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Front Page » January 10, 2006 » Tech Tips » Files, Folders & Formatting
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Files, Folders & Formatting

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One of the strongest advantages of modern computers is their ability to store huge amounts of information. Such a task isn't as fundamentally simple as it may seem. In fact, saving a file to a computer entails quite the process.

Storage devices are what makes it possible for you to save (store) documents for later use. Unlike memory, the contents don't suddenly disappear when the device is unplugged or the computer is turned off. Examples include 3�" floppy discs, digital camera cards, USB drives ("Lexar JumpDrive", for example) and hard disc drives (the "C" drive in Windows, located inside the computer). CDs and DVDs are also storage devices, but do not behave the same as floppies or hard drives. As such, this discussion will focus around traditional storage devices.

Before any storage device can be used in a computer, it must be prepared to store information (bits, particularly ones and zeros). This process, called formatting, organizes and arranges the device into various orderly portions called clusters. Clusters vary in size from device to device, but every cluster on a given storage device is the same size.

When a file is copied to a storage device, it is broken into equal segments. Each segment is the same size as a cluster on the storage device. Each segment is placed into a clustor for save keeping. Sometimes files are spread across non-consecutive clusters, which often degrades performance, because the computer has to read or write clusters that are not in the same area of the storage device. Often, the clusters on the device become scattered, containing a lot of wasted, empty space in the middle. When this occurs, the disc has become "fragmented" and needs to be de-fragmented. Windows users can run "defrag" to de-fragment the device.

This type of formatting is often referred to as high-level formatting, which occurs on an intangible level (meaning, it doesn't physically alter the floppy). Think of it as a software level format.

Some devices come "pre-formatted" from the manufacturer. Such is the case with 3�" floppy discs, which are often labeled "IBM-PC Formatted" or "Macintosh Formatted." This does not mean a "Macintosh formatted" disc cannot be used in a PC (or vice versa). In fact, with a few clicks of the mouse, a "Macintosh formatted" disc can be re-formatted for a PC.

Be aware that formatting a storage device erases the contents! Technically, there are ways to "undo" a format using 3rd party tools, but in all practicality, a format erases everything!

This arrangement or organization created by the formatting process is often referred to as a file system. A file system is an addressing system of sorts, which helps the computer know where one file starts and stops, and where another file begins. Many envision a file system as a sort of grid that divides the storage device into recognizable and orderly pieces.

There are many different types of file systems. Each type has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Selecting the right file system depends on the needed features, whether your computer's operating system (Microsoft Windows, Linux, Macintosh OS-X, etc) supports it, and the speed and capacity of the storage device itself.

Smaller capacity devices, like 3�" floppy discs & USB drives, should probably be formatted using FAT (FAT32 is also okay). Larger capacity devices, like hard drives, should probably be formatted using NTFS. Unfortunately, NTFS isn't supported in Windows 95, 98 (including 98 SE) and ME. In this case, use FAT32 instead.

Digital camera cards must also be formatted to store pictures. Fortunately, most are pre-formatted by the manufacturer. If the camera struggles reading the card, sometimes formatting the card can help. However, it is highly recommended that you let the camera format the card, instead of formatting it with your PC. Some cameras are very particular about how the card is formatted!

Once a device has been formatted, it is ready for reading and writing. Now you can copy files onto it, save your photos to it, whatever! It's yours to do as you please!

In subsequent articles in this series, formatting will be discussed further (including instructions, and an introduction to files and folders will be introduced.

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