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How do I reformat my machine

if I dont have a Windows CD?
Reformatting a machine is a major step that erases
everything. Unless you really know what you're
doing, you're going to want that Windows Setup


I want to format my laptop. It has Windows SP

with service pack 2 installed.I dont recall

getting a Windows CD, so first how do I format and second

can Ido it without that setup CD?




The answer for most people is simple: no, you cannot. In fact, you
shouldnot if you dont have the Windows setup CD.
Yes, yes, it can be done without the setup CD, but Im guessing you
wontlike what you end up with. Not at all.
Lets be clear on exactly what it means to reformat a machine.
Lets be really, really clear.

Reformatting a machine beginsby erasing everything on it.

Got that? Everything. The operating system, all your programs, and all
yourdata. Everything. Gone.
Im sorry if that seems obvious to many of you, but trust me its not at
allobvious to many others.
So before we even get to step 1, step 0 is to make sure that
reformattingis exactly what you want to do. That means that either
youve backed upeverything you need to save off of the machine, or
that youre ready to reloadthe machine, or you really do want an
unbootable empty hard drive.

When most people talk about reformatting a machine, they really

meanreformat and reinstall. Its a two step process. Step 1 is simple,
step 2typically takes a long time.
Step 1: Reformat
Formatting a disk is a process that simply prepares it for use by
writingwhat is effectively blank data to the entire disk. The result is
that thedisk is ready for use. Empty, but ready for use.




Re-formatting a disk is simply repeating that process on a disk that

wasalready formatted. It can be a relatively quick way to erase the
contents ofthe disk to start over, or to write to the entire disk to locate
and compensatefor any physical defects on the media.
My recommended approach
to reformatting a hard disk
for most people is toboot
from your Windows install
CD, and indicate that you

As you can see, a reformat

and reinstall is an

want a new, cleaninstall. I

recently did exactly this on my old laptop, and went so far as touse the
partition manager that is part of Windows setup to delete all
thepartitions on the laptops hard drive and create a new partition
thatencompassed the entire disk. Windows Setups next step was to
perform a fullformat of the hard drive before it continued.
If you dont have a Windows install CD, there are still approaches to
getthe reformat done. You could boot from one of the many Linux Live
CDs and usethe tools therein, or boot from some of the boot disks
available at In the later case you should beable to use
the familiar Format command directly; since you didnt boot fromthe
hard drive it wont be in use when you run the command.
After reformatting youll have an empty hard disk. Which then brings us
toour next step:
Step 2: Reinstall
This is where not having your Windows install CD really hurts. Without
adisk to reinstall from, you cant reinstall! Your only options are to
install adifferent operating system (such as one of the free Linuxs) or
turn yourmachine off.




Or purchase a Windows CD. (If Windows came preinstalled, you might

checkwith your vendor for a CD its unlikely that theyll give you one,
butperhaps theyll have a discount or other solution for you.)
One lesson here is to always get a copy of Windows on CD when you
purchase amachine with Windows preinstalled.
Assuming you have the Windows CD, the remaining steps are simple
todescribe, but time-consuming to actually perform:
Reinstall Windows. If you used Windows setup to reformat your
machine asdescribed above youre already on your way.
Reinstall and reconfigure all the applications you use. Ive
focussed onhaving the Windows CD, but the same actually
applies to the setup CDs for anysoftware on your machine. Make
sure you have them or can download theapplications in order to
reinstall them at this point. All of them.
Reinstall your data or other customizations. You did backup your
data,right? This is where you copy that data back to your freshly
Thats all there is to it.
As I said, I did it recently, and it took about a half day to get my
laptopreformatted and then up and running again with a fresh and
fully up-to-dateWindows, updated drivers, security software, and some
of the basic applicationsI want for its new intended purpose. A full
reformat and reinstall of myprimary machine typically takes most of
a day to get to basic functionality,and then I find myself installing
missing applications off and on for days.
As you can see, a reformat and reinstall is an extreme step. Make sure
youreally want to do it before you take the plunge.




An Alternative: A Non-Destructive Format

As I mentioned, one of the functions of a full format of a hard drive is
towrite to the entire hard disk and identify and possibly compensate
for badsectors or areas on the hard drive that have errors. Whats
called low-levelformatting does this quite literally by writing data to
the disk and trappingany areas on the disk for which the writes fail.
The side effect, of course, isthat any data that was there previously is
overwritten and lost and you end upwith a blank hard disk.
If youre reformatting in order to deal with possible errors on your
harddisk, there is another approach: SpinRite.
SpinRite is a data recovery tool that, in a sense, performs anondestructive low-level format of the hard disk. It reads the existing
datafrom the drive, performs its write tests and formatting, and
thenreplaces the data. When SpinRite is done, everything on your
harddrive is as it was when you started except that bad sectors have
beenidentified and removed from use, and quite often the drive
appears to runfaster.
SpinRite is called a data recovery tool because if you have bad sectors
onyour hard drive, itll do everything in its power to recover the data
beforeperforming its other operations. The net result is that data
thought lost tohard disk errors can frequently be recovered as the
drive is processed bySpinRite.
SpinRite is not free, but if youre facing data loss it could easily be

Read more:
I dont have an installation CD for Windows XP what if I need




one? At some point, youre going to need your Windows

installation CD/DVD. If you dont have it, you could be severely out
of luck. Ill review alternatives.
Should I reinstall Windows from a fresh boot, or by running the
installer fromwithin Windows?
I cant format my hard drive it keep telling me volume is in use
by another process why? Volume in use when trying to
format most commonly means youre trying to format and erase
the entire disk that has Windows on i
Posted: May 7, 2007 In: Setup and Install

About Leo
Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in
1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask
Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.


