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Definition: To format a drive (hard disk, floppy disk, flash drive, etc.) means to prepare the chosen partition on the drive to be used by an operating system by deleting all of the data1 and setting up a file system.

The most popular file system to support Windows is NTFS but FAT32 is also sometimes used.

In Windows, formatting a partition is usually done from the Disk Management tool. You can also format a drive using the format command in a command line interface like Command Prompt.

Note: It might help to know that a partition usually encompasses an entire physical hard drive. That's why we often say "format a drive" when in reality, you're formatting a partition on the drive... it just so happens that the partition may be the whole size of the drive.

Here are some common things you might do related to formatting:

Important: Formatting the C: drive, or whatever letter happens to identify the partition that Windows is installed on, must be done from outside of Windows. See How To Format C for instructions.

Note: If you're looking for information on formatting an existing hard drive just so you can install Windows on it, don't worry - you don't have to manually format a hard drive to do this. Formatting a hard drive is part of the "clean install" method of installing Windows. See How To Clean Install Windows for more information.

[1] In Windows XP and prior versions of Windows, the data on a hard drive's partition isn't truly erased during a format, it's simply marked as "available" by the new file system. In other words, it tells the operating system that uses the partition to pretend there's no data, even though there really is. See How To Wipe a Hard Drive for instructions on completely erasing the information on a drive.

"I bought a new 2TB SATA hard drive to keep my movies and music on. I installed the new drive as a slave in my desktop, created a single partition on the drive, and formatted it NTFS."

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