When your hard drive gets full, you want to change the file system format of your USB flash drive or set up an external hard drive for gaming, and you'll need to format or reformat a hard drive. 

Which formatting method should you choose? High-level formatting or low-level formatting? This page will explain clearly what high-level formatting is and what low-level formatting is. We'll also compare these two types of formatting methods, helping you to decide when and how to select the correct formatting methods on your own.

Let's get started to learn about: High-Level Format vs. Low-Level Format and What's the Difference here.

In this article, you'll learn:

  • What Is High-Level Formatting?
  • What Is Low-Level Formatting?
  • High-Level Format VS Low-Level Format, What's the Difference?
  • When and How Do We Perform High-Level Format and Low-Level Format

What Is High-Level Formatting?

Image of high-level format

High-level formatting is the process of setting up an empty file system on a disk partition or a logical volume and, for PCs, installing a boot sector. This is often a fast operation and is sometimes referred to as quick formatting.
                                                                                                                               - by Wikipedia                                     

Definition: According to the explanation of high-level formatting by Wikipedia, it could be simply defined that the high-level format is a type of logical formatting. It aims to set up a new or used hard drive for Windows PCs and laptops with a new file system format, such as NTFS, FAT32, exFAT, or other formats. The high-Level format is also known as HLF, which is a process that cleans up all existing data and recreates the data structure, allowing storage devices to save and store files on it safely.

What Is Low-Level Formatting?

Image of Low-Level Format

Low-level formatting (i.e., closest to the hardware) marks the surfaces of the disk with markers indicating the start of a recording block (typically today called sector markers) and other information like block CRC to be used later, in normal operations, by the disk controller to read or write data. This is intended to be the permanent foundation of the disk and is often completed at the factory.
                                                                                                                                                    - by Wikipedia

Definition: The Low-Level Formatting, also known as LLF, is a physical formatting process that marks cylinders and tracks of a hard drive as blank. After this, the tracks of a hard drive will be divided into sectors with sector markers. It's widely used to reset a hard drive to its factory settings. 

So what are the differences between high-level and low-level formatting? This is what we are about to discuss with you in the next part. So continue reading and learn the details.

High-Level Format VS Low-Level Format, What's the Difference?

Aside from the definition differences, high-level and low-level formatting are also different in many other aspects. 

Here is a comparison table: High-Level Format vs. Low-Level Format, and you can follow to find out the differences further immediately:

Differences High-Level Formatting Low-Level Formatting
Goal Set up file systems like FAT32, NTFS, or exFAT, etc., clean up hard drive partitions, and recreate file structure. Recreate sectors and tracks on a disk, and physically clean up a disk to its original state.
  • Windows users
  • Windows beginners and professionals
  • Hard drive, external hard drives, USB, or SD card owners
  • Geeks and professionals
  • Storage service providers
  • Storage device manufacturers
Data Recovery Possibility Yes No
Formatting Tools
  • Third-party Low-Level Format Tools
Command Format command DM commands (different in diverse software or tools)

Accordingly, the biggest differences between high-level and low-level formatting are clear now. It is:

  • Goals: high-level formatting is to reset a used drive or set up a new hard drive partition. While low-level formatting is to reset a drive to its factory settings, like erasing a disk.
  • Target Users: high-level formatting is designed for most personal Windows users. However, low-level formatting is more for manufacturers and service providers.
  • Unformat Recovery: you can apply reliable data recovery software to unformat a drive after high-level formatting. 
  • Formatting Tools: It's easy to execute high-level formatting tasks. Windows offers built-in tools like Disk Management, Diskpart, etc., to quickly format a disk or drive partition. However, when it comes to low-level format a disk or storage device requires professional third-party LLF (Low-Level Format) tools for help. 

What does a low-level format do? What exactly does high-level and low-level formatting do while executing the operation on a hard drive disk? And when should a personal user apply these two types of formatting methods on their computers or external storage devices? Continue reading, and you'll get the answer below.

When and How Do We Perform High-Level Format and Low-Level Format

In this part, we'll assist you in learning the working mechanism of high-level formatting and low-level formatting, when to run high-level or low-level formatting, and how to do so with reliable tools.

