Disk formatting explained: When should I format my hard drive?

What does formatting a hard drive do?

When you want to wipe a hard drive clean, you can do so by formatting the drive. This process wipes all the data on the drive and sets up a new file system, which allows the operating system (OS) to read and write new data on the drive.

Disk formatting is usually done to prepare a new drive for its first use. It prepares the available space for OS installation and use. The three main things that you can do with a disk format is full data removal, file system change, and possibly refresh your computer for better performance.

If you’re looking to recycle or trade in your computer, you’d probably need to perform a disk format beforehand. You’ll be able to wipe out all your data, so it stays out of the hands of others. Disk formatting also installs a new OS onto the drive, so the next user can start out with a clean slate.

You may also try reinstalling your OS when you come across problems on your computer. Disk formatting could possibly solve a number of software issues. You could try doing this to solve problems like BSOD (blue screen of death) or boot errors. If your computer is running a bit slower that you’re used to, reinstalling the OS could also help as well.

With that said, remember to backup your data before you format the drive. As we’ve learnt, disk formatting wipes all the data off the drive, so you might want to get important data off the drive first. If you only have a few files that you need, just drag and drop onto an external hard drive or cloud storage. Alternatively, you may also use File History (Windows) or Time Machine (Apple macOS) to create full backups onto a hard drive.

How to format a hard drive

Windows recovery settings

The easiest way to format and reinstall the OS on a hard drive is through the computer’s built-in recovery mode. Both Windows and Mac computers have recovery modes accessible from boot up, and you can proceed with the disk formatting there. Another way is by going to Settings > Recovery, then resetting your computer from there.

After you’ve backed up the necessary data, restart your computer to enter recovery mode. For Windows laptops and desktop computers, you’ll need to enter the boot menu. That’s F8 for Dell, Esc for HP, and so on. There’s different keys for different brands of computers. For Macs, you’ll need to press both Command and R. Just press the right keys repeatedly when the logo splash screen comes on after you restart the computer.

Then you can choose to reset the PC, or “reinstall macOS” for Mac computers. There should be an option for you to reset the computer and keep the files, but if you’ve backed up your data, you can just choose the option to wipe everything. This process will take a while, so be prepared to have to sit around for a bit.

Using apps to format a hard drive

There are a number of ways to format a hard drive, and that includes disk management on Windows. You can do this on the same computer, or take out the drive and connect it to a different computer. This gets you better control of the process. Then open Disk Management from the Start menu, and you’ll find your drive there.

Make sure you don’t mix up the drives that you see on the app and format a drive that you didn’t mean to. You might want to rename the drive before you connect it to another computer. After selecting the drive that you want formatted, you can choose to format it.

Can data be recovered after the disk is formatted?

Miniature figures demonstrating data recovery on a hard disk drive

So you might have formatted a USB drive or hard drive by accident, and lost data as a result. The data has been deleted, but can sometimes be recovered. In most cases, data recovery doesn’t work all the time, but some files can still be salvaged.

Unfortunately for hard drives that have been formatted and have a new OS installed, the chances for data recovery are much slimmer. After a period of use, data sectors where files used to be become overwritten by new information. So the data that used to be on that sector is completely gone. Same goes for deleted files. Once they are overwritten, the data can’t be recovered.

Cleaning up the drive for more space Vs. cleaning up for better performance

So now we know that formatting a hard drive removes everything altogether. This prepares everything for a clean OS installation. But if you’re just looking to find more storage space out of your drive, you definitely don’t need to format it. You simply need to look for certain unused files and delete them, or move larger files onto an external storage device.

One thing to be sure though, cleaning files does not help to improve your computer’s performance. A lot of computer users think having a lot of files on their computers will slow it down, but it’s actually more about the programs installed on the drive. So giving the drive a clean slate can help with its performance. It won’t be a huge improvement though, since hard drives do lose performance over time. A hard drive replacement or an SSD upgrade would do much better for performance.

How to clean up storage space on your computer

Disk cleanup apps

System cleanup or disk cleanup on Windows computers is a built-in tool to help you scan your computer for unused files or previous installation files that you can remove. After a quick scan, you can pick and choose things to clean up your hard disk.

This is a Windows-only app, Apple computers don’t have such a function to help clean up your hard drive. You may try out third-party disk cleanup apps like CC Clean to help identify unused files that can be cleaned for more space.

Look for large media files

Cleaning up documents won’t have that much of an effect as they don’t take up much space usually. Their file sizes are a mere nothing compared to media files like photos and videos. Same goes for installed programs, which usually don’t take up much space. You’re free to uninstall apps that you don’t use anymore, as that can free up some space for the OS to work better.

Look through your media files and go from there. You can transfer them to an external hard drive, or upload them to the cloud. Uploading them to the cloud might take a while depending on your internet speeds, but it’s a secure backup that’s always accessible. As long as you have an internet connection, that is.

The wind-up

Now that you know what formatting does, you can confidently decide what you want to do depending on your data needs. Just know that if you’re looking to refresh your computer and make it run better, try formatting the drive and reinstalling the OS. Otherwise, simply deleting files off the drive won’t do much except clean out some storage space.

If you’re looking to recover data off of a formatted drive, or need some guidance on transferring your data to a new computer, we can help! At Safemode Computer Service, we offer expert advice and solutions to any computer issue you may come across. We have a “no fix, no fee” policy on all computers from Windows PCs to Apple MacBooks and iMac desktops (Ts & Cs apply). We are located conveniently in Enmore, Sydney, a quick stop from the CBD and the Inner West. Got a question about data recovery? Call us today or stop by our Enmore story today!