Plugable Tech Tips: How to Partition and Format a New Hard Drive (or SSD)

HDDs OMG

As we all progress further into the digital age, our need for additional storage space keeps growing. Digital photos, music, and movies take up large amounts of space, and adding an external hard drive to store additional media or for backup purposes is an ever-popular PC upgrade. While some tout the benefits of cloud-based storage, adding local storage capacity has many benefits including substantially better speeds as well as being vastly more secure. This introductory installment of Plugable Tech Tips will guide you through the necessary steps of setting up your new drive for use.

This guide outlines the process in Windows 8/8.1, though the steps are nearly identical for Windows XP, Vista, and 7. Each step covers a bit of explanation and context. If the “why” aspect of the process is not of interest, look for the bold text in the post which covers just the basic necessary steps.

This article also proceeds with the assumption that you’re using one of our Plugable hard drive docks (good choice!) such as the U3 or the UASP1. However, the instructions are the same if you’re using a non-Plugable dock.

Why do I need to do this? Don’t hard drives already come formatted for me?

Before a new hard drive can be used, it must be initialized, partitioned, and formatted. Pre-assembled external drives and enclosures from Western Digital, Seagate, and others generally come pre-formatted for Windows or Mac. These solutions are not without their drawbacks, however. Aside from often being more expensive than a DIY external drive, the hard drives inside these enclosures are also often accessed in a proprietary way. This means that if the enclosure itself ever fails, the data on the drive inside it may not be accessible without expensive data recovery services.

When you purchase a “bare” (also known as an “OEM”) hard drive, it does not come pre-formatted. The reason for this is that there are various operating systems in use, and they all have their own types of formatting which are often times incompatible with the formatting used in other operating systems.

Are there any precautions to take before proceeding?

Before covering the steps necessary to initialize and format the drive, a brief word of caution. Initializing and formatting a hard drive will erase *all* information on that drive. In the case of a new drive, that’s not a matter for concern – it doesn’t have anything on it to worry about. However, if there are already existing drives in use on the system, it’s absolutely critical to make sure that close attention is paid so that the wrong drive isn’t erased. If you have multiple external hard drives connected, we recommend disconnecting them prior to initializing your new drive, just as a precaution.

Okay, let’s get started!

  1. Insert the hard drive into the USB enclosure. Connect the power cable to your enclosure, and attach the USB cable between your enclosure and your PC. Use the power button or rocker switch to turn on the dock.
  2. Now we’ll want to head to Disk Management. In Windows 8.1, the most straightforward way to get there is to right-click on the “Start” button (aka the Windows logo where the Start button used to be) and select “Disk Management”. (For Windows XP, Vista, and 7, Disk Management can be accessed by right-clicking on “Computer”, selecting “Manage”, then opening Disk Management in the left side of the Computer Management window that opens.)

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  4. When you open Disk Management, it should automatically detect a new, non-initialized drive and display a pop-up window asking if you’d like to initialize the drive. Again, please be sure that the drive in question contains no existing data before proceeding!There will be two options for how to initialize the drive, MBR or GPT. MBR is the older legacy method of initializing drives, and is only necessary if the drive will need to be accessed on a Windows XP system (XP is incompatible with GPT). GPT *must* be selected for drives over 2TB in size. If MBR is selected on a drive larger than 2TB, you will only be able to access the first 2TB of the drive, regardless of what the drive’s capacity is. GPT disks should be accessible on Windows systems running Vista and later.

  5. 2_Disk_Init

    (If you’re interested in much, much more information about MBR vs. GPT, Microsoft has a very thorough post here: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windows/hardware/dn640535%28v=vs.85%29.aspx )

  6. Once you’ve made your selection and clicked on “OK” to initialize the drive, it’s time to partition and format. If desired, multiple partitions can be created, but this guide assumes that, like most people, you want the entire drive to be accessed through a single drive letter/partition.Each Disk that Windows recognizes is given a number and has a horizontal bar representing the space of the disk any any partitions that exist. Since we’re working with a drive that contains no data, it should be listed as “Unallocated” space. It’s also a good idea to check that the drive size is what you’d expect it to be. In the following example, we’re working with a 1TB drive, which Windows reports as 931.39 GB.

