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Hard Disk Formatting and Capacity

Most PC users are familiar with the concept that a hard disk--in fact, all storage media-must be formatted before it can be used. There is usually some confusion, however, regarding exactly what formatting means and what it does. This is exacerbated by the fact that modern hard disks are not formatted in the same way that older ones were, and also the fact that the utilities used for formatting behave differently when acting on hard disks than when used for floppy disks. This section takes a look at issues surrounding disk formatting and capacity, discusses unformatted and formatted hard disk capacity, and looks briefly at formatting utilities. Two Formatting Steps Many PC users don't realize that formatting a hard disk isn't done in a single step. In fact, three steps are involved: 1. Low-Level Formatting: This is the "true" formatting process for the disk. It creates the physical structures (tracks, sectors, control information) on the hard disk. Normally, this step begins with the hard disk platters "clean", containing no information. It is discussed in more detail here. 2. Partitioning: This process divides the disk into logical "pieces" that become different hard disk volumes (drive letters). This is an operating system function and is discussed in detail in its own section. 3. High-Level Formatting: This final step is also an operating-system-level command. It defines the logical structures on the partition and places at the start of the disk any necessary operating system files. Read more about it here. As you can see, two of the three steps are "formatting", and this dual use of the word is a big part of what leads to a lot of confusion when the term "formatting" is used. Another strange artifact of history is that the DOS "FORMAT" command behaves differently when it is used on a hard disk than when it is used on a floppy disk. Floppy disks have simple, standard geometry and cannot be partitioned, so the FORMAT command is programmed to automatically both low-level and high-level format a floppy disk, if necessary. For hard disks, however, FORMAT will only do a high-level format. Low-level formatting is performed by the controller for older drives, and at the factory for newer drives.

This procedure explains how to setup a new hard disk. Warning - if you are setting up a hard disk which contains data, the following procedure would completely erase your hard disk and the data would be unrecoverable. Before a new hard disk can be used it needs to be setup. This involves partitioning and formatting the hard disk. Windows 98 or ME boot disk contains the required software to perform this procedure. FDISK.EXE and FORMAT.COM are the files required in your bootable floppy disk. Start the partition and format procedure by booting your PC using a Windows boot disk. Make sure you set the BIOS so that the boot sequence is set to detect the floppy disk first. If your system has no problems booting you will be presented with a Windows boot disk menu. This gives you the option to start the system with or without CD-ROM support. At this stage you do not need the CD-ROM support, so choose the option to boot without CDROM support. You should end up in the MS DOS prompt A: (A drive). From A: command prompt type fdisk. You will be presented with following message:

Choose "Y" to enable large disk support. You will now be presented with the FDISK main menu as shown below.

From the menu, choose option 1 - Create DOS partition or Logical DOS drive. Another menu will present the following options.

Choose option 1 - Create primary DOS Partition. FDISK verifies the integrity of your drive and will ask you if want to use the maximum available size of your hard disk to create the primary partition and set it active. To keep things simple we will create one large partition. Choose "Y" to use maximum available space. When the partition has been created successfully you will be notified by the system. Your drive is now known as C: (C drive). Press "Esc" to return to the menu. Press "Esc" again to exit FDISK. You need to restart your system for the changes to take affect. Leave boot disk in the drive.

When the system reboots, choose start without CD-ROM from the boot disk menu. While booting from floppy disk you might get error message like "Invalid media type reading drive C" this is OK for this stage as the hard disk is not formatted. From A: command prompt type format c: You will get a message saying "WARNING, ALL DATA ON NON-REMOVABLE DISK DRIVE C: WILL BE LOST. Proceed with Format (Y/N)?". Don't worry about the message as you do not have any data in the new hard disk. Choose "Y". The format will proceed and would show you a progress indicator. The time it takes to format a hard disk depends on the size and speed of the drive. This could be around 5-30 minutes. Once the format is complete you need to reset your system. You are now ready to install an operating system