With the high storage capacities that are currently handled, having an NTFS or FAT32 pendrive leaves no room for many doubts in view of the characteristics of each system. But there are users who are completely unaware of how storage devices work.
That is why it is convenient to make it clear when it is advisable to use a certain system or another , as well as the new exFAT that aims to combine the capabilities of the two mentioned systems for portable storage. And what about Linux and Mac’s own systems? We will also give you a taste to get to know them a bit.
Index of contents
- NTFS vs FAT32 vs exFAT: characteristics of each file system
- FAT32: the oldest
- exFAT: more capacity and high compatibility
- NTFS: Microsoft’s format for high-capacity USB sticks
- HFS + and ext
- When should we use NTFS or FAT32 or exFAT pendrive
- When we should format a USB pendrive
- Formatting a USB pendrive from Windows
- Formatting an External SSD / HDD from Disk Management
- Formatting a USB pendrive from command terminal
NTFS vs FAT32 vs exFAT: characteristics of each file system
We start by learning what a file system is , a necessary element in what we think of today as a storage system. Be it an internal hard drive, SSD, portable disk or pendrive, all of them must have a file system , even the storage of a programmable board or a robot.
It is an element linked to the operating system that is responsible for controlling or managing the memory available in a storage unit . This system manages storage cells, allocates space for files and also orders them, thus managing free or occupied space in real time . Without a file system, it would not be possible to store and read data in memory, be it magnetic or solid state with NAND gates.
Each operating system manages its own file system , although it is also capable of working with others different from the one it uses natively. For example, Windows uses NTFS, but has no problem working with FAT or even EXT using applications that “translate” the system into something understandable to Microsoft’s OS, and the same is true for others.
FAT32: the oldest
FAT32 on Windows 95.
The FAT32 system is the evolution of the old FAT (FAT16), used for MS-DOS and floppy disks. The new FAT32 version arrived to increase the capacity of the initial version and adapt to greater storage capacities. It uses 32-bit cluster addresses , although 28 bits are actually used effectively to address files and partitions.
FAT32 can store files of 4 GB as maximum capacity , a name of 255 characters and the number of files cannot exceed 268,173,300 ( approximately 2 28 ). In addition, we can have a maximum partition size of 2 TB. Similarly, it supports a maximum of 10 TB volume size, although in Windows the partitions are limited to 32 GB. This clearly is an impediment to the file sizes we are dealing with today, as almost any video clip or ISO image exceeds this individual capacity.
But despite these mentioned limitations, the biggest advantage that FAT32 has is its enormous compatibility with practically any operating system . Its files can be read natively from Windows, macOS and GNU / Linux, Android as well as other more basic devices such as music and video players, televisions, programmable boards, etc. It works perfectly from USB 2.0, an interface that is in all existing devices at least.
exFAT: more capacity and high compatibility
To eliminate much of the limitations of FAT32 , the system was updated to exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table), also owned by Microsoft. The system is specially designed for portable storage units , being a better option than a FAT32 or NTFS pendrive.
And it is that exFAT expands the maximum file size to 2 64 bytes, that is, 16 Exabytes, already being the best news to support large files . Actually, we should be talking about Exbibytes and Gibibytes for precision issues in Windows, but it’s not worth adding more fuss to the definition. Similarly, the maximum capacity of the partitions and the maximum size of the volume are increased , although the maximum size of the file name is kept at 255 characters.
Another positive part of this system is that it also offers wide system compatibility, and will be readable on Windows starting with XP SP2, MacOS X, Linux and Android. It is true that it is reduced in terms of older, more basic devices , but the current ones do include this support. As for reading from BIOS, we will need the legacy mode to be able to read files.
NTFS: Microsoft’s format for high-capacity USB sticks
NFTS is the file system that has been used in Microsoft operating systems from NT 3.1 to the current ones , based on IBM’s HPFS and with certain influences from Apple’s HFS. This system improves the security and performance of the units, as it has the ability to assign access permissions and also encryption .
This system can allocate a minimum cluster size of 512 bytes and handle 32-bit cluster addresses, but in this case completely. That is why it supports files with a maximum size of 16 TB and a maximum number of files of 4,294,967,295 (232-1) with 255 in name size. The maximum volume size will also be 16 EB, but it has the disadvantage of needing a good amount of space for itself due to bit and byte conversion and cluster size.