    3_Unallocated_1

    Right-click the unallocated space, and select “New Simple Volume”.

    4_SimpleVol

    You will be guided through a series of steps. For the vast majority of users, just accepting the defaults and clicking “Next” will be fine. The two items that you may wish to change are the “Assign the following drive letter” if you’d like your drive to have a specific letter assigned, and the “Volume label”, which will be the name you see associated with the drive letter in Windows File Explorer.

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After these few quick steps, you’re all done and your new drive should be ready for use!

26 comments on “Plugable Tech Tips: How to Partition and Format a New Hard Drive (or SSD)”

    • Gary Zeller Reply

      Hi Jim. That’s a bit tricky to answer, as there are a substantial number of different ways to approach that question. At a high-level, the partition will need to be configured as Primary and Active, and contain the appropriate system files – though the specifics beyond that vary quite a bit based on which operating system you’re attempting to boot from the external drive.

      It’s worth noting that Windows cannot be booted off of a USB drive (other than the “Windows to Go” feature available only with Windows 8 Enterprise). Mac OS and various Linux distributions can be configured to boot from an external drive in some cases.

      • Jim Reply

        Thanks. I am getting a new SSD and want to clone it from my existing HDD. Should I anticipate having to format and partition the new SSD or should I just launch right into the cloning software?

        Jim

        • Gary Zeller Reply

          Hi Jim. The beauty of cloning software is that it generally will automatically do all of the partitioning, formatting, and applying of the existing boot files for you based on how the source/original drive is configured. In this scenario I wouldn’t expect you to need to partition and format manually – you should be able to just proceed with the cloning.

          Enjoy your new SSD!

  1. Mikie Reply

    I like my lay flat docking station. One puzzle i need an assist with is how to remove 4 partitions on a hard drive. Well re installing software on a lenovo touch we stumbled and after it was all said and done needed to erase the drive and start over. The first partiton reads recovery recovery partition.2nd reads System partition.3rd and 4th read unallocated. Its a new western digital blue series hard drive.All other things i have used this on have been issue free and i thank you for that

    • Gary Zeller Reply

      Hi Mikie,

      Glad you’re enjoying your dock!

      To remove the partitions on the drive, the simplest way will be to go to Disk Management, and then right-click on each of the partitions and choose “Delete Volume”. After doing this on each partition, you should have a blank drive with no partitions, and you can then create a new partition layout of your choosing.

      If this doesn’t work for whatever reason, there’s another method we can use that gets a bit more involved. If you’d like assistance please email support@plugable.com and we’ll be happy to provide additional instructions.

      Thanks!
      Gary

      • Mike Reply

        I did those steps.It went well on the first two drives.This last was a bugger. I am sure the drive is healthy. Even though new i ran the test on it twice. My hope is to find the correct way to erase all partitions and start fresh installing recovery disc in a Lenovo g500s touch. Thank you for your response.And thank you for help getting me to the last step to remove the partitions properly. I honestly wish i had not waited so long to get this unit.Its cool Thanks Mike

        • Jim Reply

          Mike-

          If you still have not solved your problem, try the Acronis True Image WD that came with the drive.

          Jim

        • Gary Zeller Reply

          Hi Mike,

          To erase partitions that Disk Management will not allow you to delete, you’ll probably want to use the “diskpart” utility built in to Windows.

          A couple warnings – It’s run from a command prompt, and it’s not very user-friendly. You must be 100% certain that you’ve selected the correct drive before erasing so that you don’t accidentally erase the wrong drive and permanently lose important data.

          Getting into this level of advanced partition management is beyond the scope of the support that we can offer, but the following page covers the steps necessary to erase a disk using diskpart. (Again, we’re providing this info as a courtesy and if you wish to follow these steps it is at your own risk):
          http://www.sevenforums.com/tutorials/52129-disk-clean-clean-all-diskpart-105-7784769-6649847command.html

          Thanks!
          Gary

          • Mike

            Gary this solution worked great.It stumbled well trying to do it on a windows 7 laptop.So i booted up an old XP laptop and it went perfect.Thanks for taking the time to assist me.It is really appreciated.

