good PC designs? Their bag of tricks is seemingly endless, from cutting costs by specifying inferior hardware to loading new PCs with performance-sapping crapware.

But there's another stupid OEM trick you might not have run into: the incredible shrinking hard disk.

I stumbled across an example earlier this month when I read Walt Mossberg’s review of the new Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13. Mossberg praised Lenovo for the innovative design of this hybrid notebook, which can fold into seemingly impossible positions (thus the name) to work as a tablet or as a touch-first display with the keyboard portion acting as a stand, or in Tent Mode, as shown here.


It’s a clever design, if a bit odd and perhaps impractical. But this is the part of the review that jumped out at me:

You won’t be able to store much data on the Yoga, however. It is only available with a 128 gigabyte solid-state drive, and, shockingly, only 60 gigabytes of that is available to the user — the rest is occupied by system files.

At first I thought that had to be a typo. I’ve installed Windows 8 on dozens of PCs and I’ve seen Windows 8 installed on other manufacturers’ products gobbling far less disk space.

Yesterday, I stopped in at my local Best Buy (where Mossberg picked up his review unit) to investigate. I found a demo unit in a prominent location, opened the Disk Management console, and stared in disbelief at this display, which I captured in all its blurry detail using my phone's camera:


That picture is, I am sure, too fuzzy to view properly, so let me decode it.

First of all, the 128GB SSD is chopped into seven separate partitions. That's three more partitions than I found on a brand-new ASUS notebook I purchased from the Microsoft Store recently. (And the ASUS has a 500GB hard drive, so space isn’t at nearly as much of a premium as it is on the Lenovo.)

Here's what each of those partitions contains:

  • 1000 MB (Recovery Partition) – This partition contains Windows Recovery Environment tools and utilities, allowing you to repair problems that affect the system drive. The Lenovo partition seems considerably bigger than it needs to be. The equivalent partition is 600MB on my ASUS notebook.
  • 260 MB (EFI System Partition) – This partition (details here) contains boot files for a GPT disk. On my ASUS system, this partition is slightly smaller at 200MB.
  • 1000 MB (OEM Partition) – I have no idea what if anything is stored here (bundled programs, maybe?), and I wasn’t able to open it or assign a drive letter using the display model. The ASUS machine has no corresponding partition.
  • 63.91 GB (Windows 8_OS) – This is the system drive (C:). After all the bundled software, it has only 42.22GB available for user data storage.
  • 25.00 GB (LENOVO) – This is drive D:. It’s accessible in File Explorer, so you could use it for data storage. Apparently Lenovo created this enormous volume solely to hold about 1.7 GB of driver files.
  • 8.00 GB (unlabeled Primary Partition) – This is another mysterious disk space thief. It appears to be empty and it has no drive letter.
  • 20.00 GB (Recovery Partition) – This partition contains the recovery image that would be restored to the system drive if you use the Refresh or Reset option in Windows 8. This is the correct location for this partition, which is roughly the same size on the ASUS machine.

Now, an experienced Windows user could copy the driver files from drive D: to another location, then delete the D: partition and possibly the mysterious 8 GB unlabeled partition right after it. After turning those into free space, it would be possible to extend the system drive so that it contains nearly 97 GB of space, with 75 GB free for user data.

I can accept the need for those big recovery partitions. They make all sorts of useful repair scenarios possible, even easy, on modern PCs.

But no one should have to do that kind of under-the-hood tinkering on a brand-new PC just to get access to usable disk storage.

Lenovo, what were you thinking when you put together this customer-hostile partition layout? And why isn't anyone filing a lawsuit over this?

Update: Oh look! Someone posted detailed instructions on the Lenovo forum for restoring sanity to this wacky disk configuration. The end result is reportedly a system drive that is 112 GB in size. I haven't tried this myself, so proceed with caution (and a good backup).