Floppy drives are rapidly going the way of the dinosaurs. Most laptops don't even have these drives installed anymore. But for moving small amounts of data to and from a legacy system, a floppy is indispensable. This article will show you two ways to format a 3.5" floppy disk on a Windows system and what happens when you format it.
Remember: Formatting floppy disks is a destructive act. Once you reformat a drive, you will NOT be able to get the old data back. You can only put data on a formatted drive; if there is already data there, and you format the disk the data will be gone.
These formatting tips will help:
- First, identify what kind of floppy disk you have. Look at the back, where you will see the round aluminum hub in the center. The front is where the label is (or where the label goes). At the upper left corner of the back is a rectangular hole with a square of plastic in it that can slide up and down. This is used to write-protect the disk. If you slide the plastic square to the bottom, so that the square hole on the front is blocked, you can write to the disk. If you slide the square up so that light can pass through the square hole, the disk is write-protected.
You will not be able to format or otherwise write to the disk if the hole is open. If the plastic square is missing, and the hole is open, you cannot write to the disk unless you cover the hole with a label or a piece of masking tape or something that blocks light. At the upper right (still looking at the back of the disk), you may see another square hole. If you do, then you have a Double-Sided High Density disk (DSHD). A DSHD floppy holds 1.44 MB of information. It also has an "HD" stamped into the front by the aluminum shutter. If you look at it upside down, it looks like a "CH." If there is no hole on the right side of the back, then it is a Double-Sided Double Density disk (DSDD), and it holds 720K of data.
- Write-enable the disk. Insert the floppy disk into the floppy drive with the label side up.
- First Method - Format using Windows Explorer: right-click the Start menu (click the right mouse button while hovering the cursor over the Start button at the lower left of your screen). A menu will pop up. Select "Explore." The Windows Explorer will open up.
Click on the plus sign (+) to the left of "My Computer." The folder tree should expand to show you all the disk drives in your computer. Click on "3 ½ Floppy (A:)." If the disk is not formatted, you will get an error message saying the drive cannot read the disk. If it is formatted, you will see the contents of the floppy in the right pane of the window like you would any other disk drive.
- If you right-click the "3 ½ Floppy (A:)" icon, you will get a menu, and about halfway down will be an option to "Format." Click to select, and a format dialog box will come up. It will tell you the capacity of the disk, the format (FAT, File Allocation Table, a Windows/DOS format), the Allocation unit size (which you can't change), a Volume label (which is handy for identifying the contents), and a check box for a Quick Format. You can only use Quick Format if the disk has been formatted before. Choose the appropriate format method, and click OK. Windows will format the disk and tell you when it is done. You then have an option to format another. In my experience, you will have more problems using Windows Explorer than the DOS box method below.
- Second Method - Format in a DOS box: If you do not want to use Windows Explorer, open up an MS-DOS window. At the prompt, type "dir a:" (without the quotes) to get a directory of the floppy. Make sure you really want to wipe out the data on the disk. If you do, type "format a:." DOS will prompt you to insert a floppy in drive a:. Hit "Enter." You will get feedback as each track is formatted. Again, when the process is complete, you will have an option to format another disk.
- When things go wrong, and Windows tells you it cannot format the disk, you have only a few options. Either the disk is bad (the usual problem), the drive is bad (unlikely unless you have been fiddling around inside), or you did not follow instructions closely enough (also quite possible). Reread the instructions. Try a different disk or try a different computer with the same disk to sort out what the problem is.
Now you know how to format a disk and what happens when you format a floppy disk. Floppies are nearly obsolete. You still need them for legacy systems. Floppies hold very little data. The USB drive (or "thumb" drive) is the preferred method for transferring data between systems that are not on a network. This "sneakernet" method is still the best way to get small files transferred from an old Windows 95 or 98 system to a new system.