I want to format my laptop. It has Windows XP with service pack 2 installed. I don’t recall getting a Windows CD, so first how do I format and second can I do it without that setup CD?
The answer for most people is simple: no, you cannot. In fact, you should not if you don’t have the Windows setup CD.
Yes, yes, it can be done without the setup CD, but I’m guessing you won’t like what you end up with. Not at all.
Let’s be clear on exactly what it means to “reformat” a machine.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
Let’s be really, really clear.
Reformatting a machine begins by erasing everything on it.
Got that? Everything. The operating system, all your programs, and all your data. Everything. Gone.
I’m sorry if that seems obvious to many of you, but trust me it’s not at all obvious to many others.
So before we even get to step 1, “step 0” is to make sure that reformatting is exactly what you want to do. That means that either you’ve backed up everything you need to save off of the machine, or that you’re ready to reload the machine, or you really do want an unbootable empty hard drive.
When most people talk about “reformatting” a machine, they really mean “reformat and reinstall”. It’s a two step process. Step 1 is simple, step 2 typically takes a long time.
Step 1: Reformat
Formatting a disk is a process that simply prepares it for use by writing what is effectively “blank data” to the entire disk. The result is that the disk is ready for use. Empty, but ready for use.
“Re”-formatting a disk is simply repeating that process on a disk that was already formatted. It can be a relatively quick way to erase the contents of the disk to start over, or to write to the entire disk to locate and compensate for any physical defects on the media.
My recommended approach to reformatting a hard disk for most people is to boot from your Windows install CD, and indicate that you want a new, clean install. I recently did exactly this on my old laptop, and went so far as to use the partition manager that is part of Windows setup to delete all the partitions on the laptop’s hard drive and create a new partition that encompassed the entire disk. Windows Setup’s next step was to perform a full format of the hard drive before it continued.
If you don’t have a Windows install CD, there are still approaches to get the reformat done. You could boot from one of the many Linux Live CDs and use the tools therein, or boot from some of the boot disks available at bootdisk.com. In the later case you should be able to use the familiar “Format” command directly; since you didn’t boot from the hard drive it won’t be “in use” when you run the command.
After reformatting you’ll have an empty hard disk. Which then brings us to our next step:
Step 2: Reinstall
This is where not having your Windows install CD really hurts. Without a disk to reinstall from, you can’t reinstall! Your only options are to install a different operating system (such as one of the free Linux’s) or turn your machine off.
Or purchase a Windows CD. (If Windows came preinstalled, you might check with your vendor for a CD – it’s unlikely that they’ll give you one, but perhaps they’ll have a discount or other solution for you.)
One lesson here is to always get a copy of Windows on CD when you purchase a machine with Windows preinstalled.
Assuming you have the Windows CD, the remaining steps are simple to describe, but time-consuming to actually perform:
- Reinstall Windows. If you used Windows setup to reformat your machine as described above you’re already on your way.
- Reinstall and reconfigure all the applications you use. I’ve focussed on having the Windows CD, but the same actually applies to the setup CDs for any software on your machine. Make sure you have them or can download the applications in order to reinstall them at this point. All of them.
- Reinstall your data or other customizations. You did backup your data, right? This is where you copy that data back to your freshly reformatted machine.
That’s all there is to it.
As I said, I did it recently, and it took about a half day to get my laptop reformatted and then up and running again with a fresh and fully up-to-date Windows, updated drivers, security software, and some of the basic applications I want for its new intended purpose. A full reformat and reinstall of my “primary” machine typically takes most of a day to get to basic functionality, and then I find myself installing missing applications off and on for days.
As you can see, a reformat and reinstall is an extreme step. Make sure you really want to do it before you take the plunge.
An Alternative: A “Non-Destructive” Format
As I mentioned, one of the functions of a full format of a hard drive is to write to the entire hard disk and identify and possibly compensate for bad sectors or areas on the hard drive that have errors. What’s called “low-level” formatting does this quite literally by writing data to the disk and trapping any areas on the disk for which the writes fail. The side effect, of course, is that any data that was there previously is overwritten and lost and you end up with a blank hard disk.
If you’re reformatting in order to deal with possible errors on your hard disk, there is another approach: SpinRite.
SpinRite is a data recovery tool that, in a sense, performs a non-destructive low-level format of the hard disk. It reads the existing data from the drive, performs its write tests and “formatting”, and then replaces the data. When SpinRite is done, everything on your hard drive is as it was when you started except that bad sectors have been identified and removed from use, and quite often the drive appears to run faster.
SpinRite is called a “data recovery tool” because if you have bad sectors on your hard drive, it’ll do everything in it’s power to recover the data before performing its other operations. The net result is that data thought lost to hard disk errors can frequently be recovered as the drive is processed by SpinRite.
SpinRite is not free, but if you’re facing data loss it could easily be a bargain.