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SDFormatter is often recommended to format the SDCard.

http://raspberrypi.stackexchange.com/a/19928/39410

http://elinux.org/RPi_Easy_SD_Card_Setup#Using_NOOBS

I have never heard of this software before using the Raspberry Pi.

Is it critical to format your SDCard with this software before using the Pi? What if the SDCard is brand new? Are there alternatives that can be used if you have problems with it?

Can I just use the built in Windows tools or some other free software?

e.g. http://alternativeto.net/software/easeus-partition-manager-home-edition/?license=free

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1  
You might as well try whatever you like and see if the card boots. If it does, you are probably okay. You are not going to damage anything. – goldilocks Jan 11 at 18:26
    
It is probably the case that the card is already formatted by the manufacturer to a single, large, VFat (i.e. M$ Windoze compatible) file-system on a primary partition if it is a BNIB (Brand New In Box) specimen! Some uses (Video Cameras/Recorders) probably expect it and others (MacOs, *nixs) can understand it even if they would prefer something else - conversely Micro$oft's products often cannot access content on other file-system types - which is why fixing a faulty configuration for a RPi can be harder (but not impossible) if your only PC is a Windows one! 8-) – SlySven Jan 16 at 11:19
    
It seems like the guides are making things overly complicated. As @CavRecon mentions, perhaps these guides should add it as a troubleshooting step instead of a first step. Anyway, thanks for all the answers. – opticyclic Jan 18 at 14:06
up vote 10 down vote accepted

There is no requirement to use the tool provided by the SD Association. Formatting the card in Windows using the Windows formatter may also work.

However, there is a strong recommendation to use the tool. At least for SD, SDHC and/or SDXC cards. Different OSes and different formatting tools may have varying ideas about how to format an SD-card, many of which will not result in a smile on your face when trying to boot an R-Pi with it. At least when using this tool you'll be certain the result will be "up-to-spec".

ADDITION: For example, some formatting tools, may only format the first partition or use less compatible formats like FAT, NTFS or exFAT. This results in a card of which the full capacity is no longer available. SDformatter will erase the entire card and create a single partition formatted to FAT32. FAT32 being the format of choice for use with the Raspberry Pi.

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Perhaps I have been fortunate, but I have had no problems using SD cards that are brand new nor older cards that have been reformatted.

Thus, to answer the question as posed, NO you don't HAVE to, since I have had much success with multiple installations on 8 Raspberry Pi's without issue. This includes B+, 2B, and Zero models.

Perhaps use the sdformatter as a troubleshooting step if you do encounter issues?

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1  
I think you are right, a lot of the recommendations are paranoid/fool-proof. It's "if you aren't sure just do it this way". – goldilocks Jan 12 at 14:27
    
This is the correct answer. Most SD cards comes preformatted with FAT32 spanning the whole SD card which is just what is needed. SDFormatter is really only needed when reusing an SD card. – Peter Mortensen May 6 at 22:39

It should not matter which tool is used to format the SD card. Using a non SD alignment aware tool might place the partition on the card incorrectly or use an incorrect block size for the file system thus decreasing the obtainable performance.

Using the tool provided by the SD Association creates a FAT32 with optimum parameters. There might be also other tools which are aware of the pecularities of the SD cards.

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