Difference Between File System NTFS, FAT32, and exFAT

Whether you’re formatting an internal drive, external drive, USB flash drive, or SD card Windows will give you three choices of file system NTFSFAT32 and exFAT. And we always choose one that Windows recommends. But do you ever wonder what is the difference between each file system and what happens to storage medium when we choose a different one. Since Windows doesn’t explain the difference, so we will.

What is Filesystem ? 

A filesystem is the methods and data structures that an operating system uses to keep track of files on a disk or partition; that is, the way the files are organized on the disk. The word is also used to refer to a partition or disk that is used to store the files or the type of the filesystem.

Many operating systems include support for more than one file system. Sometimes the OS and the file system are so tightly interwoven it is difficult to separate out file system functions. Microsoft Windows mainly makes use of the NTFS, FAT32 and exFAT file systems. So we are going to discuss about these three file systems in details.

NTFS Filesystem 

NTFS is the modern file system Windows likes to use and  introduced with the Windows NT operating system in 1993. When you install Windows, it formats your system drive with the NTFS file system. NTFS has file size and partition size limits that are so theoretically huge you won’t run up against them. Your Windows system partition must be NTFS. If you have a secondary drive alongside Windows and you plan on installing programs to it, you should probably go ahead and make it NTFS, too.

Features : 
NTFS is packed with modern features. It supports file permissions for security, a change journal that can help quickly recover errors if your computer crashes, shadow copies for backups, encryption, disk quota limits, hard links, and other various features. Many of these are crucial for an operating system drive — especially file permissions.

Compatibility : 
NTFS will work with all recent versions of Windows but it has limited compatibility with other operating systems. By default, Mac OS X can only read NTFS drives, not write to them. Some Linux distributions may enable NTFS-writing support, but some may be read-only. None of Sony’s PlayStation consoles support NTFS. Even Microsoft’s own Xbox 360 can’t read NTFS drives, although the new Xbox One can. Other devices are even less likely to support NTFS.

FAT32 Filesystem

FAT32 is the oldest file system here. It was introduced all the way back in Windows 95 to replace the older FAT16 file system. This file system’s age has advantages and disadvantages. Because it’s so old, it’s the de-facto standard. Flash drives you purchase will often come formatted with FAT32 for maximum compatibility across not just modern computers, but other devices like game consoles and anything with a USB port.

Features : 
The family of FAT file system is supported by almost all operating systems for personal computers.

Limitations : 
Limitations come with that age, however. Individual files on a FAT32 drive can’t be over 4 GB in size — that’s the maximum. A FAT32 partition must also be less than 8 TB, which is less of a limitations — but still a noticeable one if you have a new, high-capacity mechanical drive. While this file system is okay for USB flash drives and other external media, you won’t want to use this for an internal drive. It lacks the permissions and other security features built into the more modern NTFS file system. Modern versions of Windows can no longer be installed to FAT32, and must be installed onto drives formatted with NTFS.

Compatibility : 
Works with all versions of Windows, Mac, Linux, game consoles, and practically anything with a USB port.

exFAT Filesystem

xFAT is a proprietary and patent-protected file system with certain advantages over NTFS, introduced in 2006 and the file system is supported with newer Windows systems, such as Windows Server 2003, Windows Vista, Windows 2008, Windows 7, Windows 8, and more recently, support has been added for Windows XP.

Features : 
Like NTFS, exFAT has very large file size and partition size limits. This means you can store files that are larger than 4 GB apiece on a flash drive or SD card if it’s formatted with exFAT. exFAT is a strict upgrade over FAT32, and should be the best choice for external drives where you want a lightweight file system without FAT32’s file size limits.

Compatibility : 
exFAT is also more compatible than NTFS. Works with all versions of Windows. While Mac OS X includes only read-only support for NTFS, Macs offer full read-write support for exFAT. exFAT drives can be accessed on Linux by installing the appropriate software.While exFAT is compatible with Macs — and will be compatible with some devices that don’t support NTFS, like digital cameras — it still isn’t quite as compatible. Microsoft’s own Xbox 360 doesn’t support it, although the Xbox One does. The PlayStation 3 doesn’t support exFAT drives, although the PlayStation 4 reportedly does. Various other older devices may only support FAT32 instead of exFAT.

So in short 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.