May 7, 2007 at 11:03 am

One caveat to what youve said many computer vendors today are not
including a copy of the OS on a CD by default when you buy a computer
today instead they have a hidden partition on the drive with a disk
image. When you want to reformat and reinstall you just run the recovery
disk (comes under different names, depending on the company) which
writes the disk image over your current hard drive contents, effectively
restoring your computer to the day you got it. As with your comments, this
still does erase all data and drive contents, so should not be done unless
youve backed up first.




Advanced users sometimes do this exact same thing but with a disk image
utility (Norton Ghost, e.g.) after theyve got their computer set up with all
the applications the way they like it. Then, next time they feel a need to
reformat and reinstall, all they have to do is use the disk image utility to
copy the disk image over and their system is back to the way it was the day
they made the imageincluding all software applications and windows
customization settings they made before the image.


June 24, 2007 at 3:59 pm

Hi, thanks for posting this, lets say you had a very expensive alienware
desktop and it starting having problems. Im a procrastinator so I usually
deal with some major problems with my comps. Anyways it finally got to
the point where I couldnt even use this computer it wouldnt even start up.
I wanted to reformat+reinstall A year ago but when I tried with the
WINDOWS XP cd when it came to entering the registry key I couldnt
because my house keeper threw it away.
So that leads me to where I am now, a year or more later.. dont know
where the XP cd is. I did download a program just now that finds out ur
Registry Key. So now I have that but no CD.. Im going to take your
advice call alienware ask them for the windows xp cd or the restore one.
Any words of advice for me? I didnt turn this computer on in over a year
till 2 days ago and it worked but got the same blue screen errors and all of
that stuff. I got rid of an lsass.exe error by reading someones posts. But my
computer is still majorly messed up and im 100% i need to
reformat+reinstall XP.


March 15, 2008 at 4:30 am




No original CD but key number is known via sticker on machine,

Can a friends copy of XP be used for the re installatiion using my key. ?


March 30, 2008 at 12:14 am

quote>>Advanced users sometimes do this exact same thing but with a

disk image utility (Norton Ghost, e.g.) after theyve got their computer set
up with all the applications the way they like it. Then, next time they feel a
need to reformat and reinstall, all they have to do is use the disk image
utility to copy the disk image over and their system is back to the way it
was the day they made the imageincluding all software applications and
windows customization settings they made before the image.


November 20, 2008 at 9:22 pm

Go to My Comuter > Drive C > look for a folder named 1386. Open it and
look for a file called wnnt32.exe. This is the Windows installation file. It
will wipe your computer of everything and reinstall Windows.

Miss Angie

November 21, 2008 at 8:16 pm

Leo HELP! I am not all that computer savy for starters.Okay I was given a
laptop with business windows or something on it.I am sure they wiped it
clean before they gave it to me.But I cant get past the first screen because
it wants a password.What do I do ? I dont have the password or a disk or
anything.Its just an old laptop not real old though still usuable that I got
for free.
Assuming you dont want anything currently on that machine, just
get a copy of Windows and install it from scratch.






December 5, 2008 at 9:55 pm

Hello Leo. Thanks so much for info you put on site. I have a friend that has
a pc with an illegal copy of windows xp on it and I unknowly went to
update and then it didnt pass the validation tool so is now froze. I do have
a legal copy of xp to install but Im not sure how to get it to function
outside of a hard reboot with windows cd in drive. Any suggestions very
much appreciated. Pat

Holly Cow

March 31, 2009 at 11:10 am

Hi Leo. If I reinstall window XP, does it also reformat the hard drive at the
same time? If so, I dont have to reformat the hard drive first and then
reinstall window XP. Am I correct?
You should be given the option to reformat as part of the
installation process.


August 18, 2009 at 9:33 pm

I am trying to install Window XP and it is setting it up, my product key

number on the package is not taking. I install up to 39 minutes of my cd,
then I reboot it again and it comes up with installing the product key which
is not taking it on the package. Is there a way I can install Windows




without the product key numbers and part of the window is display? I can
not get to My Computer, just the setup window. Please help


January 28, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Hello Leo! I recently reformatted and reinstalled Windows XP on my

laptop. However, upon getting it back up and running and on the Internet, I
noticed that my hard drive is almost full. Theres no sign of anything still
on the hard drive, and it has a capacity of 60 GB and almost all of it is
being used. Did I miss something? Thanks.

