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Reformat Hard Drive

Reformat The Hard Drive

Last Updated: April 28, 2008

These instructions should work with all versions of Windows, but it has not been tested with Microsoft Vista.  It has been tested with all other versions though.

Reformatting the C: drive and reinstalling Windows, the software, and your data can take 12-25 hours of sitting in front of the computer regardless of your skill level or computer speed.  There is a risk of loosing your data and/or software settings.  Reformat at your own risk.

Some computers require a keyboard with a purple, PS/2, 6 pin round connector at the end instead of a more modern, flat USB plug.  Step 5 requires a keyboard to make a choice during bootup.  Older computers don't recognize USB ports that early in the bootup process, so anything connected to a USB port won't work.  Find, borrow or buy a keyboard with a PS/2 connector before continuing.

I've found it helpful to write down what I've done as I'm doing it so that if something goes wrong, I have a record of what I did.  It makes things much easier if I need help.  It also serves as modified or enhanced instructions in case I need to go through this again.

In the steps below, I've mentioned outdated hardware such as Zip drives and dial-up modems in case someone is still using them.  It does not mean this section is old or out dated.


  1. Inventory the hardware and software (0.5 hours)
  2. Locate the original installation CDs and registration keys for each software application and original installation CDs for most of the pieces of hardware (0.5-1 hour)
  3. Download the latest drivers for the hardware and updates for the software (1-5 hours)
  4. Backup the entire hard drive (1-5 hours)
  5. Reformat the hard drive (1 hour)
  6. Install Windows (0.5-1 hour)
  7. Install hardware drivers and set personal preferences (1-2 hours)
  8. Install anti-virus and firewall software, run updates, and set personal preferences (1 hour)
  9. Connect to the internet and e-mail (0.5-2 hours)
  10. Install Windows updates (1-3 hours)
  11. Install additional software, install update, and set personal preferences (0.5 hours per application)
  12. Copy the data files from the backup (1 hour)
  13. Consider buying and using backup software

Step #1 - Inventory the hardware and software

Download, install, run, and print the results from Belarc Advisor.  It will take a hardware and software inventory of your computer.

If you don't have a printer, click on File, Save As... and save the web page to an USB flash drive or a floppy disk.  Take the disk to a computer with a printer, use Windows Explorer to open the web page on the A: drive for the floppy disk, and print it.  USB flash drives are typically any drive between drive E: and M:.  It all depends on how many other drives are connected to the computer.

Step #2 - Locate the installation CDs and registration keys

Find the installation CD for most everything on the list of hardware and software that Belarc Advisor listed on the print out.  There are some exceptions.

Installation CDs for hardware are not needed for the hard drive, CD or DVD drive, floppy drive, motherboard, processor, memory, wired Ethernet network card, USB ports, firewire ports, and memory card reader.  They will all work with drivers supplied by Windows.

Installation CDs for software are not needed for Internet Explorer, MediaPlayer, DirectX, Messenger, Cinematronics 3D Pinball, InstallShield unInstaller, and anything that has Microsoft Windows as part of its name.  These are included in Windows.

Belarc Advisor will miss a lot of registration keys.  A registration key is a group of numbers and/or letters that allow you to use the software.  They are also called serial numbers, product activation numbers, or software licenses.  Only software that you pay for requires a registration key.  If you are unsure of what software requires a registration key, load the software in question.  On the menu, click on Help, About and the registration key will appear, if there is one at all.  Write it down.  Once the hard drive has been reformatted, these registration keys will be erased.  You will not be able to use the software without entering the registration key first.

Find the original Windows installation CD too.  If you purchased an "upgrade" version of Windows, you will also need the full, non-upgrade version of an older version of Windows.  The "upgrade" version will stop the installation for a minute to verify that you own an older version of Windows.

Step #3 - Download updated drivers and software upgrades

A driver is software that translates instructions between Windows and a piece of hardware so the two can talk to each other.  The sound card has a driver.  The video card has driver.  The keyboard has a driver.  The mouse has a driver, etc.  Windows comes with many drivers that it will automatically install, but many drivers still need to be installed manually.

During the Windows Update process in step #10 below, many of the drivers will be downloaded automatically.  However, some hardware comes with extra software.  For example, a mulitmedia keyboard or wireless mouse may be missing some features that a Windows Update will not provide.  I prefer to download the software ahead of time while everything still works.

For added reliability, capability, and speed, download the most recent hardware drivers and software updates.  Go to the manufacturer's home page and find the "support" or "download" section.  Navigate to the correct page to download the latest update.  For free software, it's quicker to use the search function at

This is easier said than done.  The manufacturer's web site is typically http://www.{manufacturer's name}.com.  If that doesn't work, try typing in the manufacturer's name in Google to find the home page.  Determine if you already have the most recent version and download it if you don't.  Repeat this process for each piece of hardware and software you have.

Backup the drivers, updates, and WinZip to a CD.  WinZip is free to use for 30 days.  Windows XP and Vista have a built in unzip feature if you don't want to use WinZip.  You'll need to install the hardware drivers immediately after Windows is installed and before any other software is installed.  A CD or DVD drive will work immediately after Windows is installed, but a Zip drive or external hard drive may or may not.  That's why a CD is best.