This system has good compatibility currently with other systems if we use external applications, but it will not natively. It is the case that some electronic devices such as televisions may be compatible, it would be a matter of seeing their specifications. It will be the format indicated for internal and external USB hard drives, both HDD and SSD, as they have greater capacities than exFAT.
HFS + and ext
HFS + is Apple’s own file system , and as such is rarely used on USB sticks and portable drives. Its compatibility with other systems has certainly improved, being able to be used from Linux in read and write, or in NAS systems based on the Linux kernel. In the same way, Windows supports reading HFS + files , but it will not be able to write data to it.
On the part of ext2, ext3, etc., it is the file system that Linux uses, and therefore its compatibility will be the smallest of those mentioned . However, its capabilities will be superior to all the others, proving as always that free software is superior in many ways.
When should we use NTFS or FAT32 or exFAT pendrive
Since we know the types of file systems, it is time to be clearer when to use an NTFS or FAT32 or exFAT pendrive , although due to its capabilities we can get an idea.
Small and basic pendrives
For USB flash drives between 2 and 16 GB, the most comfortable option will be FAT32 , since it amply meets the capacity except for the detail of the limitation of 4 GB per files. We will almost always use this type of unit to store text files, music or photos, just as it happens with memory cards. In fact, this format will be the native of the units when we buy them.
With FAT32 we will have guaranteed compatibility in all types of current playback devices , so it will be the most comfortable option for users with little computer knowledge. We will also use FAT32 to update BIOS from USB drives and other similar tasks.
Units with more than 16 GB and designed for multimedia use
32 GB is already a relatively high space, and if we have acquired it it is to store large files . For units of this type, the best option is exFAT , as it still has wide compatibility and versatility for use in different systems. Televisions and other equipment usually offer compatibility, in fact, cameras with 64 or 128 GB cards also always use this format .
High-performance portable SSDs with more than 128GB
Possibly these drives are USB 3.2 Gen1 / 2 or even NVMe and allow data encryption, so the best file system will be NTFS . Although we lose a bit of space due to the format, it will not be a problem in large capacities, and it will also be faster for Windows and compatible with current SmartTVs.
Anything that involves carrying a drive based on hard drives, for example an enclosure with an M.2 drive or 2.5 ”SSD, NTFS is recommended although exFAT is also permissible. In this way we will not have problems using it with GPT partitions currently used in Windows 10. When installing Windows from a USB drive, NTFS will be the almost mandatory file system for this.
When we should format a USB pendrive
To tell the truth, an NTFS or FAT32 pendrive can be formatted easily and quickly without any impediment, although it is of little use if we do not plan to change its format. Unlike an operating system that slows down over time due to temporary files or updates, this does not happen on a portable USB.
The flash drives that we buy always or almost always will come preformatted in FAT32 or exFAT as we have already mentioned. But the same does not happen with the SSD and HDD that we decide to use externally, where we do need to do the procedure. So let’s quickly see how to format a drive quickly .
Formatting a USB pendrive from Windows
We start with the fastest procedure , the one that we will carry out from the Windows graphical interface, and more specifically with a pendrive already available in. First of all, we will go to This computer where we will find the list of connected units .
Right click on the unit , and then we will choose the Format option . In this way we access the formatting tool where we will have the following options:
- Capacity: this parameter will be predefined to the maximum of the unit, and from it it is not possible to make partitions, keep that in mind.
- File system: It will be the most important, presenting the three alternatives that we have been explaining.
- Allocation unit size: or also called cluster size, referring to the minimum amount of space that a file can occupy on the disk . It will be the minimum division of the unit, where the file chunks are stored. For small files, it is best to have a small cluster size so that there are no half empty spaces, while for large files a larger size will allow you to work faster.
- Label the volume: it is simply a matter of placing the name of the unit
- Quick format: This option is recommended to activate it for formatting solid drives.
It only remains to click Start and in a few seconds the unit is formatted and ready to use without files inside.
Formatting an External SSD / HDD from Disk Management
This other procedure is the most complete for formatting any type of drive from the Windows graphical interface . It will be the tool that we have to use to initialize a storage unit installed for the first time , both internal and external.
This tool will be accessible by right-clicking on Start , the effect of which will be the appearance of a menu of tools. In it we will look for Disk Management , opening a tool divided into an upper unit information area and a lower work area.
In case we have connected a raw drive , a window will immediately appear asking us to initialize the drive. The only parameter we must choose is the type of partition:
- GPT: suitable for internal and external HDDs and SSDs of high capacity and high performance, ready to be used as boot disks, portable operating systems and installation units.
- MBR: Indicated for pendrive and necessary for FAT32 and exFAT formats, compatible with old operating systems and basic electronic devices.
After this step, we will enter the main interface where we can identify our unit by its letter , the name on the left side or by its capacity. The formatting actions will be carried out from the space bar representative of the unit, clicking on it with the right button.
We will select the Format… option to start the formatting wizard if the unit already has a previous format. In case the unit has several partitions or a volume already defined, we will first choose the Delete volume option ... to leave it completely clean, and then we will choose New simple volume …
The steps here will be similar to what was seen above, but a little more advanced. In fact, one of the interesting options will be to be able to assign a certain size to the unit, in order to make several partitions . Next we will choose the letter, the name of the unit, the file system and the allocation size.
If we only want to format the drive quickly, then we will choose the Format option ... and the steps will be almost the same, but without giving us the option to choose partitions.
When choosing the file system, the automatic tool will give us the compatible alternatives for the unit. For example, a 16 GB pendrive will allow NTFS, exFAT or FAT32, while another of 64 GB will only allow exFAT and NTFS
This is what interests us in terms of formatting an NTFS or FAT32 pendrive, but there is still more that can be done that we will explain in detail in this article:
Use Disk Management in Windows 10
Formatting a USB pendrive from command terminal
The next step in difficulty will be to format an NFTS or FAT32 pendrive from the Windows command terminal . It may seem useless to us, but in the event of a system error and we cannot access the graphical interface, it will be the only way to do it.
In addition, we will also have this possibility from a boot disk or from the system recovery menu, so it would not hurt to familiarize ourselves with it. We can use either the classic Windows CMD terminal or the Windows Power Shell in exactly the same way. We will opt for the first option for the example.
We will find CMD in the start menu, the easiest thing will be to write CMD and it will automatically appear in the list of results. We will not need to have administrator permissions to format a USB drive. Once we are inside, we will write the command:
Immediately we will access the tool, which of course we will handle with the keystroke and command. And we start by obtaining information about the units we have in the system with the command:
We will obtain a list of numbered units , with the current state, size and if it is GPT “*” or MBR. The units must be identified by their capacity, this being the full volume. In our case we will have a 14 GB (really 16 GB) and 59 GB (really 64 GB) drive. The variation in capacity is due to the system itself, as we have already mentioned before. To work with a unit it is essential to access it with the number shown in the list.
select disk <number>
The sequence of commands to perform the formatting will consist of cleaning the partition drive, creating a new one and giving it the corresponding format .
create partition primary
At this point we will see that the partition has indeed been deleted and we have created a new one. Now we must enter it to give it the relevant format as follows.
select partition <number>
format fs = <FAT32 or NTFS or exFAT> label = ”drive name” quick
assign letter = <uppercase letter>
We see that it is very similar to what we do graphically, except that we must write it instead of using the mouse. With this application we have all the options to do any task with the drives, with the same or even more power than the Windows disk manager . By writing “ help ” as a command, we will obtain detailed information about the actions that we must do in the tool. We have an article where we explain it in more depth, so take a look.
How to use Diskpart to manage hard disk partitions
We believe that the uses of an NTFS or FAT32 pendrive have been made clear in this small article where we have also learned to handle its formatting and partitions in different ways.
Except for the cheapest and basic drives, currently a pendrive has 32 GB almost guaranteed, so little by little the FAT32 format is becoming a bit out of use. But there are still a lot of devices that need or work better with this format, so it never hurts to buy an 8 or 16 GB secondary drive to support our external SSD. They are practically thrown in price, and thus we will have variety. Finally we leave you with some related tutorials: