FAT32 vs ExFAT vs NTFS: Which Format is Best for USB Drive?

When transferring data using a USB drive across devices, you want the best possible reliability and storage capacity possible. So, which file system should you go for, FAT32, ExFAT, or NTFS? The answer is:

It all depends on the operating system you’re using and the size of the files you want to store in your USB drive. Here’s my recommendation:

  • FAT32: Best for transferring a small file (under 4GB) across a large number of devices with many users.
  • ExFAT: Use this one when you need to transfer big files with your USB drive (4GB or higher) across Windows, macOS, and some versions of Linux.
  • NTFS: Optimal for transferring files between Windows computers.

Hi, I’m Devansh. Having migrated between many operating systems and file systems while using USB drives in the past, I know a thing or two about them and intend to clear up some doubts with this article.

Here, I’ll first explain to you what file systems are and what they’re supposed to do; then I’ll walk you through FAT32, ExFAT, and NTFS. Based on that, I’ll recommend which file system is the best for a USB drive. Finally, I’ll answer some related questions you might have.

If you’re interested in using the best file system format for your USB drive to get the best speed and minimize chances of data corruption, hop on board!

What Is a File System?

Before diving deep into the nuances of each file system, let’s first get the basics right. Imagine a paper filing system – a piece of data known as a “file” is stored in a computer using a file system, much like how a physical file is organized in a file cabinet!

Of course, there’s no standard way to organize files in a file cabinet, it can differ based on the requirements. The same applies to different computer file systems, each with its own unique way of sorting through files, user permissions, and other parameters.

In order to successfully use a file system, the OS you’re using needs to be compatible with it. Only then it can read the stored contents, let you interact with the files, and save or delete files. Now that you know what file systems are, let’s walk you through the top three ones.

1. FAT32

The best starting point with file systems is FAT32, short for File Allocation Table. Having been around for a long time (first came out as FAT8 in 1981), it offers a wide range of compatibility and works with pretty much anything with an active USB port.

Unfortunately, being so widespread and easily available, it has certain drawbacks too. With a max disk size of only 32GB (up to 2TB with third-party tools) and a max file size of 4GB, it’s quite limiting.

Keeping that in mind, my recommendation is to only use it for transferring relatively small files, like music and pictures, across many different operating systems and devices. It’s perfect when you want to share a USB drive among friends or colleagues using different devices.

2. ExFAT

When we all realized that FAT32 wasn’t relevant anymore and couldn’t be piled on with more updates, Microsoft released ExFAT in 2006. 

ExFAT stands for Extended File Allocation Table. As the name suggests, it’s a next-gen version of FAT and can accommodate up to 16EB of data. It also hits the middle road in terms of compatibility between the other two options on this list.

It supports Windows and newer versions of macOS, but needs some tweaking to run on Linux. In line with that, use it when you need to transfer big files with your USB drive (4GB or higher) across devices that NTFS doesn’t cover.

3. NTFS

Finally, let’s talk about NTFS, an acronym for New Technology File System. It is the default file system used by Windows currently. Whenever you install Windows 7, 8, 10, or 11 in a computer, your system drive is formatted with the NTFS file system. Similar to ExFAT, it can hold up to 16EB of data.

One significant advantage NTFS has over older FAT systems is that it uses a different protocol for storing files. You see, when you store a file in a FAT system, it saves it with relevant metadata. When you delete it, it gets rid of the metadata and the file is overwritten.

As you might expect, this can increase the chances of errors and data corruption. On the other hand, NTFS backs up the metadata for the file before making any major changes. If something goes wrong, it can always refer back to the journal. This makes it more reliable.

In terms of compatibility, NTFS works with all newer versions of Windows. However, it’s read-only on Mac and some Linux distributions. So, my recommendation is to only use it for USB drives that will be used with Windows PCs or laptops.

Here’s a quick comparison table summarizing the differences among these three popular file systems.

FAT32ExFATNTFS
Max Disk Size32GB (up to 2TB with third-party tools)16EB16EB
Max File Size4GB128TB256TB
Fault ToleranceNoNoAuto Repair

Which Format is Best for USB Drive Overall?

Now that you’ve learned the difference between these file systems, it’s time for the million-dollar question – which one is the best among them all for your USB drive? The truth is, it depends. Each has its own benefits and quirks.

Being the oldest file system, FAT32 provides the widest available compatibility options with different operating systems, although it falls back in terms of storage capacity and reliability to NTFS; which, in turn, isn’t as widely compatible since it is read-only on Mac.

Being an updated version of FAT32, ExFAT manages to strike a balance between the two but needs some tweaking to run on Linux. Overall, it just boils down to which OS you’re using and how big is the file that you’re transferring. So, choose based on your requirements.

FAQs

Now that you know about what file systems are and the top three ones right now, let’s answer two common FAQs that you might have.

Which File System is Best for USB Drive on Mac?

Although macOS uses HFS, ExFAT, HFS+, and APFS file systems, it’s also compatible with NTFS in a read-only capacity. In addition to that, FAT32 works with it too.

Which File System Allows you to Hide Files on USB Drive?

The ability to hide files on a USB drive isn’t dependent on your file system. You can either use WinRAR to create an encrypted archive or third-party programs like Cryptainer LE. The file system will only limit the file size and the types of devices you can transfer the file to.

Conclusion

As I said before, there’s no blanket recommendation when it comes to file systems. Each has its own pros and cons and works best with a specific operating system.

FAT32 is best for transferring small files (under 4GB each) across different devices. ExFAT is the best one to use when you need to transfer files across different operating systems. And NTFS is the best option if you only use the USB drive on Windows computers.

Although most people can get by just fine without knowing anything about file systems, if you have some basic know-how about them, you can choose one that provides the best speed and reliability for your specific use case. I hope this article helped you do that!

Do you want to highlight and talk about other file systems like HFS and APFS? Please share it with me in the comments!

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