How to format old boot drive in XP when it is no longer the boot drive?
September 7, 2009 4:06 PM   Subscribe

How do I format a non-boot hard drive without taking it out?

Have been constantly upgrading my PC over time. First hard drive was a 160 GB IDE drive with WinXP. When I needed more space I bought a 640 GB SATA drive and installed WinXP, made it the boot drive, and kept the 160 GB in the system. I then bought a third drive (640 GB SATA) and connected it. I'd now like to wipe the 160 GB drive clean, but when I try to format it, I get an error stating I cannot format it and am asked to quit any disk utilities that are using the drive or to close any windows that are displaying any of the drive's contents. Is there a way I could do this?
posted by teg4rvn to Computers & Internet (8 answers total)
I would tentatively suggest creating an Ubuntu Live CD, boot into that, and then try formatting your 160GB drive. (I believe Ubuntu lets you format in NTFS.)

However, given the warnings you are getting from Windows, I'm concerned that in some way, shape, or form, your system is dependent on that 160GB drive for some reason, and that wiping it could cripple your whole OS. I could be totally wrong about this possibility, though, so I would definitely wait to see what other, far more knowledgeable geeks have to say. :)
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 4:10 PM on September 7, 2009

Are you trying to do this from the Disk Management console?
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 4:14 PM on September 7, 2009

If you have windows explorer open, and have the drive showing, it may see the drive as "in use" and not format it. Go all DOS on it: Close everything, open a cmd prompt,

C:\>format /?
Formats a disk for use with Windows XP.

FORMAT volume [/FS:file-system] [/V:label] [/Q] [/A:size] [/C] [/X]
FORMAT volume [/V:label] [/Q] [/F:size]
FORMAT volume [/V:label] [/Q] [/T:tracks /N:sectors]
FORMAT volume [/V:label] [/Q]
FORMAT volume [/Q]

volume Specifies the drive letter (followed by a colon), mount point, or volume name.
/FS:filesystem Specifies the type of the file system (FAT, FAT32, or NTFS).
/V:label Specifies the volume label.
/Q Performs a quick format.
/C NTFS only: Files created on the new volume will be compressed by default.
/X Forces the volume to dismount first if necessary. All opened handles to the
volume would no longer be valid.
/A:size Overrides the default allocation unit size. Default settings
are strongly recommended for general use.
NTFS supports 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16K, 32K, 64K.
FAT supports 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16K, 32K, 64K,
(128K, 256K for sector size > 512 bytes).
FAT32 supports 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16K, 32K, 64K,
(128K, 256K for sector size > 512 bytes).

Note that the FAT and FAT32 files systems impose the following restrictions
on the number of clusters on a volume:

FAT: Number of clusters <> FAT32: 65526 <>
Format will immediately stop processing if it decides that the above requirements
cannot be met using the specified cluster size.

NTFS compression is not supported for allocation unit sizes above 4096.

/F:size Specifies the size of the floppy disk to format (1.44)
/T:tracks Specifies the number of tracks per disk side.
/N:sectors Specifies the number of sectors per track.

so, if the drive letter is D:, the command to quickformat is
C:\>format D:/FS:NTFS /Q
posted by theora55 at 5:43 PM on September 7, 2009

You might want to try turning off System Restore on that drive, too.
posted by flabdablet at 7:09 PM on September 7, 2009

This may add cost for a tangential solution, but as the owner of multiple hard drives you might want to consider purchasing an external hard drive dock or enclosure. That way you could boot from the newer drive, and just disconnect the USB on the one you want to format to troubleshoot what exactly is trying to access that drive.

Although--I suspect that once the drive is in the enclosure rather than hooked up the way it was when it was still the OS drive, you will be able to format it without any issues. Definitely make sure the rest of the system is stable before formatting, though.
posted by Phyltre at 7:57 PM on September 7, 2009

Process Monitor might help you figure out what files are open. Offhand, I'd check for indexing or swap but it could be a lot of things.
posted by chairface at 10:20 PM on September 7, 2009

As a slight modification of what chairface wrote above, I'd say, install Unlocker---it is a tiny Windows app that allows you to kill any handles pertaining to a given file/drive/etc.

After installing, right click on that 160 GB drive you wish to format, click on `Unlocker' somewhere in the middle of the menu, unlock all handles (and my intuition is telling me that this might be a result of System Restore locking your drive), and voila. After that, you should be able to format the drive either via Command Line, or otherwise right-click-on-the-drive-and-select-format way.

posted by noztran at 1:38 AM on September 8, 2009

I'd unplug it to make sure you don't have boot.ini, etc files that are needed to boot windows. If it still starts, then its probably safe to format. If nobody can help you with formatting burn a ubuntu live cd or gparted live, run into the live cd and launch their disk management tool (Gparted, but I think it's named something different in the menu).
posted by glenno86 at 5:12 AM on September 8, 2009

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