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What File System Should I Use for My USB Drive?

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It can be tough porting your videos and music to every device you use. How do you know your Mac, Xbox, and Windows Machine can read your files? Read on to find your perfect USB drive solution.

File systems are the sort of thing that many computer users take for granted. But what are they, and what system supports what? It can be confusing, and a serious headache to deal with if you’re unprepared. Read on to see what will work best for you when you have to decide how to format your usb disk.

 

Understanding File System Problems

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File systems are ways of organizing data, with each various file system usually associated with a specific operating system. Since only binary data can be written to hard disks, the file systems are a key part of the translation from physical recordings on a drive to the files read by an OS. Since these file systems are key to the operating system making sense of the data, an OS cannot read data off of a hard drive without support for various file systems, i.e. without the ability to translate from where the data is physically written to the hard disk. When you choose “format” on a disk, you’re basically deciding what devices can and cannot read it or write to it.

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There are myriad numbers of file systems, many of them created for depreciated operating systems. Nowadays, many computer users will have multiple PCs in their home—some running Mac OS, some running Windows, perhaps even some running Linux. Because of this, it’s becoming more and more necessary to have portable disks that can move from OS to OS without issue. But to do that, we have to take a look at major issues that will cause you problems when porting drives from device to device. These are portability and file size limits.

Problem 1: Portability

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The three most common file systems are NTFS (the Windows standard), HFS+ (the OS X standard), and FAT32 (an older Windows standard). You might think that modern operating systems would natively support each other’s file system, but they largely do not. Mac OS (even in Lion, the current version), will not write to an NTFS formatted hard disk. Windows 7 does not even recognize HFS+ formatted disks and either ignores them or treats them as unformatted.

Many distros of Linux (like Ubuntu) are prepared to deal with this file system problem. Moving files from one file system to another is a routine process for Linux—many modern distros natively support NFTS and HFS+ or can get support with a quick download of free software packages.

In addition to this, your home consoles (Xbox 360, Playstation 3) only provide limited support for certain filesystems, and only provide read access to the USB drives. In order to better understand the best filesystem for your needs, take a look at this helpful chart.

Windows XP Windows 7/Vista Mac OS Leopard/Snow Leopard Mac OS Lion/Snow Leopard Ubuntu Linux Playstation 3 Xbox 360
NTFS 

(Windows)

Yes Yes Read Only Read Only Yes No No
FAT32 

(DOS, Windows)

Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
exFAT 

(Windows)

Yes Yes No Yes Yes, 

with ExFat packages

No No
HFS+ 

(Mac OS)

No No Yes Yes Yes No Yes
EXT2, 3 

(Linux)

No No No No Yes No Yes

Keep in mind that these are native abilities of the OS to read/write to these file systems. Mac OS and Windows both have downloads that will help them read unsupported formats, but this article is more about what is natively supported, not how to get that support. But if you have a favorite solution for reading NTFS on Mac, or HFS+ on Windows, tell us about it in the comments!

FAT32 has been around for so long that many devices and operating systems support it natively, making it a strong choice for a file system on a spectrum of devices. The major problem with FAT32 is that it limits the size of individual files, as well as the size of volumes. If you have to store, write, and read huge files, FAT32 may not be the clear winner. Let’s take a look at that now.

Problem 2: File Sizes and Limits

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FAT32 was developed many years ago and was based on older FAT filesystems meant for DOS computers. The large disk sizes of today were only theoretical in those days, so it probably seemed ridiculous to the engineers that created FAT32 that anyone would ever need a filesize larger than 4 GB. However, with today’s large filesizes of uncompressed and high-def video, many users are faced with that very challenge.

Today’s more modern file systems have upward limits that seem ridiculous by our modern standards, but one day may seem humdrum and ordinary. When stacked up against the competition, we see very quickly that FAT32 is showing its age.

Individual File Size Limit Single Volume Size Limit
NTFS Greater than commercially 

available drives

Huge (16EB)
FAT32 Less than 4GB Less than 8TB
exFAT Greater than commercially 

available drives

Huge (64 ZB)
HFS+ Greater than commercially
available drives
Huge (8 EB)
EXT2, 3 16GB Large (32 TB)

Every newer file system handily whips FAT32, allowing for files sometimes ridiculously larger than 4GB. EXT, which supports 16GB files (up to 2TB files on some systems), has the second smallest individual file size on this list. The other file systems measure their maximum file sizes in Petabytes and larger, making them many thousands of times larger than FAT32.

The conclusion to draw from this is that FAT32 has its issues, and may be phased out as newer devices begin to support file systems like exFAT, Microsoft’s successor to FAT32. The basic rule of thumb is that FAT32 is the best bet for most users, unless they have file sizes greater than 4GB, in which case, you have to think long and hard about what your specific needs are. Hopefully we’ve laid out enough information to help you make a decision. From here, you can check out a few links to help you to properly format your drives.

Formatting Your Drives

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FAT32: It’s a myth that FAT32 drives are limited to ridiculously small sizes, like 32GB. Depending on the file system and software used to create the volume, you can create very large FAT32 drives, even up to several TB. Here are a few ways to format your drive with FAT32.

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NTFS or exFAT: While it may one day eclipse FAT, exFAT is not as well supported as it could be. And NTFS is useful enough if you’re going to work only with Windows machines and Linux systems (edit: and newer versions of OS X, including a fully updated Snow Leopard) with support for it.  Here’s two ways you can format NTFS or exFAT.

  • Computer Management (Windows 7): Go to your start menu and type “Computer Management” to bring up that tool. From there you can use “Disk Management” to navigate to drives and right click to format them. You should be able to choose between NTFS and exFAT. This can be useful, as uninitialized, unmounted drives appear here, when they don’t appear in “My Computer.”
  • Quick Format (Windows 7): Simply look at all the drives mounted under “My Computer,” then right click and choose “Format.” You should have the choice between NTFS and exFAT.

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HFS+: You won’t likely need HFS+ unless you’re doing a lot of work with Macs. In that case, Mac OS’s Disk Utility will do the trick again. Simply choose “Mac OS Extended” with or without Journaling.

GParted

EXT 2 or EXT 3: In addition to offering native support for FAT32 and downloadable support for NTFS and HFS+, GParted will create and manage partitions, and is pretty much the best game in town for creating Linux EXT volumes.


That, in a nutshell, is what you should know about the most common file systems. Think we’ve left anything important out? Feel free to tell us about it in the comments, or tell us about how you use your own USB drives.

Image Credits: 245 of 365 by ntr23, available under Creative Commons. IDrive Portable Drive by Kenneth McFarland, available under Creative Commons. Portable Hard Drive by Tony Hall, available under Creative Commons. Current Setup by Yukata Tsutano, available under Creative Commons.


Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 09/7/11

Comments (31)

  1. Jim

    xbox360 can’t read NTFS? did not know that =/

  2. Eric Z Goodnight

    One of the weirder things about that system. :)

  3. 100 year old guy

    mac osx can mount NTFS partitions as read-write ones… you just need ntfs-3g for osx …

    and i didn’t know that xbox plays good with ext2/3

  4. phillytim

    Even weirder is that Xbox360 inherently supports the Mac HFS+ format! WTF?!!! :-)

  5. Veovis Muad'dib

    I was very surprised that 360 reads ext… I did not expect that.

    The IT guy at my last bit of schooling told me about HFS+ support on that platform as a way to get large hard drives onto it. HFS was added for iPods as I understand it, though not sure at all why it doesn’t simply read NTFS…

  6. Eric Z Goodnight

    I haven’t personally tried EXT, but that’s what my research has told me. It’s surprising what these systems will and will not read, like how PS3 will only read FAT32.

  7. miki

    ntfs better or fat32 for small devices
    xbox 360 has native support for ext2,3 and windows no!…for commercial reason i presume.

  8. Brodiemac

    The 32GB myth about FAT32 hard drives does not come from the FAT32 system but from the BIOS of older machines. Back in the day, the BIOS’ could not recognize a partition larger than 32GB. Too many people misinterpreted this as a FAT32 problem. Once newer BIOS’ came out that overcame this, the problem went away but not the myth. Windows 2000 initially had this problem. I worked for Maxtor at the time and they had developed a fix for it. M$ called our spoke with our lead programmer DEMANDING the code he had written. He told them to go f**k themselves. Funniest thing I ever heard!

