There are only two reasons to partition or format (or both) a PC hard disc drive: one, because it is a brand new drive that you're about to install on your machine, or two, the programs or data that it contains have become irretrievably corrupted. Both procedures effectively erase all of the data on a hard disc drive so they shouldn't be undertaken lightly. (Yes we know data can be recovered but for the purpose of this piece we'll assume a disc is 'wiped' when it is formatted or partitioned).

Formatting in particular has come to be regarded as a 'cure-all' for PC ills but it really should be used only as the absolute last resort, especially if the hard disc contains a lot of programs and data. It goes without saying that you should backup anything that cannot be replaced before embarking on such a desperate measure but more than anything else it's the nuisance factor that should make you think twice and try every other possible solution. Apart from the time and effort required to re-load the operating system and programs, all of the individual settings and customisation for Windows and every other application will be lost, it could take days or weeks to get back to normal. One final word of warning, before you start make sure you have a boot disc (more about that in a moment) the full version of Windows (not an upgrade) plus the product ID code or registration numbers (and those for any other applications that need one).

If that still hasn't put you off then it's a good idea to know something about what you're about to do. Think of a hard disc drive as a filing cabinet; partitioning is akin to deciding how many drawers it will have. Until recently most hard disc drives had a single partition but earlier versions of Windows were unable to handle more than 2 gigabytes of data at a time, so larger disc drives had to be split up into chunks or partitions that the operating system regards as separate drives. Later versions of Windows 95 and Windows 98 use an improved data handling system called FAT 32, which allows disc drives with a capacity greater than 2Gb to be treated as a single drive.   

Formatting a freshly partitioned hard disc prepares it for use, gives it a structure and creates a filing system. Returning to our filing cabinet analogy, on a previously used drive, re-formatting a bit like emptying everything out of the drawer (or drawers) and filling it with a new set of empty hanging files.   

If you are starting afresh with a new hard disc drive, either as a replacement or an addition, (to increase the capacity of your system), then before you can use it, it has to be partitioned with a program called Fdisk. Fdisk is included on the System or Boot disc that you were prompted to make when you first used your Windows PC (you did make one, didn't you? If not do so now, go to Start > Settings > Control Panel > Add/Remove Programs and select the Startup Disc tab). If the new drive is larger than 2Gb make sure the version of Fdisk supports FAT 32 -- i.e. the boot disc was created on a Windows 98 PC or the OSR2 version of Windows 95.

The PC's BIOS (see Jargon Filter) has to be set to boot from the floppy drive, so it can read the boot disc. Switch the machine on and when the A: prompt appears on the screen type 'fdisk', (without the quotation marks of course), press return and follow the instructions. Always ensure that Partition 1 is 'active' if you want the PC to be able to boot up from that disc. When the job has finished re-boot the PC, run fdisk again, select option 4 to display the partition information and check that everything is okay.

Formatting is equally straightforward. Once again the PC must be set to boot from the floppy disc drive in the PC's BIOS program. Load your Boot disk and at the A: prompt, type 'format c: /s' and return. The command /s is an instruction to copy important system files onto the hard disc so that it can boot upon its own, without help from a floppy disc.

When it has finished remove the boot disc and re-start the computer, this time it should boot up on its own and present you with the C: prompt. If you get a message saying 'please insert boot disc' that means the vital system files haven't been copied from the floppy to the hard disc. In that case boot up from the floppy disc once more and when the A: prompt appears enter the command 'sys c:', and try again.

At this point you should now have a working but empty PC, the next job is load the Windows operating system. The system files that were copied to the hard drive during formatting should tell the PC to recognise the CD-ROM drive. In that case all you have to do is change to the drive letter for the CD-ROM drive, usually by typing D: (though it may be another letter if the drive is partitioned), type setup, enter the necessary registration information, sit back and let Windows get on with it. If you can't get it to recognise the CD-ROM drive then the CD-ROM driver hasn't been installed and you will need to load the necessary software manually. You will find it on one of the floppy discs that came with your PC. Pop in the disc, change to the A: drive and type 'dir'. This will show you want's on the disc, look for something called 'install.exe', 'setup' or 'cdinstall', type it in, press return and follow the instructions.

Next week -- PCs and family trees…




Basic Input Output System, a set of instructions that tells your PC what it is connected to, and how to communicate with devices like disc drives and memory chips. Instructions about how start the BIOS program appear at start up (usually press a key or key combination). The Boot Sequence command (usually listed under Standard or BIOS features) specifies the drive where the PC looks for the boot program. This should be set to 'A,C', so the PC checks the A: drive first.

FAT 32

File Allocation Table -- the indexing system used by the PC to control where and how data is stored on the hard disc. The FAT 32 system makes more efficient use of the storage space available and allows drives larger than 2Gb to function as a single drive.


Original equipment manufacturer Service Release 2, the later version of Windows 95 supplied to PC manufacturers, incorporating many of the features of Windows 98 (including FAT 32). This was not sold separately by Microsoft but it is widely available from 'friendly' dealers and through ads in computer magazines.



This little tweak will allow you to add Control Panel to your Start menu, with a sub-menu containing all of its contents. Go to the Start button, right-click your mouse and select Open. Go to File then New and choose New Folder. The folder will appear in the window below, press backspace to clear the name field and type in the following line precisely:



Double check it, check it again and when you are 100% certain it is correct press Enter. Now go to the Start menu and you should see Control Panel, along with an arrow leading to its contents. You can remove the item using the Remove options on Start > Settings > Taskbar & Start Menu.

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