There are many reasons to format a drive, including setting up a new computer, correcting drive errors, or needing a clean install of your operating system. Security also comes into play, as you’ll want to rid any discarded storage device of data, especially if it’s sensitive.
In this guide, we’re going to walk you through how to format your hard drive in Windows, macOS and Linux. Formatting has become a term used interchangeably with wipe, delete and erase, but they are not.
Deleting a file tells the OS that the space it occupied is now addressable for new data to be written, but the old data is still there. Likewise, a simple or quick format isn’t a secure wipe, it just makes room for a new file system and data.
Wiping vs Deleting Files
Worse is moving files to the recycle bin in Windows or trash in macOS. That doesn’t even remove the file, as it’s just put out of view until it is permanently deleted later. Deleted files are easily recoverable with data recovery software.
Wiping a drive, on the other hand, removes everything on it — stored, deleted or otherwise. You can do so with data destruction software using data sanitization methods, though recent versions of macOS and Windows include the same features to an extent.
Wiping is usually only done once you’re finished with the storage media or if you want the securest formatting possible. It’s the best way to ensure your data is truly gone and not recoverable. Unrecoverable means that it’s gone forever, so make sure to use one of our best online backup services before doing so.
Windows and macOS offer write-zero data sanitization with formatting options, so long as you choose to forego a quick format. The write-zero method is carried out by filling in all bits of data with zeros. That can be done in one pass or multiple, depending on the level of security desired. The process cannot be undone and protects the data from unwanted access and recovery.
Before we start, it’s important that you’ve backed up your important data. If you need help selecting an online backup provider, check out our best cloud backup guide.
Formatting a Drive in Windows
You can manually format a drive in Windows through the disk management tool or command prompt. For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to show how to do it with the disk management tool. It is part of every version of Windows (learn how to check your version here) and can be opened via computer management, Cortana or command prompt.
Keep in mind that you’ll need to partition the drive you are formatting if it has never been used or has been wiped before.
This guide to partitioning for Windows will help.