  9. RobertR

    Great article, I have a much better understanding why plugging an external drive into another system, may cause a message that this drive is not formatted or it is formatted using a format that can not be read…. do you want to format the drive now. Of course no one wants to format the drive because they know that there is valuable data on the drive.

    I have one question on some external drives such as clickfree (automatic backup drive), they have a special partition on the drive called CFS, which acts like a CD drive. There seems to be no way to remove this partition from the drive because any partitioning software thinks that this partition is a cdrom device and can not therefore remove this partition. Does anyone know how to remove this partition? I do not want to use the drive as an automatic backup drive, I want use the whole drive for just storing programs, and data, that I randomly add or delete from. It is frustrating that everything I tried to wipe the CFS partition will not work. This drive has two partitions the CFS and another partition where the cfs partition automatically installs the automatic backup software. Even if I delete the data partition of the drive and create a new partition the CFS will automatically reinstall the backup software to this new partition, which is defeating the purpose of why I deleted the partition in the first place.

  10. caincha

    “Native” NTFS read/write on OSX: http://forums.macrumors.com/showthread.php?t=785376

  11. rino

    be on the safe side. use fat32 and have several partitions.

  12. dbam

    What was the reason for leaving out ext4? It has a maximum of 16 tebibytes (TiB) individual file size support, journaling…Supported in windows (using ext2fsd).
    Not even mentioning it is like leaving extFat out of the list of comparison – talking about fat32 only.

    The post is useful anyway, thank You for Your effort!

  13. Eric
  14. Eric Z Goodnight

    I don’t know if that’s correct, because I’m seeing plainly here that it doesn’t, at least natively. https://discussions.apple.com/thread/2411086?start=0&tstart=0

  15. Steve-O-Rama

    I’ve used exFAT on an external USB-connected HDD, but every time I reconnect it to my Win7 system, it tells me the file system may be damaged, asks if I want to repair it, etc. It seems to make no difference whether I tell it to repair the file system or not (other than wasting my time); I can access all of the files on the HDD without a problem either way. Is Win7 being neurotic? Or is it something to do with the USB-to-IDE interface possibly? The HDD enclosure is a really cheap item, and works fine with NTFS/FAT32-formatted HDDs.

  16. Matt T.

    The second thread referenced was in June. As the first thread states, since November Snow Leopard can read and write exFAT drives.

  17. Eric Z Goodnight

    Okay, I’m seeing evidence of that, fixed the chart. Thanks for the update, Matt T.

  18. Ion

    What about “the allocation unit” size from windows?
    I know that it’s optimal for a large hard drive to be the maximul value.

  19. bob

    @Robert – regarding CFS

    Install Easeus Partition Master Home Edition and do a Wipe on the drive. let it run for about 2-3 minutes and stop it. it’ll ask you to re-format the drive, do a quick format adn this will fix the issue.

  20. MaxB

    I bought a 64 gig USB thumb drive from eBay and downloaded my music files to it. When I clicked open, I can see the titles of each track but they will not play.
    I cut and pasted the files to a new folder on desk top wih the intent of re loading the music files and now when I plug the thumb drive into the USB port I receive a message saying “Do you want to scan and fix removable disc (J)?” with two options below “Scan and Fix” and “Continue without scanning”
    Doing either doesn’t seem to result in the memory sitck working.
    Is there a way of reserecting this thumb drive

  21. Robin Mathew Rajan

    XP does not support exFAT natively, for that we’ve to download the support package from MS

  22. CMD

    You fail to mention Ext4 which “can support volumes with sizes up to 1 exbibyte (EiB) and files with sizes up to 16 tebibytes (TiB).[9] The current e2fsprogs can only handle a filesystem of 16 TiB,[10] but support for larger filesystems is under development.” (wikipedia). It is also a bit quicker than Ext3.

    For safe NTFS read/write support either NTFS-3G (free) or Paragon NTFS (paid for) programs come in handy.