Gerald Beckr

February 2, 2010 at 9:57 am

Leo,I have a HP Presario SR1215CL that a friend gave me, it has many
problens and conflicts, this computer was purchased in 2005 it was never
updated and the Norton trial was never activated, there are locking
problems as the administrator never fixed, this computer has many
programs that were never used and a lot of junk files, I have my own
windows XP operating Disk, should I reinstall using my disk and will this
fix most problems,I did download AVG and cleaned up about 70 trojans and
other viris that were present. Thanks,
Gerald Becker


February 15, 2010 at 9:54 pm

hi sir leo how can i fix my hp 110 mini laptop it is stuck on the desktop
reboot it..i am able to move the cursor but it is not functioning.

Igoma D N

April 19, 2010 at 5:28 am




I want to format my laptop that have windon vista to window xp or

window 7. My laptop model is HP compaq NC6220. Processor 0.98GB, HD
40GB. The cd/dvd drive is fault but it only recognised dvd drive software
installations pack but cd it would not. Can i cope the window software into
a flash drive then used it to format the system. Ple advice me on it because
the window vista is giving a lot of problem.
Ple send me reply on: [email address removed]
Thanks hoping to hear from u.


June 15, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Hello Leo and thanks for a great article, however it did not address my
needs. The problem I have is that I wanted to perform a clean install of
Windows 7, upgrading from my Vista. So I use the custom install option as I
should, but after having gone through the installation process, it comes to
my awareness that somehow, this custom install in fact SPLIT MY HARD
install would format my hard drive, but as seems to be the case instead, is
that it must have created enough space on the hard drive to perform a
quick format instead. I am therefore trying to find a way to properly format
the hard drive, as I do not believe the hard drive itself is damaged or
corrupt, merely that Windows 7 used half of the hard drive space to dump
information from Vista. So what I did was that I of course tried to run the
set up program again, believing that Win 7 merely created a faulty partition
I did not notice and deleting this partition would solve my problem, but
when prompted where I want to install Win 7, it turns out that the limit of
my hard drive remains the same. Win 7 does not recognize the rest of my
hard drive capacity, and I am at loss as to why.
I tried to run the SpinRite program because it seems to be what I were




after, but as with all other programs Ive unfortunately encountered, it will
not function as bootable from a CD. I burned the .iso file but it just says
that there is no proper media drive in my CD drive. Yes, I have set my
motherboard to boot from CD since I had to do this to install WIn 7 in the
first place.
Does this problem with my hard drive relate to what Win 7 calls
Windows.old? What I noticed after my first install was that it indeed was
not a clean install at all, as I in fact had several folders lying around that
were left from Vista, yet other information such as installed programs were
I would love to hear your response to this problem.


July 13, 2010 at 7:33 am

Hi Leo, I have bought a new lap top with Windows 7 installed so I have
promised a friend my desktop, so I wish to format the hard drive, before I
give him it. I will then reinstall as I have a Vista installation disc. As I am a
pensioner and I hear people saying to reboot from disc, the problem is I do
not know how to do it, as I only have a basic knowledge in computing.
Thank you.

Jerome Mccarthy

March 23, 2011 at 11:43 pm

Leo, Why would one need to reformat a HD anyway unless it had

stopped functioning?
A true reformat is a useful way to erase everything as well as
touch every sector on the hard drive refreshing the magnetic
image of the data.






March 5, 2012 at 1:35 am

Hi Leo can u please tell me since i ve problem installing window 7 in my

HP Compaq nc6220 which tells me during the installion that i need cd/dvd
driver which i didnt know where i find even hp home
thanks in Advance


February 3, 2015 at 12:48 am

I want original CD of win vista home basic 32 bits, but I dont have a
bootable disk to start format


February 3, 2015 at 5:11 am

The article you are commenting on has your options for that. Also
check out the other article listed under Read more and youll find
all your options.


February 16, 2015 at 8:10 am

Hi leo!
I have perhaps a different type of problem than others. I have installed
Windows 8.1 on one partition of my hard disk and windows xp sp3 on
another. Xp got too much slow so i tried to remove it by formatting but am




not able because i dont have a c.d of both windows. So i tried to format
the xp installed partition through win 8 log in but it shows Windows cant
format the drive. Then i deleted all the folders of xp drive but one didnt
delete due to unknown reasons, now when i start PC and choose win xp it
doesnt load and says .dll and sys32 file missing. Now please guide me how
do i delete/format the win xp partition drive from win 8 log in. Please help
so that i can make my computer faster, safer by removing XP. Thanks!!!


April 16, 2015 at 2:26 am

i have formatted my laptopand istalled new os.badly i forgot to copy

my important (photos) from old drivesnow is there any possibility to get
them back.

Mark Jacobs

April 16, 2015 at 3:16 am

If youve formatted the drive and overwritten it with a new OS, those
files would be unrecoverable.

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