Hard Drives: Quick Format vs. Full Format

Yes, there is a difference between the two.

All the years I've been formatting things (hard disk drives, floppy disks, USB flash drives, etc.) I've seen format and quick format options without knowing the difference.
I was glad to come across this article that explains the difference between the two types of formatting as it's one of those things that's been rattling around in my brain for years that I've been vaguely curious about but didn't take time to learn.

The big difference between the two types of formatting has to do with scanning the drive for bad sectors. A full format will scan the hard disk drive for bad sectors, a quick format will not.
Head on over to Extreme Tech to get additional interesting information and details. 

Tech Myth #2 Quick Format vs. Full Format 

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by Peteo on 20. November 2012 - 8:42  (102369)

A shame that poor, short ExtremeTech article was pointed to on this otherwise fantastic site (that I go to often for the great freeware info). Its full of misleading info, including from the time when it was written (2008).

That article uses limited info from the Windows XP (2001) & and prior eras. Its invalid to anything after XP and modern hardware using a file system other than FAT16/FAT32. As of 2007, Windows Vista was released. And as per formatting with Vista and everything afterwards (7, 8, Windows Server 2008, etc.), things have changed.

In "Change in the behavior of the format command in Windows Vista" is the following text: "By default in Windows Vista, the format command writes zeros to the whole disk when a full format is performed. In Windows XP and in earlier versions of the Windows operating system, the format command does not write zeros to the whole disk when a full format is performed."

In the XP link you posted as a followup to someone below, "the hard disk is scanned for bad sectors" with XP full formatting. But nothing is said about that for Vista+later full formatting.

Highly unlikely Vista+later also scans for bad sectors in addition to writing zeroes because...hard drives since XP was released do a much better job than in the past of automatically reallocating bad sectors themselves. Vista+later formatting facilitates this; if a bad sector error is detected by the drive during the writing of those zeroes, it will be reallocated.

That's also likely why full formatting isn't an option in Windows installs since Vista; its only available formatting inside the installed OS.

SMART (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology) in hard drives has been improved since XP. As per this circa-2003 article (also quoted in the Wikipedia page for SMART), "The latest SMART technology not only monitors hard drive activities but adds failure prevention by attempting to detect and repair sector errors. Also, whilst earlier versions of the technology only monitored hard drive activity for data that was retrieved by the operating system, this latest SMART tests all data and all sectors of a drive by using off-line data collection to confirm the drive’s health during periods of inactivity."

And a (PDF) paper more fully detailing each SMART iteration up to 2007; the latest released ATA standards are from 2008: (as you cannot direct link PDF files here, check the first link on Google searching with the following text: "HP SMART IV").

So hopefully people will move on from that outdated XP data. Once they are no longer using XP or earlier Windows OSes and are using circa-2003 & newer hard drives (with SMART version 3 or later), of course.

by bob Cat (not verified) on 6. May 2012 - 20:50  (93139)

I agree that a quick format is normally sufficent, however I have encountered problems installing Windows 7 that could only be repaired by doing a full 2hr format. I had to use an old Windows XP disk because Widows 7 does not have this option if you boot from the DVD.

The hard drive in question was damaged by a catastrophic blue screen, which dumped the MFT and left the computer unable to boot, even in safe mode, and left the hard drive unable to accept any new Windows install using a standard 'quick' format option on the Windows 7 boot install. Did a full format using XP, problem solved completely!

Full format is still required in certain circumstances, so it's a mystery to me why it's no longer an option on a Windows 7 boot from disk install.

by rhiannon on 7. May 2012 - 20:46  (93185)

@bob Cat; Good points. I've wondered why full format isn't an option in Windows 7 disk install too.

by Feliciano (not verified) on 15. February 2012 - 0:15  (88875)

There is a difference between full and quick format.

A quick format is like putting a white sheet over a dirty table. You can eat on the table and not notice the dirt. But the dirt is still underneath.

