FAT32 vs NTFS vs exFAT – Which is the Best File System?

Do you want to know which is the best file system? CHeck this post about FAT32 vs NTFS vs exFAT vs HFS+ vs Ext4.

Surely when you have gone to format a hard drive or USB, you have seen that you have to choose different file systems. The options are several, from FAT32 to NTFS through exFAT and several others. But how to know which is the best file system for the drive that you are formatting or the use that you want to give it?

Today I will explain what the most common file systems are and what are the characteristics of each of them. This way you will have all the necessary data to be able to choose with which to format your storage unit.

Wha is a File System?

best file system

Your external hard drive, the internal hard disk of your computer, a USB or an SD card. All of them are storage units, which means that when you format them, you are creating the infrastructure in which they are going to store the data that you want to include later.

This is where the file system comes into play, a component of the operating system that is responsible for managing the memory of each unit. They are responsible for assigning the files the space they need, ordering them, allowing access to them and managing the free space of the storage units.

It is like a librarian, who orders and records the exact position in which a file has been written inside the unit, and so your operating system can quickly access them and know where each one starts and ends.

Following the librarian analogy, in the same way, that each librarian can have his method for organizing books, each filing system does the same, organizing and managing the data in different ways. Each file system has its advantages and limitations, so it is essential to know them to choose the one that best suits each need you have.

File Systems Features

As I have said, there are different types of file systems each with their advantages and disadvantages. Some of them certainly have seen them more than once, and maybe others have not. Some of the best known are FAT32, exFAT, NTFS, HFS +, ext2, ext3 and ext4.

FAT32

Having established himself in 1996, he is one of the world’s oldest file system rockers, robust but outdated. Of course, it is tremendously versatile thanks to its massive compatibility with virtually all devices and operating systems, which is why most of the USB drives you buy will be formatted with it.

Its most significant and most popular limitation is that it only allows you to save files of up to 4 GB, so if you want to save a single file that occupies more than that, you will have no choice but to format it with another file system. Its positive side is that it is perfectly compatible with Windows, macOS and GNU / Linux, and works without problems in the old USB 2.0.

ExFAT

I could refer to the exFAT system as an update to the FAT32 introduced by Microsoft in Windows Vista to eliminate the headaches caused by the limitation of 4 GB by its older brother.

In terms of compatibility you can use it in Windows, macOS or GNU / Linux, although only in the most recent versions as of Windows XP SP3 or OS X 10.6.5 Snow leopard. It is a file system highly recommended for external drives such as a USB or SD card where you will save files of more than 4 GB and do not want to have compatibility problems.

NTFS

It is another alternative to the FAT32 system promoted by Microsoft; in fact, it is the file system that Windows uses by default. Without the limits of the maximum file size of the FAT32, the NTFS becomes an excellent option for hard drives and other external drives, at least if you are a Windows user.

And its most significant disadvantage is that it is not fully compatible with all operating systems. For example, macOS can natively read the formatted drives with it, but can not write to them. This means that if you have a hard drive with NTFS, you will not be able to save anything from your Mac unless you format it with another file system.

HFS+

In the same way that NTFS is one of the current reference file systems in Windows, Apple created the HFS+ file system. It happens that while GNU/Linux systems can work with it without problems, in Windows you can only read the contents of the formatted discs with it, but not write to them.

That makes this file system a perfect one if we are within the ecosystem of Apple using their devices. But if you are a Windows user, you will need to use any of the others.

Ext2, Ext3 & Ext4

And I end up with this last family of file systems. Just as Apple and Microsoft have their file system, these three (each one evolving from the previous one) are those used by the GNU/Linux distributions. The main drawback is that it can only be used in this family of operating systems.

File System Compatibility

In the following table, you can see the compatibility of these file system with some of the most popular devices.

Size and Limits

FAT32 first appeared in Windows 95 as an evolution of older FAT file systems oriented to MS-DOS computers. At that time talking about internal hard drives of several TB was an illusion, so no one imagined that you would need to move files larger than 4 GB.

It has been a few years since HD videos became a problem for this file system since that limit is too low when it comes to managing uncompressed videos. This is one of the fundamental reasons why FAT32 is considered a file system in danger of extinction, and the same thing happens with EXT2 and EXT3.

In the following table, you can check the size limits of each file system.

Which is the Best File System?

hard drive file system

The conclusion is that FAT32 has its problems and soon it will pass to a better life since the new devices will embrace the most modern file systems. For physical drives on computers that will work with Windows, it is best to use NTFS, while exFAT seems the best option for sizeable removable flash memory, above 32 GB.

The problem is that the compatibility of the exFAT file system is not total and fails for example with many DVD players. However, it has two advantages over NTFS: it is optimized for copying files to external drives and is natively compatible with MAC OS X as of version 10.7, which makes it an excellent option for external hard drives.

For its part, FAT32 is still an excellent solution to move files between computers that work under different operating systems as long as the files are smaller than 4GB. So you are ready to answer the million dollar question, what is the best file system Depends… on what you are going to do.

What File System do I Need?

files system use

If all you want is to have a USB in which you are only going to carry documents or media files that are not very heavy, the best option is still to format your unit with the FAT32 system. As I have said it is very robust, and in no time you will give compatibility problems in any operating system.

If you are going to share files of more than 4 GB between computers with Windows operating systems, GNU/Linux and macOS, your best option is to format in exFAT format. This is especially useful, for example, if you want to backup to an external hard drive.

If you only use Windows in your home and want to move large files from one computer to another, have backup copies of your multimedia files or watch a particularly big video on TV you will be able to format it in NTFS.

If you only use Apple devices in your home and want to move large files from one computer to another, having backup copies of your multimedia files or watch a particularly big video on TV will be worth it to format in HFS +. Of course, remember that it is only the recommended choice if you are not going to use the unit on Windows computers.

And in your house, if you only plan on backing up or sharing files between computers with GNU/Linux operating systems, your option may be to format in Ext4. Of course, remember that it is a format that you can not use on your Windows or Mac.

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