How-to: Choose FAT, exFAT or NTFS file systems [Guest Post]

No, it’s not the latest diet fad. The story goes like this; I started to migrate a Windows Vista machine to Windows 7 (not for myself, I should add). When I plugged in an external drive for ‘Easy Transfer’  (this is Vista, so ‘easy’ is a relative term), the program decided it couldn’t cope with a FAT32 format drive.

I know; how long has that FAT32 drive sat around? Never mind. My choices to reformat are: exFAT or NTFS. What do I use? I’m no digital storage expert, but here goes…

Microsoft introduced the exFAT file system with Vista SP1: Extended File Allocation Table (exFAT) is the successor to the old FAT32 file system.  But why, when FAT32 was already eclipsed by the superior NTFS?

exFAT was not designed for formatting hard drives. It was intended for flash memory storage, external devices with limited processing power and memory, and never as a competitor to NTFS on hard drives.

exFAT is essentially a compromise, a lightweight ‘FAT64’, increasing capacity and speed without bringing the processing overhead of a high-spec disk file system. By high-spec, we mean that NFTS has proper journalling, like Ext2, Ext3 Ext4 or Reiser. There’s also the EFS ‘Encrypted’ attribute (EFS stands for Encrypting File System) an early, on-the-fly encryption that was, in practice, unworkable and nobody used.

Feature Creatures

  • FAT32 is a simple system. The simplicity of FAT32 makes it inefficient with large sizes (try editing video on FAT32 – on second
    thoughts, don’t!) but it will run with less resources on older, less powerful hardware.
  • NTFS has many more features for performance and robust journalling for reliability, but requires more memory and processing power.
  • exFAT is an improved and more capable file system than FAT but is designed for flash drives, to push capacity in cameras, for example. exFAT performs better than FAT32 on large volumes – but that’s not difficult.
  • The problem with all of them, despite becoming de facto standards, they are all proprietary to Microsoft.

The technical bit:

  • FAT32 has a file size limit of 4GB and is limited to disks of 2TB or less.  It is still the most cross-compatible file format on the planet.
  • exFAT has a file size limit of 16 Exabytes and a disk size limit of 128 Petabytes.Like you’ll ever use exFAT on anything that size. Unless you’re engaged in industrial sabotage.
  • exFAT and FAT32 are fully supported on Mac OS. Which is nice.
  • NTFS is more reliable and robust than any FAT system will ever be. Want proof?  Read up on the superior features of NTFS: Alternate Data Streams, File Compression, and Journaling (that’s the error-correcting and reliability component).
  • Windows 7 will read all three formats, while modern versions of OS X
    after
    Snow Leopard (10.6.5) added exFat read and write capabilities.

What file system to choose?

  • Use exFAT for larger flash drives where your devices support exFAT.
  • if you have a device that does not support exFAT, like say some phones and cameras, then use FAT32.
  • You will see some recommendations to use exFAT on external drives – USB hard drives mainly. I would stay clear of it. In my humble opinion, a traditional spinning metal disk drive is better off, more reliable and more robust using NTFS (just don’t encrypt with EFS).
  • For everything else use NTFS.

So that’s what I did; back to old faithful NTFS. The ‘Easy Transfer’ is still running. I’m going to take a second back-up. Just in case. RC

About Freelance project manager; performer; writer; sports coach; all-round eccentric.
Writer and editor at the Catling Mindswipe and Everything Express

One thought on “How-to: Choose FAT, exFAT or NTFS file systems [Guest Post]

  1. rshullic says:

    I hate when they call or refer to exfat as FAT64. It’s not FAT 64, the FAT is 32 bits and Microsoft NEVER uses that term.

    Although there was a big drive with the SD cards and the SDXC standard for exFAT, lots of memory that is large capacity including Compact Flash, SSD, and even magnetic disk are leaving the factory and are being shipped preform attend with exFAT. Don’t get me wrong, magnetic media is still being preformatted in some cases as NTFS and HFS as well. I am not a MAC person but I think NTFS is read only on MAC.

    One of the improvements made in wxFAT that makes it flash/solid state friendly is reduction of writes. The FAT is not used unless the file is fragmented, bit map is used for allocation, and if the FAT is used, if is not zeroed when a file is deleted leaving the chain as an artifact.

    It has it’s uses. But if NTFS is not a good choice and a FAT system needs to be used, then as long as the OS supports it, exFAT is a better wAy to go than FAT32.

    I have 3 Seagate external magnetic disk drives at home all over 1.5 TB each and they came NTFS, and I like them that way because they are hooked to a Win 2K8 R2 server with lots of files and I need the performance. One must decide based on the use case to make the correct choice.

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