  2. Vivian Reply

    Hi Gary, I just purchased a new 1T SSD HD to replace a failed 750GB hard drive in my desktop that had Windows 7 OS. I also purchased the Plugable USB 3.0 SATA Docking Station to format the new drive. Reason being when I put the new drive into the desktop, I keep getting the request for a boot disk which I do not have. I have a new system (desktop) with Windows 8.0 on it and to avoid a lot of botheration, I purchased the docking station to partition/format the new SSD drive.

    Now since all I have ever had was Windows OS, I want to use Linux if possible on this drive. I see your directions for formatting and partitioning the new SSD drive for windows, did you do one for setting up a new drive with Linux? If you did, can you tell me where I can find a link to read it. If not, or Linux will not work on the SSD drive, can you tell me if it is possible to partition this drive for Windows 8, and install it into the computer that ran the Windows 7 OS?

    • Gary Zeller Reply

      Hi Vivian,

      This post focuses on partitioning/formatting a secondary drive. The process for partitioning/formatting a boot/OS drive is a bit different in some key ways.

      Usually partitioning and formatting a boot drive is done by the installer of your operating system. Both Linux and Windows can be installed from a USB flash drive if you don’t have a DVD drive on your system. (You’ll probably want the SSD inside your system to install rather than external.)

      There’s a vast number of different Linux versions out there, but if you’re new to Linux you’ll probably want to check out a more user-friendly version like Mint. Here’s a link to their “how-to” page on installing from a USB flash drive:
      http://community.linuxmint.com/tutorial/view/744

      You can even boot up from the flash drive into the Mint OS to test things out and see how you like them before choosing to install.

      Thanks!
      Gary

      • Vivian Reply

        Okay, the desktop that I want to install this ssd/hd into does have a DVD drive, but I don’t have the boot disk, and the system is not recognizing the new hard drive. I set the CD/DVD drive as the default drive thinking I would be able to just install Windows OS from there, but the system keeps requesting a boot disk. I figured that I could link the new ssd/hd drive to the system with Windows 8.0 and partition it from there and then install that drive into the one requesting the boot disk. Then my alternative would be to just download Linux on the drive and install that instead,

        Actually, I just want to get it up and running, and so far all has failed. Also, when you say install from a USB flash drive, how large of a USB drive is necessary?

  3. Gary Zeller Reply

    Hi Vivian,

    Sounds like there are a lot of variables in play here, so it’s tough to give specific answers. We’re getting pretty far outside of the scope of hard drive dock support, but a few quick observations based on the behavior you’ve outlined:

    1) The Windows installation DVD should function as a boot disk, and you should be able to boot from it to install. If the system isn’t booting from the installation DVD (nor recognizing the new SSD drive), there are issues in play that may prevent your workaround from getting things up and running.

    2) The Windows installation process will not allow you install the OS to an external drive – it will need to be functioning as an internal drive if you intend to install Windows.

    3) Installing Linux has gotten easier than it used to be, but it can still be tricky. I believe you should be able to install Mint from a flash drive to an external drive though it’s not anything we’ve specifically tried and validated. The Mint forums will be your best bet for any Mint guides and questions, as it’s likely there will be users and developers there who can provide more specific feedback regarding how an installation to an external drive will go, any “gotchas” to look out for, etc.

    • Vivian Reply

      Okay Gary and thanks for the information. I thought I was doing something incorrectly, but it seems my suspicions were correct. I will just work with the Linux OS and not stress myself out over the Windows boot I appreciate all of the information you have provided

  4. seha3laj Reply

    Gary this solution worked great.It stumbled well trying to do it on a windows 7 laptop.So i booted up an old XP laptop and it went perfect.Thanks for taking the time to assist me.It is really appreciated

  5. Linda Reply

    Hi Gary, I have a Dell small form factor, Windows 7, and a 500 GB hard drive, and also have the OS on DVD in case I need to reinstall it. I just got a docking station and a blank 500 GB hard drive to serve as back up storage, primarily for dragging over folders containing text, pdfs, and photos, about 40 GB total.

    I know you’re busy, so my main question is how do I use the dock to partition the hard drive into 2 or 3 drives? When I right click the unallocated space, what type would I choose and how would I proceed from there?