  23. CMD

    i meant NTFS write/read on OSX*

    Also, I really like your workstation setup :)

  24. UDK

    FAT32 is not much use these days – you stumble upon a 4GB+ dvd Image/ BDRip somewhere and when you can’t copy it to your drive because it’s FAT32 is painful to see. (Happened to me once – 320GB WD USB HDD formatted with FAT32 and had about 200GB data on it! So I couldn’t even format it!)
    NTFS is fine for people who won’t be seeing a Mac in near future. Linux supports NTFS really well. And for people who want to keep important data – put it in an ext[3/4] partition so that any casual user won’t be able to StumbleUpon it and if you encrypt the partition so much for the better.

  25. Mansur

    FAT 32 is outdated for nowdays but don’t forget it has extensive support for all OS if we choose FAT32 with several partition then it ‘ill be good for us to communicate with all operating systems. stay on safe side to get your self stuck on problem of unsupportment and choose FAT 32 or exFAT 32 for your usb drives to easily travel your data from different OS to OS.

  26. Jack

    How about cameras using (SD Cards)? Will they read a disk formatted with exFAT.

  27. Anonymous

    Unless you deal with media files (mostly movies or videos) you can pretty much just choose FAT32 and be done with it.

    As far as USB thumb drives go, most people I know use small ones that are either at or below 4GB in total volume size when formatted. So if you format a USB 4GB or less thumb drive using FAT32 then you know that there isn’t a file anywhere that can’t fit on it – and almost nothing that can’t deal with it either. I mean if all you have is a 5-pound bag and the only thing you ever put in the bag is 4.9 pounds or less then why look for other bags? It’s rather pointless to take an entire volume that can never be more than 4GB in total capacity (and really not even 4Gig thanks to the drive manufacturers not being able to do the same math as everyone else) and format it using anything other than FAT32. Personally, I can’t think of any reason to format a drive with a total volume capacity of 4GB or less with anything other than FAT32 – other than potential security reasons, maybe.

    But if you have an actual hard drive (external or not) larger than 4GB then maybe you might want to consider at least two different “partitions” while still keeping one of them a FAT32 partition. (And yes, you can partition a single thumb drive into multiple logical drives too.) That way with one partition being FAT32 you’d know it’s at least compatible with whatever you plug it into or use it with – you’re just limited with file sizes and possibly speed is all. Format the other partitions(s) (up to 4 primary) with whatever else you like for those really big files. (Personally, I use NTFS in those situations cause even if my files on a NTFS drive can only be read by Apple devices… ever hear of COPYING?)

    One other thing! Let’s also not forget that FAT and even NTFS are horrible for fragmenting files all over their entire volume too. So try to remember to defrag once in a while.

  28. Lelouch

    Well, if you think about it, it’s not that weird since Xbox 360′s chip is using the old Mac CPU =/

  29. Dark Reality

    For straight-up data storage, there is no good reason not to use FAT32 unless you have files larger than 4GB. My 500GB FAT32 USB drive will go from Linux to Mac (but I repeat myself) to Windows to Xbox to FailStation to Wii with no issues whatsoever. Win32/64, Linux, Mac, and PS3 will play just about any media (the PC types will play anything given the right software, i.e. VLC). Wii and Xbox are a little more limited but they play the common formats.

    WRT Xbox reading HFS, iPod functionality was added long ago. It will also play your AAC/whatever files as long as they have no DRM (same for WMA, I reckon).

  30. Bob Bobson

    To be fair, you probably/really shouldn’t be putting gigantic files on a flash drive anyway. USB *hard*-drives or SSDs, on the other hand, sure, you may as well format them for the best FS that your primary systems/devices can handle.

    The article did not mention data loss and recovery which also plays a big role in choosing a file system. FAT32 has its issues, but on the other hand, it can be fixed relatively easily in DOS mode with various tools, whereas NTFS which is supposedly more robust and resilient (though experience shows otherwise), is somewhat harder to repair.

  31. rg

    @UDK – you can use the command convert.exe at the windows vista / 7 command prompt and change the filesystem from fat32 to ntfs without data loss I have read.

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