What Are the Differences between NTFS, FAT32, and exFAT

Hard-Disk-DriveIf you are using a computer for several years, it is impossible not to have bumped into NTFS, FAT32 or exFAT file systems, although their usefulness is maybe still unclear for you.

When the first computer came alive a few decades ago, so the first file system. The latter allowed the operating system and hence the user to take advantage of the available space on that hard drive, external hard disk, floppy drives, memory sticks, and more.

The procedure by which a hard disk “acquires” a file system is called “formatting.” It can easily be found in Windows when you enter the Explorer or Computer, right click on one of the partitions on your internal or external storage and chose “Format.” The good part is that your Windows, regardless of version, offers more options. Though, the differences between these options are not always clear. Few know when and why it is better to opt for NTFS, FAT32 or exFAT.


The basic idea is that the differences between these file systems are significant. It’s surprisingly unpleasant to fill a hard drive with photos and movies, only to figure out at some point that, due to the wrong choice of a file system, you must delete all of it in order to format it differently. Equally frustrating is to have a completely empty 16GB memory stick formatted in FAT32 and, when trying to copy a 4.5GB DVD image, just to realize Windows displays a notification saying you don’t have enough free pace on your stick.

FAT32 – it’s the oldest and the best, sometimes

More than 20, 30 years ago, FAT and FAT16 were used on a large scale, but from the above list, FAT32 is the oldest file system that is still being used. It was introduced simultaneously with Windows 95.

Though FAT32 is deprecated, its age translates into a high level of compatibility with a wide variety of operating systems and devices. Preventively, the majority of USB memory sticks that you buy today are pre-formatted in FAT32, and the same principle applies in many external hard drives. As I said above, the idea behind it is compatibility. A FAT32 memory stick works equally well in tandem with a game console, Linux, and the latest MacBooks.

There are two important shortcomings when it comes to FAT32. The first one is the maximum size of 4GB per file. Secondly, the maximum size for FAT32-formatted partition is 8GB. If you try to copy a file larger than 4GB on a stick or external hard drive bearing this file system, you receive an error message of no free space available. In that context, the only solution is to reformat the stick to NTFS or exFAT or to convert it into one of them with a specialized program. Also, a modern operating system like Windows 8 or Windows 10 can not be installed on a FAT32 partition. FAT32 lacks various advanced security options and permissions used by the new operating systems.

The only context when it would be good to format a USB memory stick as FAT32 is if you do not often interact with files larger than 4GB and, above all, you care about compatibility with other devices.

exFAT – a FAT32 without the shortcomings

exFAT is one of the latest file systems. It was initially launched in 2006, being also added in older operating systems such as Windows Vista or Windows XP via updates.

Concievably, exFAT was intended for removable devices, particularly memory sticks. It was also optimized for compatibility, taking out of the equation most specific FAT32 shortcomings. exFAT does not feature the same security permissions such as NTFS, at least, you do not have to care about the files size.

Similar to NTFS, exFAT partitions supports fabulous sizes, lacking a tangible limit for individual files. In practice, you can store files larger than 4GB, and this is the most important aspect. Whatever the size of a stick, it would be better to opt for exFAT.

With regards to compatibility, Mac OS X systems can interact with exFAT external hard drives, in both writing and reading mode; that does not apply to NTFS. Neither Linux will find it difficult to use exFAT formatted media, although it is likely you need to install a driver or an additional application. The only obvious compatibility limitations are for PS3 and Xbox 360 supporting FAT32. PlayStation 4 and Xbox One should have no problem dealing with exFAT. Other devices such as dedicated multimedia players connected to TV might also support FAT32 only.


NTFS – extremely versatile but with low compatibility

A modern file system for PCs today, NTFS, is the default for Windows in a wide variety of scenarios. If you installed Windows without being asked, the partition selected by default was formatted in NTFS.

First used in Windows XP, NTFS has not changed hitherto, nor has been adopted at large-scale. Its great advantage, before exFAT emerged, was the elimination of the file size related shortcomings. Additionally, it supports advanced file system permissions without any extra effort from the user. NTFS logs changes and allows files and media recovery in case of a power outage. It supports data encryption, backup shadow copies, can limit the space usage for specific users, sets complex logic connections between files, and more. Many such features are vital for proper functioning of the operating system, and you are required to adopt it by default for the partition where the OS will be installed.

From the outset, NTFS compatibility is a major problem with anything other than Windows. Since Windows XP, it is recommended that you use NTFS for internal storage devices or external hard disks. On Mac, however, it natively runs in the read-only mode, forcing you to install third-party drivers such as Tux NTFS for Mac or Paragon NTFS for Mac to be able to write on such partitions. Regarding Linux, the situation is different; some distributions allow to write on Linux partitions while other are read-only. You cannot use a NTFS formatted stick along with Xbox 360, PS3 or PS4, but goes with Xbox One. If you have other consoles, media players or smart TVs to connect to external hard drives, avoid as much as possible NTFS due to presumably compatibility issues. Use FAT32 or exFAT instead.

What about Mac?

Apple systems use their own file system and, though it has evolved significantly in the recent years, Mac OS X Extended is only one. It may appear as Journaled or Encrypted, to inform you about the state of your data, but does not affect its compatibility with other Macs. Unfortunately, this file system is not compatible with anything else. If using multiple MacBooks, iMacs, and MacBook Pros to constantly and swiftly migrate data between them, Mac OS X Extended is advisable. Problems arise when a PC owner asks you to transfer a file to Windows rapidly. For such scenarios, it would be better to use FAT32 or exFAT.

In conclusion, FAT32 is perfectly compliant as long as you know chances to bump into files larger than 4GB are minimal. exFAT gets rid of the 4GB limitation, but you can never be sure whether or not it is compatible with anything else apart from a PC. NTFS is the best, most modern, and offers the largest variety of security options; unfortunately, it is not suitable for anytime-anywhere usage, particularly in the case of external hard drives.

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