Step #4 - Backup the entire hard drive

There's always a Word document, a configuration file, or some setting that is lost when the hard drive is reformatted.  Most of these files are in the c:\documents and settings folder (Windows 2000/XP) which includes the My Documents folder, but some are not.  AOL and older versions of Quicken save data and personal settings to the c:\program files (Windows 2000/XP) folder by default.  Minimize the amount of information that is lost by backing up the entire hard drive.  I prefer using an external hard drive since it's the fastest way to make a backup and it can hold more than Zip disks, CDs, or DVDs.

Make sure the backup software is capable of restoring a single file.  Most backup software will compress the hard drive into a single backup file or several multi-gigabyte backup files.  It's faster and more convenient if you can choose the single file you want to restore and have the backup software extract the file from the multi-gigabyte backup file.  If the software has to decompress the multi-gigabyte backup file before restoring a single file, then restoring the file isn't fast or convenient.  There are too many good, inexpensive backup programs that include this feature that it doesn't make sense to be without it.  See the backup software section for some recommendations.

Write down all of the phone numbers and settings to connect to the internet and e-mail.  These settings are under Start, Control Panel.  Double click on the Internet Options, Network Connections, and Phone and Modem Options icons.  Browse through all of the tabs and buttons and make print screens of them or write down the settings.

Make sure your backup is reliable.  This sounds stupid, but it happened to me.  The external hard drive failed to work on the new computer to transfer the data files.  My external hard drive has a USB and Firewire connection.  I backed up the hard drive using the Firewire connection.  Firewire (400Mbps) is faster in real life than USB 2.0 (480Mbps).  I tried to copy the data files to the new computer with a USB connection.  For some unknown reason, the new computer couldn't see the external drive.  When I plugged it back into the old computer with the Firewire cable, the drive was unrecognizable and I had to reformat the external drive.  What a pain.  If you have access to another computer, test to see if the external hard drive will work on another computer before reformatting the hard drive.  Even if you never mix and match USB and Firewire, it may be worth a few minutes of your time.  This unfortunate discovery lead me to buy a new external hard drive.  Make sure your backup is reliable.

Step #5 - Reformat the hard drive (C: drive)

You will need a keyboard with a purple, PS/2, 6 pin round connector at the end.

Here are a few options:

    a) Install a newer, faster, larger hard drive as the new C: drive.

    b) Remove the partitions on the old hard drive and then reformat it.

    c) Reformat the old drive.

Step 5a - Install a newer, faster, larger hard drive as the new C: drive.

Turn off the computer and install the new drive per the drive's instructions.  For SATA drives that require the red, 4 pin data cable, make sure the red data cable is plugged into SATA 0 on the motherboard and not SATA 1, SATA 2 or SATA 3.  For IDE drives that require the gray, 80 pin ribbon data cable, make sure the gray ribbon cable is plugged into IDE 0 and not IDE 1.  IDE drives also have a jumper to determine if the drive is the Master drive or Slave drive in a one hard drive or multiple hard drive computer.  Choose Master drive in a one drive computer.  For either a SATA or IDE hard drive, make sure to connect the power plug to the drive.  Disconnect the data cable and/or the power cable to the other hard drives as a safety precaution.  This prevents confusion.  The computer and the Windows installation CD will only see the new drive and won't accidentally format the other hard drives.  Connect the purple keyboard plug into the computer.  Turn on the computer, push the CD/DVD drive eject button on the CD/DVD drive so that the drive tray opens.  Insert the Windows installation CD and close the CD/DVD drive door.  Hopefully, this will happen fast enough that the computer will start reading the Windows CD.  If not, the computer may get confused since there isn't a bootable hard drive or a bootable Windows installation CD when the computer first turns on.  If the computer is getting confused, make sure the Windows CD in in the CD/DVD drive, pull the power cable from back of the computer to get it turn turn off, wait 5 seconds, plug it back in, and press the power button on the front of the computer.  The computer now has a bootable CD when it wants one.  Use the keyboard and choose "yes" when Windows asks if you want to format the new hard drive.  Skip to Step 6 below.

Step 5b - Remove the partitions on the old hard drive and then reformat it.

If you want to remove partitions, then do so before reformatting.  One physical hard drive is the C: drive.  The same drive could have been partitioned (divided) to make a C:, D:, and E: drive all on the same physical hard drive.  The computer thinks you have 3 hard drives, but you really only have one.  If you want to remove the partitions so that only the C: drive is left, then delete all of the files on the D: and E: drive.  I use Partition Magic ($40) to remove partitions.  It will save you over an hour if the D: and E: don't have any files on them.

Update: Easeus Partition Manager 3 is the most downloaded, free, hard drive partitioning software.  It's worth a try.