A full format is like taking a bucket of soap and water, and washing the dirt off the table. The dirt is really gone.

In practical terms, I used to do quick formats whenever I needed to reinstall my operating system (whether it was Windows XP, Windows 7, or Ubuntu.) I loved it because it was so quick.

HOWEVER (and this is a big one), I often encountered problems right after installing. BIG problems. Like the computer crashing, or not being able to boot an operating system. And I'm talking about a modern, new, expensive laptop that otherwise created no trouble.

When I formatted the hard disks with a full format, and then installed the OS, I would have no problems whatsoever after that.

So if it's something important, like really wiping the disk clean before selling your PC, or reinstalling an operating system, I would recommend you don't take any chances and have patience for an hour (or two, or three), while the PC does a full format.

If it's something not so important (like formatting an external hard disk, or a hard disk on the computer which doesn't contain an operating system, or formatting a USB flash disk), then you can go for the quick format, because the chances of something going wrong if there's no OS on the disk are minimal.

Hope that helped.

by Darshan (not verified) on 10. November 2012 - 4:57  (102099)

clear my all doubts after reading this artical.

by davwar on 23. August 2011 - 8:23  (78188)

On a slight tangent:

I regularly replace my OS partition with a backed-up partition image - a clean copy of XP.

I'm guessing that this action would over-write any record of bad sectors from a full format??

After completing the restore, I can run "chkdsk /r" to seek out any bad sectors.

Is there anything else that I should do for the health of the partition after a restore??

by Johnny Platter (not verified) on 22. August 2011 - 10:41  (78141)

Come along gardner old boy, bring us up to speed with these new-fangled hyper-discs that no longer need full formatting?

You're not confusing HDDs with Etcha-Sketch, perchance? (Think "Dilbert's P.H.M." rebooting his laptop).

De-gaussing! Now that was a good way of getting a HDD ready for formatting, back in the day.

by Ebony on 21. August 2011 - 15:47  (78091)

I am more confused now than before. Based on the comments below the article, a full format is useless. Are there other articles that address this same issue?

by rhiannon on 21. August 2011 - 19:06  (78104)
by Jorpho (not verified) on 21. August 2011 - 17:49  (78100)

I agree, this is a rather terrible article. It keeps hopping back and forth between "a Quick format is just like a Full format but without scanning the disk for bad sectors" and "a Full format rebuilds the file structures but a Quick format does not". D minus.

by Anonymous56895168 (not verified) on 21. August 2011 - 17:27  (78098)

The article is not too well written and throws around some terms in vague fashion. For example a quote: "format removes files from the partition". What a format does is remove entries in the file tables, the directions you computer uses to locate a file. But the file itself, your personal data such as account names and numbers, are left intact on the disk. A determined individual with the right software can find read your personal data even thought you had "formatted" the disk.

Think of a book where someone has torn out the index and table of contents pages. It would be very difficult to find something. But the information, like the data on the disk drive, is still there if you want to really search for it.

by TBubba (not verified) on 21. August 2011 - 17:09  (78096)

The comment on that page about SMART aren't quite right. How about an analogy? Imagine a library with hundreds of shelves, all containing dry erase boards instead of books. You also have a card catalog, also dry erase. A quick format just wipes off the card catalog, presenting the impression of an empty library. A full format actually looks at the card catalog and the shelves, erasing everything - and notes any damaged dry erase boards in the library. So, a full format is still valid and important if you want to know if the "library" has any damage - missing shelves, broken white boards, whatever. If you trust the library is in great shape, a quick format is fine. Generally, use a full format if: it has been over two years since the last full format (playing it safe), the drive being formatted is new to you (making sure you're starting out with a good drive), you've had/suspect hard drive issues (looking for problems), or your data is very important to you (playing it safe).

by Mike Feury (not verified) on 21. August 2011 - 17:07  (78095)

The article is from 2008, the comments are from the last few days. So the comments are more relevant for new disks.