Let's get started here:

What Is the Difference Between High Level and Low-Level Format? [Pros & Cons]

Here is a comparison table containing the pros and cons of high-level and low-level formats. So you can view and get it more clear about the differences:

Comparison High-Level Formatting Low-Level Formatting
  • Clear data, delete marks.
  • Check sectors.
  • Initialize boot information.
  • Initialize partition table information.
  • Media check.
  • Disk media test.
  • Divide tracks and sectors.
  • Number each sector (C/H/S).
  • Set cross factors.
  • Fix some logic bad sectors.
  • Quickly clean up existing data.
  • Won't cause physical damage to the hard drive, external hard drive, USB, or SD card.
  • Low-level format an entire disk at one time.
  • Can't fix bad sectors.
  • Can't complete the format if a drive contains too many bad sectors or other errors. 
  • Cause physical damage to hard disk drives when the disk contains bad sectors.
  • Slow to execute low-level format on hard drives. For example, it would last 20+ hours in low-level formatting a 320GB disk.

According to this table, it's clear that the formatting speed of high-level is faster than low-level formatting. Also, both high-level formatting and low-level formatting contain different features and are designed for different goals.

When to Use High-Level Format and When to Apply Low-Level Format

So when should I run high-level formatting, and when do I turn to low-level formatting? Check the list of demands below, and you'll get the answer:

When to Use High-Level Format:

  • Windows warns you "You need to format the disk in drive H: before you can use it". 
  • Hard drive partition, USB, or SD card becomes inaccessible or RAW.
  • Unlock a BitLocker partition without a password.
  • You want to convert the file system format of a drive or USB pen drive to NTFS, FAT32, exFAT, or other formats.
  • You want to quickly format a drive and remove all existing data at one time.
  • Partition a new hard drive and format it to NTFS, FAT32, etc.

When to Use Low-Level Format:

  • Erase a disk and set its state back to the factory settings.
  • Fix bad sectors on a drive.

Warning: As low-level formatting would cause serious physical damage to a hard disk drive, it's highly recommended that all Windows users, professionals, and even disk repairing service providers not use this method unless you are ready to destroy everything on the disk. 

How to Perform High-Level Format and Low-Level Format on Your Disk

So how do I perform a high-level or low-level format on my hard drive? Here is a guide that you can refer to and learn the detailed steps on formatting disk drives via high-level or low-level formatting methods.

To high-level format or low-level format a hard drive:

1. Select a tool that you think is the most convenient here to execute the high-level formatting.

Here is a list of 6 best hard drive format tools, including high-level and low-level formatting software:

  • EaseUS Partition Master Format Tool
  • HP USB Disk Storage Format Tool
  • HDD Low-Level Format Tool
  • Windows File Explorer
  • Windows Disk Management
  • Windows Command Prompt (CMD)

2. Apply a suitable tool to high-level format a drive or low-level format an external disk:

Free Download 

Windows 11/10/8/7100% Secure

See how to format your hard drive partition with EaseUS Partition Master quickly:

Step 1. Right-click the hard drive partition and choose the "Format" option.

Step 2. In the new window, set the Partition label, File system, and Cluster size for the partition, then click "OK".

Step 3. You can see a warning window, click "Yes" to continue.

Step 4. Click the "Execute 1 Task(s)" button, then click "Apply" to start formatting the hard drive partition.

Format partition for free with Disk Management:

  • Right-click "This PC" and choose "Manage".
  • Go to "Disk Management".
  • Right-click the target hard drive partition and choose "Format".
  • Set the volume label and file system and click "OK" to start formatting the drive.

Format partition using disk management

See how to low-level format a hard drive partition with HDD GURU:

  • Download and run HDD Low-Level Format Tool by Guru.
  • Select the partition or drive you want to low-level format, and click "Continue".
  • Go to the LOW-LEVEL Format tab and click "Format THIS DEVICE". 

Low-level format hard drive with HDD low level format tool by HDDGURU

Wait for the process to complete. 

High-Level Format Is Safer and More Practical for Ordinary Users to Protect Their Drives

On this page, we compared high-level and low-level formats, separately explaining what high-level and low-level formats are. 

According to this page, you'll be able to tell the differences between these two levels of formatting methods, and you can easily tell when to apply the right method to format a device.

In a word, when your drive is inaccessible or you need to change a drive format, you can apply disk management, file explorer, or third-party partition manager like EaseUS Partition Master to easily format your drive.

Free Download 

Windows 11/10/8/7100% Secure

When your disk contains too many bad sectors or wants to reset the drive, you may turn to a low-level formatting tool for help.

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Updated by Tracy King

Tracy became a member of the EaseUS content team in 2013. Being a technical writer for over 10 years, she is enthusiastic about sharing tips to assist readers in resolving complex issues in disk management, file transfer, PC & Mac performance optimization, etc., like an expert.

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