Recently, a member of the LockerGnome.net community asked: What is the difference between using Quick Format and not using it on a drive on Windows?

This is a good question, and a topic of hot debate due in part to changes in how Windows handles disk formatting beginning in Windows Vista.

Formatting a hard drive can be useful in many different situations. For example, if you want to sell your computer (hard drive and all) and you don’t want the new owner to have access to all of your old data, formatting the drive is your best course of action.

This can also be useful when preparing a drive for repurposing. For example, a drive that you previously used as a primary drive on an older computer can be cleared off and made available for use on your new system as a handy storage and/or backup drive. Before adding a previously used hard drive, it is usually a good idea to format the drive so you’re starting with the maximum possible capacity. There are also a few minor performance increases associated with putting a new type of data on a drive that is free of clutter.

After you’ve connected your old drive (internal or external) to your Windows machine, there are several ways to format it in order to prepare the drive for use. The easiest and most popular method is by finding it in the file library (Windows Explorer), right-clicking the drive under “Computer”, and selecting the “Format…” option in the menu. This will open a small window that gives you several options to choose from.

These options include capacity (useful only for drives with multiple partitions), file system (NTFS, exFAT, etc.), allocation unit size, volume label (name for the drive), and whether or not you wish to format using the “quick format” method. A quick format handles the removal of data differently than a regular (full) format.

According to Microsoft, a quick format in Windows Vista/7 doesn’t actually erase any of the file data currently on the drive. Instead, it creates a new file table which is used to let the system know where files are on the disk. A file recovery program can usually recover files after a quick format has been performed unless the physical data has been overwritten by new information after the fact. For example, a quick format is like taking the table of contents out of a book. The information is still there, at least until pages are replaced by different text later on. One big advantage to a quick format is in a case where you don’t have a lot of time — and you plan to keep the drive for later use.

A regular format does quite a bit more. Unlike previous versions of Windows that deleted the tables and checked for bad sectors, Windows Vista and Windows 7 actually perform a rewrite pass over the entire drive. This adds a level of security to the process and gives your drive a fresh start for new data. At anywhere between a few minutes and several hours, this process takes quite a bit longer than the quick format, which can be done in a matter of seconds.

An important thing to note here is than neither of these format options provide a strong level of data security. While most file recovery software will have a harder time recovering any data from a drive that has been through a full format, it is still possible. For users with security in mind, a stand-alone third-party program such as Darik’s Boot and Nuke will provide a much stronger level of data destruction.

If you’re selling your system to someone you know, a standard format might be all you require. However, if your drive is going to parts unknown, there is no substitute for a secure and proper formatting.