I have a new 500GB external USB hard drive and would like to format
and partition it. How do I do that?
Well, to begin with, you may not need to. Most come pre-formatted as
a single partition.
But if it didn’t, or if you don’t like the default setup, changing
it is easy. And of course you’ll want to do this before you load that
disk up with data.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
As I said, most external hard drives come ready to use. Just plug
’em in, let Windows discover it, and *poof* there’s another drive on
your system ready to use.
Most will come pre-configured as a single unlabelled
partition using the FAT32 filesystem.
If that’s what you have, and if that’s what you want, you can stop
reading now, since you’re done. You need do nothing more.
If you want to change what you have, the tools you need to do so are
already right there in Windows.
Start by right clicking on My Computer and
then clicking on Manage. In the resulting application
window, click on Disk Management in the left hand
pane. You should see something similar to this:
At the top you’ll see all the logical disks on your system listed
alphabetically by label by default. Below that you’ll see a graphical
representation of all the physical disk drives known to your system. If
a physical drive has more than one partition those partitions will be
shown together on the single physical drive.
Remove the Existing Partition
Let’s assume for a moment that I’m unhappy with the current
configuration of the partitions on my external drive and want to change
it. My first step would be to remove the existing partition.
You need to right click on the drive in the lower pane, and you should see this
Important: the next step will delete everything on
Click on Delete Partition
The representation of the drive should change from “Healthy” to
Partition The Drive
Right click on the drive again, and the option that was once
“Delete Partition” is now “New
Partition“. Click on that to set up your new partition.
You’ll then be asked to select “Primary” or “Extended” partition.
Primary is sufficient unless you plan to put more than 4 partitions on
this hard disk. You’ll then also be asked how much of the space to
allocate for the new partition you’re creating.
Typically, I recommend simply allocating the entire space to a single
partition. You can, if you like, allocate less than the maximum space
to the partition you’re creating now so that you have room for
additional partitions on the same hard disk. Remember that each
partition, once formatted, will appear as its own logical disk
(C:, D:, E: and so on.)
You’ll then be asked about formatting, which I’ll cover below.
Once you’ve formatted the new partition, it’ll appear as “Healthy”,
and any leftover space will continue to display “Unallocated”. You can
then repeat this partitioning process on that unallocated space until
your entire drive has been allocated.
Format Your Drive
Assuming that partitioning has been performed above, or you don’t
want to change the partitioning of your drive, the next thing to change
would be the format of the drive.
Important: formatting a drive will delete
Right click on the drive that you wish to format, click on the
Format item, press OK on the dire
warning, and you’ll get a dialog similar to this:
Let’s look at each of those options:
Volume Label – is the name that will appear when
the logical disk is displayed in Windows Explorer, in File selection
dialog boxes and in other situations. It’s a convenient way to identify
disks by name rather than only by letter. The label is an attribute of
the drive, so particularly on removable drives the label stays the same
no matter what machine you plug it into, or what drive letter it gets
File System – I recommend NTFS unless the drive is
going to be used by older versions of Windows, or by non-Windows
systems. There’s debate as to whether NTFS is faster (I think it is),
but it also supports additional security features like file
permissions, and can typically make more efficient use of larger
Allocation unit size – can be left at
Perform a Quick format – for the type of format
we’re doing here, I actually recommend leaving this unchecked.
A quick format only writes the bare minimum of information to establish
the disk’s new configuration. If the disk has been in use for a while,
that’s fine and is what I typically recommend. However, when going
through the effort of formatting a new disk I suggest using this
opportunity to have the format process actually write the entire drive.
It may take a while.
Enable file and folder compression – I have mixed
feelings about this. The overhead of compressing and decompressing
files is no longer significant with today’s processor speeds. However, I
have concerns about data recovery if the disk ever experiences an
issue. My concerns may not be valid, but ultimately, I never run with
compression on any of my hard disks, preferring instead to compress the
individual files as appropriate instead. So many file formats, like
most audio and video files, are already compressed that the compression
offered by the file system is often negligible. I leave this
That’s it. Press OK and after a period of time
you’ll have a formatted, ready-to-use disk.
A Word on Disk Partitioning Utilities
As you’ve seen, the process we used above to adjust the existing
partitions on the hard disk involve deleting the entire contents of the
disk, changing the partition structure, and then placing the disk back
It may not have to be that way.
There are third party utilities such as Partition Magic or Acronis
Disk Director that will allow you to resize partitions without first
erasing the disk. Of course I still recommend a full backup of the disk
you’re about to modify first, but these can be useful utilities.
Here’s why I’m not suggesting them: how often do you really
repartition a disk?
In my mind it’s much more common to do it once, and then leave the
configuration alone. A change is typically so infrequent that the
utilities – however good they are – often aren’t worth the effort.
However, that’s obviously a decision you can make on your own, since
it’s a classic time / money tradeoff.
But particularly for a new disk just being placed into service,
there’s no need for advanced management tools. Once it’s empty, and
while it’s empty, it’s a perfect time to perform any partitioning or
formatting or the like using Windows own built-in tools.