MBR/DOS vs GPT partition scheme for Linux

When partitioning a hard disk or other storage device, you have a choice on what type of partition scheme to use. By far, the two most common partition schemes to use are MBR (Master Boot Record, sometimes also referred to as msdos) and GPT (GUID Partition Table). When preparing to partition and format your hard drive, it is important to understand the differences between these two schemes in order to choose which one is ideal for your situation.

In this tutorial, we will look at the differences of MBR/DOS vs GPT partition schemes. We will specifically look at them through the context of a Linux system, and give you some pointers so you can quickly and reliably determine which of these two schemes you should be using for your storage devices. Read on to learn about the differences.

In this tutorial you will learn:

  • MBR/DOS vs GPT partition schemes: what’s the difference?
  • Linux tools that can be used to write MBR and GPT partition tables to disk
MBR/DOS vs GPT partition scheme for Linux
MBR/DOS vs GPT partition scheme for Linux
Software Requirements and Linux Command Line Conventions
Category Requirements, Conventions or Software Version Used
System Any Linux distro
Software fdisk, gdisk, parted, gparted
Other Privileged access to your Linux system as root or via the sudo command.
Conventions # – requires given linux commands to be executed with root privileges either directly as a root user or by use of sudo command
$ – requires given linux commands to be executed as a regular non-privileged user

MBR/DOS vs GPT partition scheme – quick answer

If you are looking for a quick answer, here it is:

  • MBR is an older partition scheme that has been replaced by GPT
  • GPT only works with UEFI, not legacy BIOS
  • MBR has a 2 TB disk limit and can only use up to 4 primary partitions

For old Linux systems with legacy BIOS, use MBR. Otherwise, stick with GPT. If you are not using the disk as a boot drive, select GPT.

MBR vs GPT – full explanation

MBR (Master Boot Record) has been around since the 1980s, and with today’s technology, we are now pushing past its capabilities. Disks larger than 2 TB are becoming increasingly commonplace, and MBR cannot work with disks that exceed 2 TB. Furthermore, you can only have up to four primary partitions on an MBR formatted disk.

GPT (GUID Partition Table) will work with any size disk currently on the market, and will for many years to come. It also supports virtually limitless partitions. It is the replacement for MBR.

MBR goes hand in hand with BIOS, and GPT with UEFI. UEFI will require a GPT formatted disk in order to boot. Conversely, a system with legacy BIOS will require a boot disk formatted with MBR. All modern PCs already have UEFI, so MBR is becoming more and more unnecessary, except in the case of an old computer (2007 or earlier models).

If you are formatting a drive that you do not plan to boot from, then even a legacy BIOS system can utilize a GPT disk. So, in this case, it is always better to opt for GPT over MBR. The only reason to use MBR is if you are formatting a boot disk for a computer with legacy BIOS.

Linux partitioning tools

There are many command line and GUI tools that can be used to partition a disk as either MBR or GPT on Linux. We will run through some of our favorites below.

  • fdisk is a classic command line utility that can only handle MBR and various other schemes, but not GPT.
  • gdisk is a more modern version of fdisk and can handle GPT.
  • parted is another popular command line tool, capable of both MBR and GPT, and others.
  • gparted is the GUI counterpart of parted and can handle MBR, GPT, and others.

Closing Thoughts

In this tutorial, we learned about the difference between MBR and GPT partition schemes through the context of a Linux system. The key take away here is that GPT should be used in almost all situations. The only exception is if you are configuring a boot disk for a system that still uses legacy BIOS.

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