I formatted my computer and I lost all installed software. I don’t
have any of those to install again. What do I do?
For those of you shaking your head at this point, I need to tell you
that this is a more common question and scenario than you might
imagine. I’m sure you already know what I’m going to explain and
suggest, so you probably don’t need to read further.
This article is for the rest of you.
We need to understand exactly what formatting means, and what you
need to do before you format to prevent the experience you, and others,
If you remember nothing else, remember this:
Formatting erases everything on a hard disk.
If you’ve already formatted your machine, you’ve probably guessed that. Unfortunately, it appears that many people don’t realize the total destruction that formatting implies.
A format, by definition, returns a hard disk or other disk-like media to a blank and empty state. All files, including operating system, applications, and user data are removed.
While the term “formatting” actually comes from a time when it meant something slightly different (the magnetic material on a hard disk actually had to be prepared or “formatted” before it could be used), today a format:
Writes the information required by the operating system to to keep track of files that will eventually be written to the disk, aka the “file system”. This step overwrites any such information that was there before, which means it erases everything.
Writes data to the rest of the disk to set it all to a known state, and ensure that the rest of the disk is writeable. This step is actually optional, and since it can be time-consuming, when it’s skipped you’re doing what’s called a “quick” format.
An unformatted disk doesn’t have the basic information required to keep track of files you might want to put on it, so formatting is required. A disk doesn’t really “lose” formatting, unless there’s a failure of some sort, so reformatting is most often really just the fastest way to empty a disk completely. (Or change the type of filesystem, but I’m avoiding those details for purposes of this discussion.)
Formatting means: all data is erased. Remember that.
So, knowing (and remembering) that, how do you prepare?
Always get and save installation media. When you get a new machine, make sure to get Windows Installation (not repair) media, even if Windows is pre-installed. When you buy software, save the disks. Installation media are the only way you’ll re-install key software if you’re ever faced with an empty disk due to replacement or reformatting.
Save downloaded software. If you purchase software that’s downloadable, always make sure to make a copy of what you’ve downloaded and save it somewhere else. I recommend burning to CD, for example. (Be sure and save any activation or license keys as well.) Even for free software that you wouldn’t need to re-purchase, keeping the download handy can speed up the reinstallation process.
Backup your data. You should be doing this anyway, for any number of reasons. But the only way to get your data back onto your machine after a reformat is to have saved it somewhere else first. In other words, a backup.
Formatting, or rather reformatting, is often an appropriate first step to rebuilding a machine. It’s important to know what it means so that you can be properly prepared to do so without any data loss.
What if it’s too late?
What if you’ve already reformatted a machine, only to find out that doing so erased something important?
Stop using the machine.
I have to say that chances are extremely slim that you can recover, but if you use the hard disk at all for anything, then the chances just get worse and worse.
First, I will say that if you’ve done a “normal” or “unconditional” format (as opposed to a “quick” format), then you can probably pack it in right here. The entire hard disk partition will have been overwritten, and your data lost.
If, on the other hand, you’ve done the more common “quick” format, there’s a sliver of hope. There are, in fact, “unformat” tools out there that claim to be able to recover data from an accidentally formatted disk. Like all deleted file recover tools, they rely on being able to analyze the data that’s left on the disk. The problem is the more that you write to the disk – such as by installing Windows again – the more of that data is overwritten and the slimmer your chances of recovering anything.
I’ll also say that this is something best left to people who have some expertise. It’s easy while attempting to recover from an accidental format to make matters worse instead of better.
And, to be totally honest, my expectations are very low. If I were in your shoes, I’d probably resign myself to learning a hard lesson and move on.