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I know people who reformat their hard drives once a month. This seems like a terrible idea to me. I've done some preliminary research and it seems like you can wear down the drive by reformatting and it seems like it's generally not the best practice.

However, is it okay to reformat your hard drive as much as you want? Is there a limit before damage occurs?

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Better yet, why do people call it "reformat?" That word is like "irregardless" or "heighth" and it drives me nuts. You're just "formatting" the drive with a file system, so your question should be "What are the side effects of formatting a hard drive?" –  Russ Warren Jul 15 '09 at 15:54
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Well, the factory already did it once when the drive was made. –  gbarry Jul 15 '09 at 16:07
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Are you sure about that? I didn't know hard drive manufacturers shipped drives with a formatted file system... –  Russ Warren Jul 15 '09 at 16:25
    
@Russ Warren: they ship with the modern equivalent of a "low-level format", although you're right that a drive usually isn't preformatted with NTFS/FAT/filesystem-flavor-of-the-decade. it used to be the case that users could low-level format drives too, but i don't know if that's possible anymore. (it's certainly not encouraged...) –  quack quixote Nov 18 '09 at 14:46
    
@quackquixote it’s not possible except on diskettes. –  kinokijuf Jan 13 '12 at 14:53

7 Answers 7

No. It causes no wear of any significance whatsoever.

In classic (non-SSD) hard drives the magnetic material on a drive's platters might eventually "wear out" and lose it's ability to store magnetic charges after a ridiculously huge number of writes, but hard drives will fail long before that due to mechanical failure.

Classic hard drives suffer the most wear during spin-up and when doing excessive head movements. Formatting is no different than writing to the hard drive normally. In addition to that, normal usage writes to the same general area of a drive very often and requires lots of head movements whereas formatting will sequentially overwrite the entire hard drive, writing each location only once.

In Solid State Drives, the main cause for breakdown is actually wear on the NAND cells storing the data which will eventually be rendered incapable of keeping their charges. During normal usage, most SSDs employ wear-leveling algorithms that will make sure data is written to different cells across the whole drive, even if it requires shuffling existing data around.

Formatting an SSD causes only an insignificant amount of wear. On an Intel X-25M, as stated in this article, if you formatted such an SSD once a day with full erase (no quick format), it would still last more than 5 years.

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+1 for the most accurate answer thus far. Quick-formatting does not cause significant wear on either mechanical HDDs or solid-state drives. Full-formatting does not cause significant wear on mechanical HDDs (which do not have a sector-write limit), but can increase the wear on a SSD slightly (assuming a 10,000 sector write limit, full formatting uses up 0.01% of your drive's lifespan). –  Breakthrough Dec 19 '11 at 10:59

Of course there's some wear involved. The question is whether it's enough to matter.

I'd argue that it is. Your hard drive, in addition to your fans and optical drives, are one of the few places in a computer that relies on moving parts (unless it's an SSD, and that has it's own reason not to format the drive regularly). As such, it's also one of the more likely parts of a computer fail. Hard drives in particular can be a pain when they fail, because they often take a lot of data with them.

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And how does a simple format matter? You're writing to each of the sectors only once, and that's only if you do a full format (involving a full disk surface check for bad sectors). If you do a quick format, the partition/file tables are erased, and that's it - virtually no wear at all. –  Breakthrough Dec 19 '11 at 10:57

If you are not doing a full format of the drive where you just delete and create the partition or the write a new file allocation table (or whatever it's called these days) not such a big deal, you are only writing to a small part of the drive.

Personally drives are so cheap, who care about some small amount of wear from formatting monthly?

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Reformatting once a month is not a good idea. There is some wear involved with formatting. It's the same wear you get as regular use (it's performing the same operations essentially), only it can be across your entire drive, instead of isolated.

You should only reformat your drive when you really want to start completely from scratch. I would stray away from reformatting as a use to simply reorganize your computer.

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Doing a low-level format on the file system will cause the disk to be written entirely. There is an abstract amount of reads and writes that can be done on a disk, so the process of formatting can cause the life of the disk to be diminished. If your friends are doing the "Quick" format method when installing their OS, they are not writing across the entire disk, so it shouldn't cause much of an impact.

All-in-all, formatting shouldn't diminish the life of the disk by a noticeable amount.

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Low-level formats aren't possible without factory equipment on modern drives. –  bdonlan Jul 15 '09 at 16:20

A better question is why do they re-format.

  • Do they do this to "refresh" a Windows install?

  • To make sure that all errors are found before they become a problem?

The first one is easy to fix, just install Linux or *BSD. This is of course assuming they can use their Windows programs in a VM or through Wine.

The second one is to run SpinRite on it regularly.

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Yes they are refreshing a Windows Install. No Linux is not an option, unless you know a good Linux distro that can run CS:Source, Quake Live, Team Fortress 2, etc. –  AlbertoPL Jul 15 '09 at 16:30
    
@AlbertoPL please look into Wine and Cedega cedega.com. According to Cedega CS:S does work on Linux. –  Nathan Adams Nov 18 '09 at 15:04

Writing to a magnetic storage device will not cause "wear" on the ability to store data, in fact, writing data to magnetic storage drives "refreshes" the magnetism of the drive. This is why Steve Gibson wrote Spinright. It reads the data, and re-writes it many times in order to refresh the strength of the magnetic energy.

Doing this to a flash drive will wear it down, this is because there is a difference in the way magnetic storage holds data from flash technology. Flash technology uses floating gate transistors that wear out over time, like if you bend a piece of metal back and forth enough it will snap.

The only parts in a hard drive that are likely to wear out from use are the motor and chips. This is why I've written to hard drive manufacturers like Seagate, Maxtor and Western Digital suggesting the mix of the two technologies.

I suggested they make a hard drive that has no moving parts but uses magnetic storage plates, with solid-state read-heads, one per sector, all addressed like flash memory.

These would be safer to store data on, last longer and if I had the skill or know-how to, I would patent it, but I don't so I just suggest it to others to get it out there.

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You mean dozens of millions of magnetic heads? –  kinokijuf Jan 13 '12 at 14:56
    
What? The Flash storage unit isn't a moving part, it's a purely electronic one. It does however wear out, due to an effect called electromigration. You can't easily have one head per bit on a magnetic device as the current heads are much, much larger than the bits. There is a technology which is like flash but magnetic, which lacks the durability problems of flash; it's called FRAM. FRAM is already available, but has not yet been minaturised to the same extent as flash or hard drives. I have a microcontroller from TI that somes with 8 megabytes (not gigabytes) of FRAM. –  pjc50 Jan 13 '12 at 15:07

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