Support for partitioned media, and thereby the master boot record (MBR), was introduced with IBM PC DOS 2.0 in March 1983 in order to support the 10 MB hard disk of the then-new IBM Personal Computer XT, still using the FAT12 file system. The original version of the MBR was written by David Litton of IBM in June 1982. The partition table supported up to four primary partitions, of which DOS could only use one. This did not change when FAT16 was introduced as a new file system with DOS 3.0. Support for an extended partition, a special primary partition type used as a container to hold other partitions, was added with DOS 3.2, and nested logical drives inside an extended partition came with DOS 3.30. Since MS-DOS, PC DOS, OS/2 and Windows were never enabled to boot off them, the MBR format and boot code remained almost unchanged in functionality, except for in some third-party implementations, throughout the eras of DOS and OS/2 up to 1996.
In 1996, support for logical block addressing (LBA) was introduced in Windows 95B and DOS 7.10 in order to support disks larger than 8 GB. Disk timestamps were also introduced. This also reflected the idea that the MBR is meant to be operating system and file system independent. However, this design rule was partially compromised in more recent Microsoft implementations of the MBR, which enforce CHS access for FAT16B and FAT32 partition types 06hex/0Bhex, whereas LBA is used for 0Ehex/0Chex.
Despite sometimes poor documentation of certain intrinsic details of the MBR format (which occasionally caused compatibility problems), it has been widely adopted as a de facto industry standard, due to the broad popularity of PC-compatible computers and its semi-static nature over decades. This was even to the extent of being supported by computer operating systems for other platforms. Sometimes this was in addition to other pre-existing or cross-platform standards for bootstrapping and partitioning.
MBR partition entries and the MBR boot code used in commercial operating systems, however, are limited to 32 bits. Therefore, the maximum disk size supported on disks using 512-byte sectors (whether real or emulated) by the MBR partitioning scheme (without using non-standard methods) is limited to 2 TiB. Consequently, a different partitioning scheme must be used for larger disks, as they have become widely available since 2010. The MBR partitioning scheme is therefore in the process of being superseded by the GUID Partition Table (GPT). The official approach does little more than ensuring data integrity by employing a protective MBR. Specifically, it does not provide backward compatibility with operating systems that do not support the GPT scheme as well. Meanwhile, multiple forms of hybrid MBRs have been designed and implemented by third parties in order to maintain partitions located in the first physical 2 TiB of a disk in both partitioning schemes "in parallel" and/or to allow older operating systems to boot off GPT partitions as well. The present non-standard nature of these solutions causes various compatibility problems in certain scenarios.
The MBR consists of 512 or more bytes located in the first sector of the drive.
It may contain one or more of: