Formatting HD

My laptop’s shot. I’m going to have to resort to turning it in to my university’s Academic Tech department, but I’m paranoid so I want to wipe my hard drive clean enough so that not even two characters of a password are left next to each other anywhere on the drive. I’ve never formatted a hard drive before. The status of my laptop:

Windows XP Professional (but I can’t get into it - system locks up in half a minute. Hell, thing doesn’t even boot up 2/3 of the time).

I have no boot discs or anything of the sort, if those things are still used. I only have <b>Compaq’s</b> Quickrestore CDs, which reinstall the operating system and a couple other things the college provides.

So…how do I go about this, first of all “how do I format it at all,” and second “in a manner in which the HD is left nice and clean?”

I really should write a copy of this down considering how often people ask this question. I’m too tired to post a complete guide tonight, but I’ll do it tomorrow, in the mean time here’s a little information you can use, however I don’t recommend you start until I post the whole guide since lap tops are generally harder to format than normal PC.

Just to give you a head start I’m posting a copy of a post I wrote about a month ago about debuging Win XP, its not all useful in your case, but it covers a few topics that might be of interest to you, including how to make a good boot disk.

Windows XP happens to be a very user friendly OS, so friendly in fact that it tends to shield the user from all the nasty stuff that tends to happen in the background. What does this mean for you? Well simply it means that you have to work twice as hard to find a solution to a simple problem, I’ve spent a fair bit of time messing around with XP so I hope I can provide you with a little useful information.

As I mentioned before XP tends to hide problems from the user, either by giving you the generic this program has encountered a problem and will be shut down (a mild annoyance) or the insidious silent reboot (very annoying.) Now some of you might be confused by what I mean with silent reboot, simply put its XP habit of simply shutting down and restarting your computer if it encounters a fatal error. That means that the BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) has become all but extinct under XP as almost any error, which might generate one, has been replaced by the silent reboot, which simply leaves you scratching your head about what happened.
The work around for this is to do the following:
Start -> Control Panel -> System -> click the Advanced Tab -> click on settings under Start Up and Recovery -> uncheck Automatically Restart.

Doing so will restore the old BSOD and provide you which much needed (if somewhat confusing) information about exactly what went terribly wrong. This should help your address you crashing problem.

Now about your CD drive, XP seems to have to annoying habit of simply forgetting how to access CDs located in the drive, this will either cause it to read very slowly, read incorrect information, or simply not read at all. The problem seems to occur totally randomly, and nothing except waiting has any impact on it, rebooting sometimes solves the problem but not always. In case you’re wondering the problem has nothing to do with the disk, a CD that can’t be read in one drive will usually read in another drive on the same PC, the problem is also not related to the hardware since the problem seems to affect all drives equally and randomly and they always magically fix themselves. Further proof that the problem is not hardware related can be found in the fact that I’ve seen XP fail to read a CD image off a virtual drive, the image was perfectly valid and several other images failed to read in the drive at that time, once again the problem corrected itself magically.

To my knowledge there is no magical cure for this problem, the only way to fix it is to wait until it fixes itself (popping the CD in and out several times also seems to sometimes work, but that’s mainly because it kills time). I assume that Microsoft is aware of the problem and I have noticed it occurring less often on newer updates of XP, so you might consider getting your version up to date. If you have a pirated version of XP, i.e. one that doesn’t require activation then odds are you won’t be able to install service pack 1, there is a way to bypass the updater’s CD key check, but I’m not going to post it on the forum. If however you truly think that your problem is related to not having service pack 1, contact me on the chat server (channel #rpgc) and I’ll pass along the information.

You should also give up on XP’s defrag and scan disk, both are so bad as to be virtually useless. The worst of the two is XP’s defrag tool, not only does it require a whopping 15% of free HD space in order to even run, but it also happens to be one of the worst defragers ever designed. First of all, the program will only defrag files, not HD space like previous versions of defrag did, that means that eventually all your free space will be scattered across the surface of the drive and new files will automatically get fragmented if they’re too large of any single segment of sequential free clusters; this flaw also seriously impedes the programs ability to actually defragment files. Defragmenting under XP works as follows: the program looks for all the segments that make up any given file, it then groups them together and places them in sequential order like the example bellow. these examples are based on my understanding and experience with the XP defrag tool, and might not be 100% accurate, but they’re good enough to give you an idea of how they work. (underscores _ are empty clusters, i.e. free space):

Win 9x Defrag
|A _ 4 B 1 D 3 C 2 _ _| -> |A _ B 1 2 3 4 _ D _ C|

Here the number file has been defragmented; this is how the defrag in 9x based windows versions (95, 98, 98 SE, ME) work (more or less).

However XP seems to do this differently, since it only defragments files without actually touching empty clusters you’ll end up with something like this:

Win NT defrag
|A _ 4 B 1 D 3 C 2 _ _| -> |A _ 4 B 1 D 3 C 2 _ _|

Notice anything? Both the before and after examples are the same, the reason for this is that the program tried to deframent the number file, however it wasn’t able to because there simply wasn’t a sequential series of empty clusters (underscores _ ) large enough to handle the file in its entirety, so in effect what we have is a program which runs for hours and accomplishes little.

If we take the example to its extremes with a drive that’s almost totally fragmented, and where sequential empty clusters are almost never large enough to handle any files then you have a drive which is impossible to defrag. Now obviously a situation like that is unlikely to happen, but it does occur on a small scale, I’ve had experiences with drives that were 18% fragmented after running a defrag, admittedly that’s better than the 21% fragmentation I had before, but only marginally.

Unfortunately I haven’t found a decent substitute for the windows defrag (I admit I haven’t really been looking for one, but if someone knows one please post a link) and short of pulling out your hard drive, setting it to slave mode and plugging it into a 98 system, you’re out of luck. My advice is simply to give up on defrag, it’s a waste of time.

XP’s scan disk is almost as useless as it’s defrag, it just doesn’t provide the same power as the old Win 9x version. However, unlike the defrag tool its possible to run the old scan disk on an XP system without having to have it configured for dual boot (unless you’ve converted your file system to NTFS, in which case you’re out of luck). This work around is a little complicated so please bear with me.

In order to run the scandisk you’ll need access to a Win 9x machine (again: 95, 98, 98 SE, ME) you won’t need to go back and forth to it, all you have to do is prepare a boot disk, so if all else fails try making one at school or at work. You’ll need to prepare a special boot disk using the following instructions:

  1. Place a new disk in the PC’s floppy drive and select format, chose “copy system files” and click OK.

  2. One the disk is ready copy the following files to it:
    *Autoexec.bat (usually found in c:)
    *Config.sys (usually found in c:, but if you can’t find it don’t worry you can simply create a new file called config.sys and it’ll work just fine)
    *himem.sys (usually found in c:\windows\system32)
    *scandisk.exe (usually found in c:\windows)

  3. Once you’ve copied all the files onto the disk open notepad and go to open the file config.sys, you’ll want to add the following line:

So your file should look something like this


  1. Once you’ve finished editing the file simply save it, if you couldn’t find config.sys simply open notepad, copy in the above code and save the file as config.sys on your disk.

  2. You boot disk is now ready, when ever you want to run a scan disk simply pop the disk in and reboot your computer, your system will boot into DOS and you’ll be able to scan a drive by typing the following line at the command prompt:

scandisk x:

Replace the above X with the drive letter of the disk you which to scan. Scan disk has several options which are very useful such as /autofix and /surface. If you want to know what they do or for the full list of options type:

Scandisk /h

The above information will let you perform basic debugging on your computer, obviously there are tons of other things you might want to look at, but its simply too much for me to talk about (considering its already 4:30 am). If you think a piece of hardware is causing a problem then try looking on goole for “partname diagnostic software” that should at least turn up a few leads. In fact I can tell you which program to use if you want to check your ram, just look for memtest86, its very easy to find and it works very well.

As for the virus scan, AVG ( is an excellent choice, the program works very well and doesn’t take up too many resources (not to mention its free). The only complaint I have against it is that the scheduled scan tool is very stupid, if your system is configured to run a scan at 2 am, it runs a scan at 2 am, whether you’re using it or not, it simply doesn’t bother checking to see if the system is idle like most virus scanners do, it simply starts up. However that’s just a mild annoyance and unless you tend to stay up to the wee hours of the night then you won’t have a problem.

Again I recommend you want before formating, there’s a few other things you need to consider that I don’t have time to cover right now.


Alright as I was saying last night laptops are much harder to format than normal PCs because if something goes wrong and you can’t get your cd rom working you can always just plug a HD in on the desktop, you don’t have that option on a laptop.

If you’re installing XP or 2k the problem isn’t that bad since the cd us usually bootable, with a little messing around in the bios. However before you first format I suggest you pop in the win XP cd and try to boot using it, if it boots from CD fantastic, you’re all set, if not you have a lot more work to do. If you need to I suggest checking on google for something along the lines of “dos boot with cdrom support” that should give you a few links with pages that can help you edit you autoexec.bat and config.sys on your boot disk to try and get cdrom support working. Again I stress that you need to make sure that you can get the cdrom working in dos before you format.

Once you know that you can get the cd drive working then you’ve taken care of your most important problem, check the section at the end of the post I made last night for information on how to make a boot disk and how to format your drive.

That should just about cover it, if you have any more problems just ask.

Yeah…umm…I can’t find any of the files besides himem.sys. And, like I said, I don’t have plain old Windows discs - I have Compaq-made Quickrestore things, and I’m not sure how different they are.

Your continuing help is more than appreciated.

Hum, you should still have those files, they’re always there, even when you have a brand name laptop. Make sure that you’re using a win98 machine to make that boot disk, its not doing to work with an XP or 2k pc (their boot disks are 4 disks and may or may not work). We use compaq PCs at work so I’ll check today to see where the files are located on a compaq, I’ll try to post their location during lunch.

With XP boot discs are unneccessary - It boots directly from CD.

Usually yes Wert, but I have seen problems. For one the standard boot order of most PCs is such that the bios tries to boot from the HD before the CD drive, in most cases that’s what you want, but in the case of a clean win XP install it means it usually gives you a no operating system error and stops loading even before it checks the CD drive. The other problem with simply booting from the win XP cd is that it prevents you from easily doing a dual boot system, if you format using a standard win98 boot disk and do a format /s and then boot from the win XP cd you can chose no to format the drive and actually make a dual boot win XP / Dos system. It may not sound that important but it means that in case of a problem you can easily boot into dos, backup all your files and even format the pc again (tricky, but doable) without having to resort to a boot disk. Its actually saved my ass when both my ram chips blew and windows became too unstable to run no matter how many reinstalls I did.

I check on the PCs at work, the win98 compaqs don’t seem to have format on them which is odd, but the win XP compaqs do, check the C:\WINDOWS\system32 directory. If worst comes to worst just make your boot disk normally and I’ll send you the format file.

Now ‘yer confusing me. I should use a Windows 98 machine to make that bootdisk? I should get the files from that same machine? If that’s the case then I’m in luck - I’ve been posting from our family’s 5-year old (and still kickin’, amazingly) Gateway desktop.

Question…what’s the name of this format file?

Next question…(having to do with the first)…if I’m supposed to get the files off the laptop, I should then put them on the 98 machine and create the boot disk from there?

Ok I’ll clear it up the boot disk itself has to be made on a win98 machine, in order to make the boot disk you just need to pop a new disk into the drive, open my computer, right-click on you a: drive icon and select format from the popup menu. You’ll get your disk format window that pops up then just select copy system files and click ok, once that finishes your boot disk is done.

After your boot disk is ready you’ll want to add the file you need to format. What I ment in my last post was that the file is the same no matter what version of windows you’re running you can use that version for to format your disk. What matter is creating a boot disk with the files I mention in my long post, where you get them doesn’t matter.

I havent fully read all the solutions ofered on here, but…

On a Win Xp backup/boot cd

doesent give you the option to reformat the drive in its menu at the start?

and I thought that formating the drive was the thing were tring to solve???

Correction on the information I gave you about earlier, I dobled checked and there are multiple versions of it around, a winXP version is not compatible with a win98 version. I tried it earlier when setting up Drak’s new pc and it gave me an incorrect MS-Dos version error. I’ll need to get a win98 file to go with you win98 boot disk. If all else fails come by the #rpgc chat room and I’ll send it to you.

The easist way I can think of to format a hard drive is to borrow a XP install cd from someone, and boot into the XP setup from it (you may have to go into the BIOS and change boot order) and once it gives you some options hit ‘R’ to get into the recovery console. From there you can use all the dos commands like “format c:”. Which you would proceed to type several times.

Hum…I made the boot disk, and it worked just fine, bringing me to the dos prompts and all…but then the only thing I could run Scandisk (figured I’d give it a chance) on was the floppy in the a: drive. It kept giving me some line about “Can’t access/(perform this action on, or something) C:.” Is the Scandisk off the 98 machine as incompatible with XP as the would be?

The only reason I can image why you’re not able to format is because your file system isn’t compatible, you wouldn’t happen to be using NTFS instead of FAT32?

He’s on XP, high chances of NTFS, seems like we’ll need to give him a crash course of Fdisk to turn it in Fat32, at which point it’ll be clean as a whistle.

Before we do though, is there a fdisk.exe on that bootdisk?

If his problem really is ntfs I seriously doubt he can fix it with f-disk, I don’t mean to be rude but that utility is beyond the understanding of most people. But fortunately there’s a work around (there’s always a work around, usually).

Checking to see if you’re on NTFS or FAT32 is easy, just right click on the drive icon and click on properties. If one of the tabs at the top of the properties screen says “Quota” you’re using NTFS and our job just got a hell of a lot harder.

If that’s the case just tell me and I’ll tell you what to do to get around the problem.

Are you kiddin? F-disk is total childsplay…well, at least it is for me, go figure.

If you just get a win XP cd and get into the recovery console like I said in the previous post, you’ll have access to all the needed dos commands, like fdisk, and format, and anything else you may need. Just try to find someone to loan you an XP install cd for a day, you don’t even need the serial key.

Yeah Z, when you know what you’re doing is easy, but Drak managed to do enough damage in 60 minutes that it took me over 3 hours to fix his mistakes and set up his PC.