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FAT32 vs exFAT vs NTFS – Windows File Systems

FAT32 vs exFAT vs NTFS – Windows File Systems. File System in an operating system provides a way to organize files and manage the drives. It specifies how data will be stored in the form of file and folders and provides the metadata about the files like name, permission, size and other attributes.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  •  FAT32 is older but offers near-universal compatibility with different operating systems and devices, making it ideal for flash drives and external drives.
  •  NTFS is the modern file system used by Windows, offering advanced features like file permissions and encryption, but has limited compatibility with other operating systems.
  •  exFAT is a lightweight file system optimized for flash drives, with larger file and partition size limits than FAT32, and wider compatibility than NTFS.

FAT32, exFAT and NTFS are file systems used by the Windows Operating System. FAT32 is the oldest one, exFAT is a replacement of FAT32 and is compatible on multiple devices. NTFS is the latest file system.

What Is a File System?

file system provides a way of organizing a drive. It specifies how data is stored on the drive and what types of information can be attached to files — filenames, permissions, and other attributes. Windows supports three different file systems. NTFS is the most modern file system. Windows uses NTFS for its system drive and, by default, for most non-removable drives.

FAT32 is an older file system that’s not as efficient as NTFS and doesn’t support as big a feature set, but does offer greater compatibility with other operating systems. exFAT is a modern replacement for FAT32 — and more devices and operating systems support it than NTFS — but it’s not nearly as widespread as FAT32.

Read this article to learn more about FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS file systems and their unique features.

What is FAT32?

FAT32 stands for File Allocation Table 32. It is the oldest file system available to Windows operating systems. FAT32 was introduced in 1995 to replace the older FAT16 systems used by MS-DOS and Windows 3.

FAT32 file system has limitations of 4 GB maximum file size, and 8 TB maximum partition size. Therefore, a FAT32 partition would have to be less than 8 TB size. FAT32 file system is compatible with all versions of Windows, Mac, Linux, game consoles, and anything that comes with a USB port.

What is exFAT?

exFAT stands for Extensible File Allocation Table. It is a file system that was introduced by Microsoft in 2006. The exFAT file system is mainly optimized for flash memory drives like USB drives, SD cards, etc.

exFAT file system is best suited option where NTFS file system is a feasible option due to data structure overhead. exFAT file system can works with all versions of Windows, MAC OS X. But, it requires additional software on Linux.

What is NTFS?

NTFS stands for New Technology File System. NTFS is a modern file system used by Windows systems. It is a default file system for windows systems, it is because the system drive is formatted with NTFS file system when Windows OS is installed. NTFS file system was first seen in consumer versions of Windows XP; it was originally known as Windows NT.

NTFS file system has very high limits of file size and partition size, thus there are no chances of user running up against it. NTFS has advanced features that cannot be found on FAT32 and exFAT file systems. Also, it supports file permissions for security. Another important features that NTFS provide are shadow copies for backups, encryption, disk quota limits, and hard links. NTFS is compatible with all Windows versions, read-only compatible with Mac OS, and partially compatible with Linux distributions.

Difference between FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS

The following are some of the important differences between FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS File Systems −

Difference between FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS

The following are some of the important differences between FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS File Systems −

KeyFAT32exFATNTFS
IntroductionFAT32 was introduced with Windows 95 to replace older FAT16 file system used in DOS and Windows 3.exFAT was introduced in 2006 with Windows XP and Vista.NTFS was introduced with Windows NT and widespread usage happened with Windows XP.
FeaturesEasy to use and format. Quick to access.Suited for Flash drives. Lightweight. Have features but no overhead of NTFS file system.NTFS supports file permissions, change journal, helps quickly recover from error when computer crashes, shadows copies for backup, provides encryption, disk quota limits, hard linking, etc.
CompatibilityWorks with all versions of Windows, MAC, Linux, etc. Any drive having USB port can use FAT32.Works with all versions of Windows, MAC OS X. Requires additional software on Linux.Compatible with all versions of Windows, Read-Only with MAC and some version of Linux
LimitationMaximum file size 4 GB, Maximum partition file size 8 TB.No file size or partition size limits.No file size or partition size limits.
Ideal UseBest for removable drives having max size of 8 TBBest for flash drivesBest for Windows System and Internal Drive used by Windows.

NTFS vs. FAT32

NTFS supports larger files, larger drives, but is compatible with fewer devices than FAT32. NTFS also supports advanced security and file journaling features. Those factors make NTFS more suitable for use with internal storage than FAT32, at least if you’re using Windows. Computers running MacOS or Linux will be able to read storage drives using an NTFS file system, but they can’t always write to them without additional software or drivers.

All other things being equal, NTFS is generally faster than FAT32, too. Of course, the real speeds you see typically depend more on your hardware than your file system. For example, a PCIe NVMe drive formatted with FAT32 would still leave a USB 2.0 flash drive in the dust.

On the other hand, FAT32 support is basically universal, even though it is ancient in computer terms. That makes it ideal if you want to move files between multiple devices without worrying about compatibility. If something has a USB port, the odds are quite good that it can use a FAT32 USB drive without any issues. Just keep in mind that FAT32 doesn’t work nicely with files larger than 4 gigabytes.

exFAT vs. FAT32

exFAT is the successor to FAT32, and addresses FAT32’s biggest limitations: file and drive sizes. FAT32 can’t handle partitions larger than 8TB, or files larger than 4GB, whereas exFAT can handle files and partitions up to 128 petabytes, which is 128,000 terabytes.

The only area where exFAT loses to FAT32 is compatibility. The full exFAT specification wasn’t available publicly until 2019, and that probably delayed adoption. All newer consoles, Macs, Windows PCs, and Linux PCs can run exFAT without an issue, but older Linux PCs might require special drivers. Older consoles cannot use exFAT at all.

FAT32 is also slower than exFAT, but the speed gap isn’t as large between exFAT and FAT32 as it is between FAT32 and NTFS. Like with most things, the main speed bottleneck will be your hardware, not the file system you use.

exFAT vs. NTFS

NTFS and exFAT are tied when it comes to file and partition sizes. They can both handle partitions up to 128 petabytes, and files even larger than that (theoretically).

However, NTFS is slightly faster, has additional security features, file journaling, automatic corruption correction with self-healing NTFS, and countless other advanced features that make it better suited for internal use in computers.

The only major advantage exFAT has is portability. NTFS support is very mixed, and you can only rely on NTFS working with a Windows PC. exFAT, on the other hand, will work with just about anything other than old Linux installations or old gaming consoles. That makes it ideal for modern external SSDs or external hard drives that will be used on multiple devices.

If that all seems like a lot, just remember: NTFS is ideal for internal drives, while exFAT is generally ideal for flash drives. However, you may sometimes need to format an external drive with FAT32 if exFAT isn’t supported on a device you need to use it with.

If you need a file system that can handle more than NTFS or exFAT can offer, you should just use ZFS instead. It can handle partitions and files sizes up to a billion terabytes.

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