All storage media must be formatted before you can store data on them. Removable media, like writable CD and DVD disks, USB flash devices, and zip disks, are normally formatted at the factory, but you may find an unformatted one from time to time. A new computer normally comes with its hard disk pre-formatted. But a replacement or external hard disk is not usually pre-formatted at the factory. You format a new hard disk as part of installing the operating system.
A full format does three things:
A quick format skips the check for errors, so it is a much faster process. You can quick format a disk only if it was already formatted. When you suspect there may be a problem with a disk, you will have to do a full format to find out. Be cautious about using quick formats since you will be skipping an important safety check.
Data Security: Formatting a disk "erases" the address tables, so you will not see your files listed any more. The data may still be recoverable using data recovery software. If you have sensitive data on your disks, you have two choices: Use data "shredding" software to more thoroughly erase the data or else physically destroy the disk.
Capacity: When you format a disk, you may need to specify its capacity, that is, how much data it will be able to hold. This sets technical things about how to storage data on the disk. Fortunately you don't have to know all the technical numbers! It's now an automatic process. For most kinds of removable media, you will have to check the label for its capacity to be sure, but the Format dialog will usually show the correct capacity.
Make System Disk? A system disk has on it the files needed to get the computer started. This makes it a bootable disk. It is important to have at least one bootable removable device available for those horrible situations when your computer refuses to boot normally. Your computer must support booting from the type of disk that you want to use. Not all will accept booting from a USB device, for example. The drive itself must support being a bootable drive. Not all USB drives will! You find out what is possible for your computer by viewing its BIOS. (Yes, this is getting very technical here!)
Warning: Formatting erases!
Do not format a hard disk unless you really, really, really know what you are doing. It "erases" EVERYTHING. You will have to reinstall your operating system and all programs. All data files will be gone! Data recovery services may be able to get back your "erased" files, but there is no guarantee. And, it will be VERY, VERY expensive! Do not experiment with formatting!!!!
Sometimes removable media has a way to keep you from writing to it accidentally, as a safety measure.
Some kinds of USB drives may have a teeny, tiny switch for this function. You may need to use the end of a paper clip to move the switch. The photo is an enlarged view of this switch on a USB flash drive. Hard to see, isn't it!
There are many different names, shapes, and capacities for USB flash drives. Each company calls it something different, including flash drive, flash pen, jump drive, thumb drive, key drive, and mini-USB drive. The photo shows several types, beside an ordinary door key to show the sizes.
All have the same kind of rectangular connector under the cap. This connector can only plug in one way. Do not force it!
All USB drives are small, usually about the size of your thumb or a large car key but some are even smaller. They all plug into a USB port on the computer. Windows versions after Win98 do not need special drivers for an ordinary USB drive. Plug one in and the computer reports a new drive and installs drivers for it automatically! Older versions of Windows needed to have drivers installed.
Such physically small flash drives can have large storage capacities, from 8 MB to 128 GB (like the one on the far right in the illustration) and more! A 1 TB (terabyte) flash drive is now available (August 2013), if you have about $3000 US to spare!
Some flash drives have a tiny, hard-to-see switch that you can use to prevent writing to the drive.
Some flash drives include password protection, encryption, and the ability to run software right off the USB drive. So cool! Such specialty USB drives usually need to install drivers which are placed on the drive during manufacturing.
USB Hub: If your USB ports are hard to reach or are all in use, buy an inexpensive USB hub. Such a device has several USB ports and connects to the computer with a USB cable. Plug the hub into the hard-to-reach port and position the hub in a spot that is easier to reach. A more expensive hub will have more ports, faster speed, and a power cable of its own.
Power for USB device: USB drives get the power to operate directly from the USB port. The more complex and higher capacity drives need more power than some ports provide. If your drive does not seem to work, try plugging it into one of the ports on the back of the computer, where more power will be available than is available on ports that are on a monitor, keyboard, or a USB hub without its own power cord.
Version of USB: Most recent devices that connect with USB expect a USB 2.0 connection, which is faster than a USB 1.0 connection. The newest devices may be able to use, or even require, a USB 3.0 connection, which is faster still. Most USB devices are backwards-compatible, meaning that they can use the older connection type if they have to. The faster and fancier the device, the more likely it will insist on the correct type of connection. It can be difficult sometimes to tell what type the ports are on your computer.
Digital cameras and some phones and other electronic devices use a small removable card to store images and other data. Many computers and photo printers come with slots for reading and writing several kinds of memory cards. You can also purchase a card reader device that plugs into a USB port.
Of course you don't want to break your media or damage the data on it. DVDs, zip discs, and flash drives are a lot tougher than floppy disks were, but they can still get lost or damaged. (For recommendations about CD and DVD discs, see Jan's Computer Basics: Optical Disks)
Transporting removable media: Develop good habits about where you put your removable media for transport to work or school or wherever - somewhere it won't get loose and lost or dirty but also where it won't hide from you.
Examples of Transport Problems to Avoid: