USB Low-Level Formatting Tool

Fixing a USB drive that's fallen victim to a virus or too much corrupt data is difficult. Sometimes, performing a low-level format of the storage disk is the only way to clear enough bad data to get the flash drive to work properly again. USB drive owners looking to low-level format their flash drives have a couple of formatting tool options available to them online.

Turquoise USB flash drive about to connect to laptop, close-up
Low-level formatting a flash drive erases all data on the device.
credit: Jeffrey Hamilton/Digital Vision/Getty Images


Low-level formatting is a disk formatting process that prepares a drive for data storage. Specifically, a low-level format defines the exact location of a drive's tracks and sectors, establishing the actual physical space on the magnetic disk where information will be stored. A disk that has data can go through a low-level format, but this process clears the disk completely and all data will be lost.


Corrupted data and viruses can cause a hard drive to be unresponsive to an operating system's attempts to run it or fix it through utility applications such as a disk defragmenter. In these situations, low-level formatting, also referred to as zero-fill formatting, clears the data tracks and sectors completely to keep the drive from failing. Low-level formatting is often required for maintenance of older storage media, especially those that use stepper motor actuators, as thermal expansion of the media could cause data misalignment. Older disks need to be low-level formatted to redefine the physical location of data so that a computer can find that data again.

USB Drive Formats

USB drives are typically formatted into one of two types of file system architectures: a file allocation table (FAT) or new technology file system (NTFS). When performing a low-level format on a USB drive, a user will have to choose which of these system formats the USB drive should use. Drives in the FAT format are easier to access and are compatible with a wider range of software, while the NFTS format offers more security and the ability to control data quotas. Most USB drives are formatted for FAT16, which indicates that there are 16 element bits per allocation table on the disk.

Low-Level Formatting Tools

Formatting tools for partitioning a USB flash drive are available through various software programs available for download online. Many programs offer a shareware version that offer better speeds and advanced functions to users who purchase the software license. Freeware versions of low-level formatting programs, such as HDD Guru or Active@ KillDisk, are typically capable of formatting USB drives along with SATA, IDE, SAS and Firewire drives. Make sure to connect the USB drive to a computer before running the low-level formatting tool.