Full format is mostly useful these days for making sure the disk is clean. Even new disks from reputable manufacturers have on rare occasions shipped with malware, never mind one from eBay, your local computer shop, or a friend.

If you usually build your own computers, and get your hands on a system manufacturer's machine [eg Dell], it may be a good idea to do a full format to get rid of all the pre-installed junk. A quick format 'might' do the trick, I'm not familiar with if/how manufacturers hide their stuff.

With a new disk, I do a full format. The main reason is that it means I can eliminate disk problems as a possible variable in future troubleshooting. That makes it worth my while to let it chug overnight once-off.

by rhiannon on 21. August 2011 - 19:14  (78105)

@Mike Feury; Formatting a hard disk drive if the computer is from a manufacturer such Dell, HP, etc. may void the warranty (unless you call tech support and that's what they tell you to do if you have a problem).

This program does a decent job of removing pre-installed programs:
Crappy PC No More! | The PC Decrapifier

If you want to uninstall trial programs (usually anti-virus, though others are common) I use Revo Uninstaller which now comes in a handy portable version. :-)

by gardner (not verified) on 21. August 2011 - 15:13  (78089)

Full format no longer required with today's hard drives. I suggest you research your material further in the future.

This is a good example of the credo "Don't believe everything you read on the internet".

by Anonymous666 (not verified) on 22. August 2011 - 11:42  (78143)

You sir have no idea what you're talking about.

by Doubter (not verified) on 21. August 2011 - 16:07  (78093)

Enlighten the unwashed masses here why full format is no longer necessary?

I had a brand new WD 1TB Caviar Black hard drive that was having problems in a new computer installing Windows7 on it. After doing a full format on it the problem was fixed.

by Vant (not verified) on 21. August 2011 - 12:46  (78084)

Bravo rhiannon;
Another "great", "informative" and "must keep" article.
Thank you

by rhiannon on 21. August 2011 - 21:14  (78110)

Thanks Vant. :)

by CJ (not verified) on 21. August 2011 - 12:41  (78083)

Erm, I got to say, the comments below the article at your link lead to additional food for questions on the same topic of full versus quick format.


by Jeff C (not verified) on 5. August 2011 - 18:08  (76986)

holy cow... were you watching me last night? I just installed a new hard drive and was looking up this exact question! Kinda creepy to see this today.

by Nora (not verified) on 21. August 2011 - 9:59  (78077)

..we all have the occasional thoughty, you know.

by rhiannon on 6. August 2011 - 1:21  (77001)

Jeff; Noooooo, I wasn't watching, but I can tell you that this has happened before - somebody needs something and a post from Tech Treats drops in their Inbox with just what they needed at the moment. Coincidence? Synchronicity? I have no idea. :) Rhiannon

by Rui Sousa (not verified) on 5. August 2011 - 8:31  (76953)

Along with the bad-sectors Scan comes the hard weight of TIME.
That's why they call the other way "quick".
Regards, Rui Sousa

by rhiannon on 5. August 2011 - 16:56  (76984)

Rui; You're right, it takes a looooong time to do a full format.

by Rich (not verified) on 5. August 2011 - 0:38  (76938)

Uh..... years?? Are you serious? The first time I encountered the "quick" option, I had to know what the difference was. That was back in like, oh... 1987-8.

by CJ (not verified) on 21. August 2011 - 12:29  (78081)

Oi, Rich, I see your point, but in my case, from the git go, 'quick' was all I needed. I instantly knew where to click and never gave a second thought to the difference. Until today. Thanks, Rhiannon. Will put on Fleetwood Mac in your honor.


by rhiannon on 21. August 2011 - 21:12  (78109)

@CJ; :-) Glad you found it useful.

by rhiannon on 5. August 2011 - 16:53  (76982)

Rich; Yep, years. 1988-9. Hardware wasn't something I thought about or did anything with then. :)

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