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FAT32 vs. ExFAT vs. NTFS: Which Format Is Best for Your Storage Drive?

Originally posted on pcmag.

When you are reformatting a drive, memory card, or flash drive you need to pick a file format. If you see FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS, but don’t know which one to pick, here’s what you need to know.

When you purchase a new hard drive, it may tell you it needs reformatting, but which format is best? The main options for removable drives and memory cards these days are FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS, with NTFS considered to be a more modern file system. Which operating system you use, and what you plan to do with the drive, will play a part in which file system you need.


What Is a File System?

file system is a framework for organizing files in an operating system or external storage device. It lays out what information can be stored and what filenames, permissions, and other attributes can be attached to the files you save.

As Microsoft-developed formats, Windows supports NTFS, FAT32, and exFAT file systems. They also work on Apple devices, though some of these formats are read-only, meaning you won’t be able to save files on a Mac, just look at them.


FAT32: Wide Compatibility, General Purpose Use

FAT32, part of the File Allocation Table family of file systems, is the oldest of the three, having been originally created for floppy disk storage. It was introduced in Windows 95, but remains the most common file system today thanks to its usage in memory cards and flash drives.

FAT32 isn’t as efficient as newer systems, but it is compatible with a wide range of new and old devices. Since it’s been around for so long, FAT32 has become the de facto standard for a lot of machines, so much so that many flash drives are still sold with FAT32 formatting by default for maximum compatibility.

While its compatibility is a benefit, there are limits to the FAT32 system. Because it’s so old, you can’t save individual files over 4GB in size to a drive formatted with this system. You also can’t make a partition over 8TB in size. Newer versions of Windows also don’t work with FAT32, so don’t format an internal drive with this file system.

If you work with a lot of large files—say a videographer or photographer using high-quality equipment and uncompressed video files or photos—FAT32 storage will not do well here. However, if you want to run Windows from a USB drive, you can use FAT32.

  • Works With: Windows, macOS, Linux, game consoles, just about anything with a USB port
  • Storage Limitations: 4GB file size and 8TB partition size limit.
  • Best For: Storing small files on removable storage for use with a range of devices

ExFAT: Lightweight, Compatible, High Capacity

The Extended File Allocation Table (exFAT)(Opens in a new window) file system was introduced in 2006, and added to Windows XP and Vista operating systems via a software update. It exists as a middle ground between the older FAT32 and the more modern NTFS formats.

 

 

ExFAT was made to be very portable and optimized for flash drives. It’s lightweight like FAT32, but without the same file size restrictions. That said, it lacks some of the features of the NTFS file system. Overall, it’s not as widely compatible as FAT32, but more broadly compatible than NTFS.

For example, exFAT has read/write compatibility with macOS, whereas NTFS is read-only on a Mac—meaning a Mac can read the files on an NTFS-formatted drive but not save to that drive. ExFAT drives can also be accessed by Linux machines running the correct software.

Modern video game consoles use the exFAT format, including the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S. Earlier generations of those consoles, however, do not.

  • Works With: All versions of Windows and modern versions of macOS. Older Linux versions need additional software, but any Linux distribution running Linux Kernel 5.7 or newer—like Ubuntu 22.04—has native exFAT support.
  • Storage Limitations: 128 petabyte maximum file size, 128 petabyte maximum partition size. Lacks some of the newer features that come with NTFS.
  • Best For: Storing and writing larger files you need to use on multiple devices.

NTFS: Large Capacity, Windows Only

The New Technology File System (NTFS)(Opens in a new window) is Microsoft’s main file system. All recent Windows machines use it by default, and if you install a newer version of Windows on a drive, it will format that drive in NTFS. It differs from FAT32 and exFAT in that it’s a journaling file system, meaning it tracks changes before they’re written to help with data recovery in the event of a system failure.

Other than the journaling capability, NTFS also includes an 8 petabyte file size limit, file permission, and encryption features for increased security, as well as shadow copies for backing up data. Because it has all these features, NTFS is a good choice for running an operating system. In fact, machines running modern Windows must use NTFS for partitions.

The main drawback to this file system is compatibility. It’s read-only with Mac devices, and while some versions of Linux can write to NTFS, others cannot. Game consoles are also hit or miss: PlayStation consoles do not support it, while only Xbox One and X/S do. Other devices like flash drives have even less compatibility with this system, if they support it at all.

This means it only makes sense to use NTFS as your filing system if you know you are only going to be running Windows on a certain device and don’t need cross-compatibility with another OS like macOS or Linux.

If you need an external drive for your Mac, you’ll need to reformat from NTFS to exFAT or the Apple File System (APFS), which replaced Apple’s old HFS+ file system in 2016, adding previously unavailable encryption, security, and reliability features. If you’re only using a drive with a Mac, APFS is the way to go.

  • Works With: All Windows versions. Read-only on Mac and some Linux distributions. Supported on Xbox One, X/S
  • Limitations: Limited cross-platform compatibility.
  • Best For: Internal drives running newer Windows operating systems or removable storage for Windows PCs.

Which File System Is Best For You?

If you have a smaller flash drive or removable storage, FAT32 can likely get the job done. However, for larger flash drives and external drives that have higher file capacity, exFAT may be best. Both formats offer cross-platform compatibility for an external drive you plan to use on multiple machines. NTFS, meanwhile, is the format you want to use for an internal drive running Windows. You may still want to use this format for a removable storage if you know it will only be plugged into Windows machines.

Source: pcmag