If you’re reading this, it’s because you have a new HDD (hard disk drive) or SSD (solid-state drive).
Maybe it’s packed with bloatware and you want to wipe it clean and start from scratch. Or you bought a used drive from someone, and you don’t trust that they’ve cleared it properly. Or maybe the drive was formatted for another operating system like Mac or Linux, in which case it may be unusable on Windows or at the very least could cause compatibility issues.
Whatever the case, you should always format a brand new data drive because you never know what a previous owner has hidden on it — not just bloatware, but malware, viruses, keyloggers, and other scary things. Keep reading for step-by-step instructions on how to do this.
Formatting HDDs and SSDs in Windows
Formatting a data drive means wiping it clean and resetting the drive’s internal file system to use a particular format: FAT32, NTFS, EXT4, etc. Given a particular file, the format determines how exactly individual bits should be stored on the drive.
Windows 10 makes it very easy to format drives, so it’s not the process that’s difficult. The hard part is finding the confidence to follow the instructions and do it yourself — and even that’s not very difficult. Never done this before? Relax. You’ll be fine.
1. Launch Disk Management
Most users do this by opening the Start Menu and searching for “Disk Management”, which brings up a Control Panel option titled Create and format hard disk partitions. Click it to launch Disk Management.
But there’s a faster way: in Windows 8.1 or 10 press Win + X to launch the Power Menu, then click Disk Management. There are other ways too, but they’re unnecessary when you can just do this.
2. Partition the Data Drive (optional)
You can segment a physical data drive into multiple individual parts, called partitions. This lets you take a 500 GB drive and split it into, say, one 300 GB partition and one 200 GB partition. Windows will then recognize it as two separate drives (C: and D:, for example).
You can also take multiple partitions and combine them.
Most modern drives are already prepared as one partition by the manufacturer so this step isn’t necessary to continue, but you should consider splitting your drive for better organization. Or if the drive is used, you should re-partition it to your liking.
Check out our guide to partitioning drives in Windows for detailed instructions on how to do that.
3. Format the Right Drive
View the list of volumes at the top and find the drive that you want to format. Note that even though I said drive, Disk Management actually formats individual partitions. Remember that Windows views each partition as a separate drive, so you can indeed format them separately.
To format, right-click on the drive and select Format. Be absolutely sure that this is the drive you want! Formatting the wrong drive could have disastrous consequences, ranging from lost personal data to an inoperable system.
Pro Tip: New, unformatted drives will appear as RAW under the File System column whereas prepared drives will be either FAT32 or NTFS. Linux drives are usually EXT4.
Note that you cannot format the Windows system drive (usually the C: drive but not always). It requires more complicated methods to format the Windows drive, and that’s beyond the scope of this article.
4. Select the Right Settings
The Volume Label is the name of the drive. This is what appears in File Explorer when you’re browsing This PC. You can name it whatever you want, as long as you use letters and numbers only.
For File System, you’ll want to choose NTFS. It’s the most recent file system used by Microsoft as of this writing, and most modern data drives are optimized for this file system, especially SSDs. If you cannot use NTFS for whatever reason, FAT32 is fine (unless you need support for file sizes greater than 4 GB, in which case you should use exFAT).
Don’t worry about Allocation Unit Size and just leave it on Default.
We recommend unchecking Perform a quick format. When it’s enabled, the drive is assumed to be error-free and all of its contents are only marked as deleted. Running a standard format will actually go through and overwrite the entire drive with zeroes. The downside is that it takes a lot longer whereas a quick format is almost instantaneous.
We also recommend unchecking Enable file and folder compression because it can negatively impact your day-to-day drive performance. This feature was more useful back when drive space was limited, but now you can buy huge drives for very cheap.
5. Format and Finish
Click OK and you’ll see a warning about losing data.
Before you continue, double-check that the drive has nothing important on it. And if it does, make sure you back up that data to a safe location.
Click OK again and your drive will show as “Formatting” under the Status column in Disk Management. Wait until it finishes — it could take several minutes or hours if you chose to perform a standard format. Once it’s done, you’re done!
Data Management Made Easy
Keeping your drives organized and tidy is easy if you know how to do it. The importance of keeping on top of filling drives and refreshing your system every now and again can’t be understated.
Everything has a lifespan and data drives are no exception. HDDs and SSDs both wear out over time, the only question is how long they’ll last. So be sure to learn the warning signs of a dying HDD and the warning signs of a dying SSD.
Long before your drive starts to fail, make sure you prolong it with regular maintenance, and keep as much space free as you can.
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