How-to: Choose FAT, exFAT or NTFS file systems

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.
Which 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


  1. Thank you for this excellent article! it was very useful.

  2. Really, i didn't understand difference between two file system FAT and NTFS, while had read about it more in the internet. I found excellent blog about it for reading Now i am choosing NTFS, because it more advanced than FAT. However FAT is the lighter system, thats why it more popular.

  3. Before you format the hard drive , I read a lot of useful articles on the subject , your one of them , but most of the information I found here -ntfs.htm, this site convinced me that I was the most suitable NTFS, for many reasons including the fact that I need a large space for file storage , speed work and power .


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