Regardless of what you’re formatting, an internal drive, external drive, USB flash drive, or SD card, Windows provides you the choice of using three different file systems: NTFS, FAT32, and exFAT. Unfortunately, the Format dialog in Windows just gives you the options, however, we will explain the difference.
What is a file system? It is a way of organizing a drive. This specifies how the data is stored on the drive as well as what types of information can be attached to files, for example, filenames, permissions, among other attributes. Windows supports three file systems; NTFS is the most modern file system. Windows uses NTFS for its system drive, for most non-removable drives.
FAT32 is a relatively older file system, it also doesn’t support as big a feature set, however, it does offer greater compatibility with other operating systems. exFAT is the modern replacement for FAT32, more devices, as well as operating systems, support it than NTFS. However, it’s not nearly as widespread as FAT32.
NTFS NT File system
NTFS is the modern file system that Windows uses by default. When Windows is installed, it formats the drive with the NTFS file system. NTFS has files along with partition size limits that are theoretically so huge you will not run up against them. NTFS first appeared in consumer versions of Windows XP, despite it originally debuting with Windows NT.
NTFS has modern features not available to FAT32 as well as exFAT. NTFS supports file permissions for security, a change journal that can help quickly recover errors if the computer crashes. Shadow copies for backups, encryption, disk quota limits, hard links, along with various other features. Many of these are crucial for an operating system drive, above all file permissions.
Your Windows system partition must be NTFS, if you have a secondary drive alongside Windows on which you plan on installing programs, you should go ahead and make it NTFS, as well. If you happen to have any drives where compatibility isn’t an issue and only will use them on windows, you can choose NTFS.
Despite its advantages, NTFS lacks compatibility. It will work with all recent versions of Windows as well as all the way back to Windows XP, however, it has limited compatibility when other operating systems are considered. By default, Macs only have the ability to read NTFS drives, not write to them. Some Linux distributions may enable NTFS-writing support, sadly, some might be read-only. No PlayStation consoles support NTFS. Microsoft’s own Xbox 360 cannot read NTFS drives, though the new Xbox Series X, S, as well as one, can. While other devices are even less likely to support NTFS.
Compatibility: Works with all versions of Windows, however, has read-only with Mac by default. Maybe read-only by default with few Linux distributions. Other devices, with the exception of Microsoft’s Xbox One, probably don’t support NTFS.
Limits: There are no realistic file size or partition size limits.
Ideal Use: You can use it for your Windows system drive as well as other internal drives that you will just be used with Windows.
FAT32 (File Allocation Table 32)
FAT32 is the oldest of the three file systems available. This was introduced way back in Windows 95 to replace the older FAT16 file system used in MS-DOS/Windows 3.
The FAT32 file system has advantages and disadvantages. The huge advantage is because it’s so old, it is the de-facto standard. Flash drives purchased will often be formatted with FAT32 for maximum compatibility.
Limitations, however, are that individual files on a FAT32 drive can’t be over 4GB in size. The partition must also be less than 8TB.
FAT32 is okay for USB flash drives as well as other external media. It lacks the permissions as well as other security features built into the more modern NTFS. Modern versions of Windows can no longer be installed to a FAT32 formatted drive. They have to be installed on drives formatted with NTFS.
Compatibility: This works with all versions of Windows, Mac, Linux, game consoles. It practically works with anything with a USB port.
Limits: It has a maximum of 4GB file size, 8TB maximum partition size.
Ideal Use: You can use it on removable drives where you need maximum compatibility with the widest range of devices, that is if you don’t have any files 4GB or larger in size.
exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table)
The exFAT file system was introduced in 2006. It was added to older versions of Windows with updates to Windows XP as well as Windows Vista. exFAT is optimized for flash drives. It is designed to be a lightweight file system like FAT32, without the extra features. And the overhead of NTFS without the limitations of FAT32.
exFAT has very large limits on file as well as partition sizes, thus, allowing you to store files much larger than the 4 GB allowed by FAT32.
While exFAT does not quite match FAT32’s compatibility, it is more widely compatible than NTFS. Macs offer full read-write support for exFAT. exFAT drives can be accessed on Linux as well, you can do so by installing the appropriate software. The PlayStation5 as well as the PlayStation 4 support exFAT, on the other hand, the PlayStation 3 does not. The Xbox Series X, S, along with One support it, however, the Xbox 360 does not.
Compatibility: This works with all versions of Windows as well as modern versions of macOS, however, it requires additional software on Linux. More devices support exFAT than support NTFS, however, few particularly older ones might only offer support for FAT32.
Limits: There is no realistic file size or partition size limits.
Ideal Use: You can use it when you require a bigger file size as well as partition limits than what FAT32 offers. You can also use it when you need more compatibility than what NTFS offers. Format your device with exFAT assuming that every device you want to use the drive with supports exFAT.
NTFS is ideal for internal drives, while exFAT is ideal for flash drives. However, you might sometimes have to format an external drive with FAT32 if exFAT is not supported on the device you need to use it with.
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