I also use Partition Magic to configure a second hard drive.  It formats it, changes it to a logical drive (not a primary drive), and, if necessary, changes the format from FAT32 (Windows 95/98/ME) to NTFS (Windows NT/2000/XP/Vista).  In the old days of using Windows 98, I configured hard drives using the Windows Command Prompt.  I ran into difficulties formatting 40GB hard drives and ended up with 2GB formatted, 38GB unformatted.  I switched to Partition Magic and never looked back.  Continue to Step 5c below.

Step 5c - Reformat the old drive.

When you insert the Windows CD and reboot, the computer will ask if you want to boot from a CD or the hard drive.  It does not ask if you want to reformat the hard drive and reinstall Windows.  I boot up the computer to load Windows and use Partition Magic ($40) to format the C: drive.  Windows Explorer will NOT allow you to format the hard drive by RIGHT clicking on the C: drive in the left pane and clicking on Format.  Partition Magic will start formatting.  The formatting will only last a short time before enough of the hard drive is formatted to get Windows to crash.  This is perfect.

Reboot the computer with the Windows CD in the CD or DVD drive and now the question will appear if you want to reformat the C: drive and install Windows.  Choose "yes."  Since the drive was previously formatted, it will choose the quick format option that will take a minute or two instead of 20-60 minutes.

Step #6 - Install Windows

Windows should start installing from the previous step.  The installation will pause from time to time to ask you some questions, so don't leave for an hour and expect the installation to be complete.  The count down timer is quite accurate for single core processors like the Intel Pentium 4, Celeron, Pentium M, and Core Solo processors.  Excluding formatting, dual core processors cut the time in half and can install Windows in about 30 minutes.  Dual core processors include Intel Core 2 Duo, Intel Pentium D and AMD Athlon 64 X2.

Step #7 - Install hardware drivers

Windows is now fully installed, but much of the hardware still doesn't work including the dial-up modem and sound card.  Generic drivers were installed for the video card, monitor, keyboard, and mouse, but to get all of the speed and features, drivers will need to be installed for these items too.

Most software will look for an internet connection as part of the installation so you can register right away.  Some software will install additional features if it finds a sound card, network connection, or modem.  For this reason, it's best to get all of the hardware working first before the software is installed.

Most software downloaded from the internet is compressed in a ZIP format and needs a program like WinZip to uncompress it.  Install WinZip on the computer.  Create a temporary directory called TEMP2 on the C: drive.  We'll use this folder in a minute.

There are three ways to install a driver for a single piece of hardware.

  1. If the most recent version of the driver is on the original installation CD, which is highly unlikely, then insert the CD into the CD or DVD drive.  The installation will automatically start.  Follow the on screen instructions.

  2. If the most recent version of the driver was downloaded from the internet, which is most likely the case, then copy the driver from the CD of downloaded drivers you created in step 3 to c:\TEMP2 using Windows Explorer.  Windows Explorer can be opened by clicking on Start, Programs, Accessories, Windows Explorer or by clicking on Start, All Programs, Accessories, Windows Explorer.

  3. If the file has a yellow icon next to it, then the file is "zipped" and you need to run WinZip to uncompress it.
  4. If the most recent version of the driver was downloaded from the internet AND the file does NOT have a yellow icon next to it, then double click on the filename.  The installation program should start automatically.

Step #8 - Install anti-virus and firewall software

Install anti-virus software before connecting to the internet or e-mail.  If you have a DSL or cable modem connection to the internet, then install the firewall software too.  Firewall software includes Zone Alarm, Norton Internet Security, or McAfee Personal Firewall.  See the free software section of this web site for free firewall software.

Step #9 - Connect to the internet and e-mail

Self explanatory.  If you use AOL, then install the most recent version now.  If you are having problems connecting to the internet or your home network, try turning off the firewall software, connect to the internet, and then turn the firewall software back on as quickly as possible.

Firewall software usually blocks an internet connection, email connection, and network connection when it's first installed.  It will need to be configured at allow access before continuing.  For testing an internet connection, I always use Google.  It's always working and loads quickly.  See the network setup section of this web site if you can't see the other computers on the network.

Step #10 - Install Windows updates

Click on Start and then Windows Update.  Internet Explorer will open and it will go to the Microsoft web site.  Install the critical updates before the recommended updates.  I've been able to download 40+ updates all at one time without a problem.  If you're having problems with the updates, then install about 5 updates at a time rather than all of them.  There is a smaller chance of a problem if you install only a few updates at a time.  Update the anti-virus software too with the latest download.  There should be a "update" or "download" feature in the anti-virus software.

Step #11 - Install additional software

Install additional software that isn't already installed.  This may require installing from the original installation CD and then updating the software to a more recent version with the download CD you created in step #3.  Make any adjustments to the personal settings to make it look and work like it did before you reformatted the hard drive.

Step #12 - Copy the data files

Use Windows Explorer to copy the personal data files from the backup copy.  Most files are located in C:\My Documents for Windows 98/ME and C:\Documents and Settings\{user name}\my documents for Windows 2000/XP.

Step #13 - Use backup software

Consider buying and using backup software.  If there is a disaster requiring you to reformat your hard drive again, you'll have a good backup that will save you days of reinstalling.