    Also, if you have time (or a referral), if I want to copy Windows 7 to the new hard drive, should I first open the system and swap hard drives, boot from the DVD, and copy the OS from DVD to HD? Then swap back and use the new HD externally with the docking station for folder back ups? Or will the OS take over the whole HD or fail to partition it such that nothing else could be copied there? Would I need to partition it before installing internally?

    Ideally, I want to end up with 3 sections on the hard drive: 100 GB with a copy of Windows 7 (to install if internal one fails), 100 GB for folder back-ups, and 200 odd GB for future use if I ever want to store videos and music in the future. Thank you!

    • Gary Zeller Reply

      Hi Linda,

      Quite a few things to touch on here and no simple right or wrong way to do things — so I’ll answer your questions as best I can, and a bit out of order.

      1) If you want to load Windows 7 on the external drive, you will indeed need to temporarily set it up as an internal drive in your PC to do the install.

      If you wish to do this, you’ll need to do this as the first step, since part of the Windows install involves partitioning your new drive. (When prompted, you’d want to create a Windows partition of your chosen size – the installer will automatically make it “Primary” as that’s a requirement for OS installation partitions.)

      1a) A Windows install might be overkill for backup. There’s a free program called Macrium Reflect that will copy your existing Windows install to an external drive for backup purposes.

      2) Hard to answer the “What type of partitions?” question definitively – depending on the system configuration there may be some options missing in some configurations. (And if you end up installing Windows to this drive, that will require certain partition choices that you wouldn’t otherwise make.)

      So generally speaking for this scenario, I’d suggest right-clicking and creating an “Extended” partition if you have the option. Set the Extended partition to utilize 100% of the 500GB drive. After creating the Extended partition, right-click again and choose “Create Logical Drive”. You can then right-click in the large 500GB Extended partition and carve out smaller logical partitions of whatever size you’d like to use.

      Good luck with your project!

  6. Linda Reply

    Thank you so much, Gary. Sorry for the delay.

    I took your advice and went with the simpler approach without backing up the OS. Thanks for the program referral for that. An extended partition wasn’t available with right click (or any of the menus), so I just did a drag and drop and have a successful back up!

  7. Craig Reply

    Hi Gary, I have a failed 1.5TB hard drive with about 900MB of data on it. I’m pretty certain that my data is intact and that the problem is ‘sector migration’ where the sectors have simply migrated beyond the drive’s error correction limits. Do you know of any simple way that I might be able to get my data to copy or migrate onto another drive in such a way that it would then be readable? Because the drive is currently not recognizable (except occasionally briefly) that is preventing me from transferring files. My thanks for any help you can provide.

    • Jordan @ Plugable Jordan @ Plugable Reply

      Hi Craig,

      Thanks for the comment and sorry to hear about your drive troubles. If you are familiar with GNU or Linux, DD Rescue (https://www.gnu.org/software/ddrescue) is a great ‘first resort’ open-source data recovery utility.

      If the program does not work, or you do not have the resources for DD Rescue, then ‘last resort’ would be via a professional data recovery company like DriveSavers (http://www.drivesaversdatarecovery.com).

      Hope this helps you recover your data! Plugable wishes you the best of luck.

      • Craig Reply

        Hey, thanks for your help Gary. I was considering using Acronis Alignment Tool (also free) but the learning curve looks steep…like maybe a full day just to get up to speed enough to use it. So, I’ll certainly followup on your recommendations first. Thanks again!

  8. Al McComas Reply

    Gary, thank you for describing the detailed sequence necessary for the procedure. A minor addition…I got into “Control Panel”, double click “Administrative Tools”, right click on “Computer Management” and sent its short cut icon to desk top. Most likely there are even easier ways. I am currently in Vista preparing for 7 and eventually ending up in 10.

  9. M0nK Reply

    Thank you so much it worked now. I used a desktop intended SSD for my external memory dock. I showed on my disk manager but I didnt know how to configure it… until you came to the rescue. Thank you Thank you thank you.

  10. LarryT Reply

    Great Info! I think my SSD was erased when I reverted from W10 back to W8, along with my HDD.. (Thanks MS) So I am having a hard time getting the machine to boot. So I need to get the boot files onto the SSD. How do I do that? It took several days for me to get the machine to boot again and I am afraid I won’t get it started again if I have to reboot. What can you tell me? Thanks!

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