You may be using a computer for a long time, but there may still be many basic aspects of your system that you don’t know or understand. For example, consider file systems. Now, we all come across file systems every time we work on computers, but many of us don’t know what they are and what they are for. Consider USB drives, for example. They provide a very simple and totally convenient method of transferring data from one machine to another. But if you have carefully looked at the properties of a USB drive, you may have noticed that its file systems are either FAT32 or NTFS. Do you know what that really means?
Windows file systems: NTFS, FAT32 and exFAT
A file system simply provides a way to organize a drive. More specifically, it determines what types of information can be attached to files (eg permissions, file names, etc.) and how the data is stored on the drive. The Windows operating system makes use of three primary file systems, NTFS, FAT32 and exFAT, all of which are used to store data on a storage device. For example, the operating system installed on a partition on the hard drive is NTFS, which stands for New Technology File System. It is the most modern and advanced file system that Microsoft has produced so far.
All three file systems have some advantages and pitfalls, let’s look at them individually.
NT File System (NTFS)
This is the file system that Windows uses to store and retrieve files on a hard drive. It is the system that Windows uses by default for its non-removable drives. Microsoft first introduced this file system in the consumer variant of Windows XP, although it actually debuted with Windows NT. Please note that when you install Windows OS on your system, the system drive is formatted with NTFS system.
Since NTFS is the most modern file system in Windows, it is packed with features that are not available on FAT32 and exFAT systems. It allows file permissions for security, which can help with fast recovery from system crashes, encryption, hard links, disk quota limits, and many other things. Its main disadvantage is that although it works with all recent versions of Windows up to Windows XP, it has limited compatibility with Mac OS X, Linux and some other operating systems. Therefore, NTFS system is best used with Windows drives and other drives that will only be used in the Windows ecosystem.
Fat Allocation Table (FAT32) file system
FAT32 was released around the time of Windows 95, when it replaced its predecessor FAT16 that was used in Windows 3 and MS-DOS. It is the oldest of the three file systems mentioned above.
The biggest advantage of FAT32 is that, being the oldest, it is often the de facto standard for drives. If you have a FAT32 drive, you can be sure that it can certainly run not only on computers but also on other electronic devices such as game consoles. So its biggest advantage is that it works on all versions of Windows, Linux, MAC OS, game consoles and almost any machine with USB support. Some of its limitations include a 4GB limit on individual files, 8TB limit on individual drive, no fault tolerance and no compression, etc.
Extended File Allocation Table (exFAT)
It was released in 2006 as a replacement for FAT32. It is as lightweight a file system as FAT32 but lacks the modern features of NTFS.
More devices support exFAT than NTFS, especially older ones. Works with all versions of Windows and MAC OS X, but requires some additional programs to run on Linux. Also, its partition size and file size limits are unrealistic.
In a nutshell, if you are using modern Windows hardware, you should format your drives with NTFS system for its modern and powerful features. Filesystems are actually an unnecessary complication, but they don’t seem to be going anywhere, at least for the foreseeable future.