Formatting a hard drive is a quick way to erasing all content and cleaning a disk up before a sale, or a system installation. It’s not something people do everyday, so it’s OK to have forgotten the steps, or to be a little queezy about doing it. Here’s how to simply format a Windows disk, but let’s look at a few definitions first:
Each operating system uses different file systems to read and write data. You need to use the file system that works the best for you. If you’re not sure, and if you’re using a recent version of Windows (8, 10) pick NTFS since it works well for most people. Below are the most common file systems used by popular operating systems.
NTFS a.k.a New Technology File System is developed by Microsoft as a proprietary file system for Windows OS. This is Windows default file system. Windows and Linux (with the proper driver) can write and read to NTFS drives. Mac OS X can only read from NTFS drives but not write to them by default, even if the write support actually exists in the driver, but is disabled.
FAT32 is also designed by Microsoft, but it’s an older file system. Latest versions of Windows can not be installed on this old file system. However, it’s useful for external hard drives or USB flash drives since it also supports reading and writing on Mac OS X and Linux as well.
The major flaw in a FAT32 formatted drive is the fact that you can only store data up to 4GB files and have a maximum of 2TB of total disk size which is smaller than today’s largest drives. Other implementations have larger cluster sizes (minimum size for a data block) and can push the total size beyond 2TB. For more information on FAT limitation read this.
This is completely similar to FAT32 sans the downside. You can store more than 4GB data per file on exFAT formatted drives so it can be used for larger data storage as well. Similar to FAT32, exFAT can be read and written by both Windows and Mac OS X. Linux requires extra package installation to support read and write functionality for exFAT.
Before you start formatting a single partition or your entire drive, always make sure to backup your important data. Move your important files to an external hard drive, flash storage, or cloud storage before formatting otherwise you risk losing your entire data.
Method #1: Quick Format
This is the simplest and quickest way of formatting a single drive. You can quickly format a flash storage device, external hard drive, or even a hard drive partition on your computer. However, you can not quick-format your system drive (in most cases it’s C: drive or the drive where you have installed Windows).
To quick-format a drive, proceed as follows:
- Open My Computer/This PC.
- Right-click on the drive you want to format.
- Select ‘Format’
- Click ‘Start’ and the drive will be formatted in a minute.
Method #2: Format Entire Hard Drive or System Partition
If you also want to format your system drive or want to clean your entire hard drive, then this is the perfect option. Since you are formatting your system drive, it means you will lose your currently installed OS as well. You will have to reinstall the OS (Windows in this case).
Just pop in the Windows installation CD/DVD in your computer and boot it up. When you get to the drives list, select drive options and click ‘Format’. The Windows installer will format the selected drives for you. You can then install a fresh copy of Windows on your Hard drive from scratch.
Just pop in Windows installation CD/DVD in your computer and boot it up. When you get to the drives list, just select drive options and click ‘Format’. The Windows installer will format the selected drives for you. You can then install a fresh copy of Windows on your Hard drive from scratch.
Method #3: Securely Wipe Your Hard Drive
Both these options seem simple and straightforward for Windows users. However, if you are selling your hard drive or PC and want to format your drives to get rid of your personal data, then these formatting options are not recommended.
Any decent file recovery software can recover most of your formatted files (as shown in our How To Recover Deleted Files page), or at least enough information to make it a privacy hazard. You may also want to read our How To Wipe a Hard Drive article.
Method #4: Re-Initialize Windows Securely without reinstalling the OS
On Windows 10, Windows 8.1 and Windows 8, you can simply erase everything on your hard drive completely and keep a clean installation of the operating system only.
Head over to Settings > Update & Security > Recovery and select “Reset This PC”. Choose “Remove Everything” option; it will delete all your data and securely wipe your hard drive beyond recovery. It will also reset your PC and perform a clean installation of Windows 10 on your computer as well.
You can also use a free utility such as CCleaner to securely wipe single partitions or external drives from within Windows. Open CCleaner > Tools > Drive Wiper and select the drive you want to format. In the Security drop-down menu, select ‘Complex Overwrite (7 passes)’, this will ensure your data is unrecoverable by any data recovery tool.
Often people think that doing a 7-pass overwrite is the most secure way of formatting a mechanical hard drive. However, according to SANS-DFIR, even a single overwrite pass is enough to wipe the drive beyond any recovery.
If your computer has an SSD, the data should be gone after it is deleted, and you can “securely wipe it” if you want, but there’s no point in using multiple passes.