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I run Archlinux, Slackware13.1-multilib, Debian Sid, and Sabayon on this laptop. I share a /data partition between all distros, my important stuff goes there (including a copy of any config files that I don't want to have to redo ).
That said, I have not had a catastrophic failure on any of these, but I'm ready if it happens.
FWIW, here's how my HD is laid out:
root@Frank2:/home/bruce# fdisk -l
Disk /dev/sda: 200.0 GB, 200049647616 bytes
255 heads, 63 sectors/track, 24321 cylinders
Units = cylinders of 16065 * 512 = 8225280 bytes
Sector size (logical/physical): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
I/O size (minimum/optimal): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
Disk identifier: 0x0007c950
Device Boot Start End Blocks Id System
/dev/sda1 1 243 1951866 82 Linux swap / Solaris
/dev/sda2 * 244 304 489982+ 83 Linux #/boot (not using this partition currently)
/dev/sda3 305 10815 84429607+ 83 Linux #/data - mounted in each distro with an entry in the respective fstab
/dev/sda4 10816 24321 108486914 5 Extended
/dev/sda5 10816 14640 30724281 83 Linux #Debian Sid
/dev/sda6 14641 16590 15663343+ 83 Linux #Arch
/dev/sda7 16591 18540 15663343+ 83 Linux #Slackware13.1-multilib
/dev/sda8 18541 20485 15623181 83 Linux #Sabayon
/dev/sda9 20486 22430 15623181 83 Linux #currently empty, used for any other distro I want to play with for a while ;)
/dev/sda10 22431 24321 15189426 83 Linux #currently empty, plan to use for LinuxFromScratch
EDIT: I also use virtualbox a lot for test-driving, to decide if it's worth installing for while.
You can't protect yourself by partitioning. This applies to all installs, not just alphas.
I've had GA releases trash the entire harddisk. Even installing into a virtual (a good option IMHO) doesn't help a lot. That masks any misbehaviour until you try it in the real world. Then you can get bit unexpectedly.
I keep an old machine for this testing. Rebuild is no concern on it.
Certainly - the guest (installer) generally only sees one single disk, /dev/sda which is actually just a disk file on the host. You can partition it however you like with no fear of trampling on your current environment. And you won't have the MBR on your (real) boot disk getting overwritten even when you tell the installer to install into the root partition or another disk altogether. This is a real problem these days as the devs try to make things "idiot proof" - I wonder where the idiots really are sometimes. Ubuntu forcing grub2 down everyones throats is a case in point.
You can have trouble with hardware - particularly video, but if it's merely a test that isn't generally too big of an issue. As I said, may not protect you when you finally install in the real world, but it's a good option.
Why not use a virtual machine? If your current hardware can support it, it might do the trick. Besides, you can keep images of the VM and if something blows up, you can just revert to the earlier image.