Microsoft’s Windows XP started using the NTFS file system by default for its internal drives back in 2001. It’s now 23 years later, so why are USB flash drives, SD cards, and other removable drives still using FAT32 or something called exFAT?
This isn’t a mistake manufacturers are making. While you can format these drives with a different file system like NTFS, you’ll probably want to leave them formatted with exFAT or FAT32.
exFAT vs. FAT32
exFAT is a more modern alternative to the FAT32 file system. It extends FAT32 with support for larger files and larger storage devices. exFAT support is widespread among modern devices.
We originally wrote this article in 2013. Since then, FAT32 has become less common—but devices are switching from FAT32 to exFAT instead of NTFS.
For the reasons explained below, NTFS isn’t a good file system for external storage devices. However, FAT32 had its own problems—the file size limits being the worst ones. FAT32 limits files to 4GB in size and partitions to 2TB in size. In a world where storage devices are getting bigger and bigger—and files like high-resolution videos are also getting bigger and bigger—FT32 was not a good fit. however, NTFS also wasn’t a good fit.
The solution was exFAT or “Extended File Allocation Table.” Microsoft launched this file system in 2006 and added support to it to Windows XP and Windows Vista. However, it took many years for exFAT support to become widespread among other devices, from digital cameras to smart TVs and any other device that uses an SD card or external storage device.
As of 2023, most modern devices support exFAT. Some devices may still only support FAT32—especially older ones—but exFAT is the file system of choice for external storage devices—not NTFS.
The Problems With FAT32 (or Why Microsoft Created NTFS)
Microsoft created NTFS to improve on FAT32 in a variety of different ways. To understand why Windows uses NTFS, we have to look at the problems with FAT32 and how NTFS fixed them:
- FAT32 only supports individual files up to 4GB in size and volumes up to 2TB in size. For example, if you had a large video file over 4GB in size, you just couldn’t save it on the FAT32 file system. if you had a 3TB drive, you couldn’t format it as a single FAT32 partition. NTFS has much higher theoretical limits. Luckily, exFAT is now widely in use as a replacement for FAT32. It has much higher file size and partition size limits that you won’t run into, just like NTFS.
- FAT32 isn’t a journaling file system, which means that file system corruption can happen much more easily. With NTFS, changes are logged to a “journal” on the drive before they’re actually made. If the computer loses power in the middle of a file being written, the system won’t need a long scandisk operation to recover.
- FAT32 doesn’t support file permissions. With NTFS, file permissions allow for increased security. System files can be made read-only so typical programs can’t touch them, users can be prevented from looking at other users’ data, and so on.
As we can see, there are very good reasons why Windows uses NTFS for system partitions. NTFS is more secure, robust, and supports larger file sizes and drives.
RELATED: FAT32 vs. exFAT vs. NTFS: What's the Difference?
But These Aren’t Problems On Removable Drives
Of course, none of the above reasons are really problems on USB sticks and SD cards. Here’s why:
- Back when FAT32 was the default, devices just weren’t that big. Now, if your USB stick or SD card is over 2TB in size or you want to copy a file over 4G in size to the drive, you can use exFAT instead of NTFS. exFAT has extremely large limits you won’t run into in the real world, just like NTFS.
- Your removable drive doesn’t need journaling like a system drive does. In fact, journaling could just result in additional writes that could reduce the life of the drive’s flash memory.
- The device doesn’t need file permissions, either. In fact, these can cause problems when moving removable devices between different machines. For example, the files might be set to only be accessible by a specific user ID number. This would work fine if the drive stayed inside your computer. However, if this was a removable hard drive that you moved to another computer, anyone with that user ID on the other computer could then access the files. In this case, file permissions don’t really add security — just additional complexity.
There’s really no reason to use NTFS on USB sticks and SD cards. Even if you really need support for files over 4GB in size, you don’t have to convert or reformat the drive with that NTFS file system—you can just use exFAT on your USB drive.
Of course, you can now buy hard drives with 3TB or more of storage space. These will probably come formatted as exFAT so they can use the full amount of storage on a single partition.
RELATED: What File System Should I Use for My USB Drive?
Compatibility is probably the main reason why you probably want to use the FAT32 or exFAT file system on your USB flash drives, SD cards, and external hard drives. While modern versions of Windows, including Windows 10 and Windows 11, and all the way back to Windows XP, will support NTFS, other devices you use might not be so accommodating.
- Macs: Modern versions of macOS now have full read support for NTFS drives, but Macs can’t write to NTFS drives by default. This requires additional software or tweaks. Macs have full read/write support for exFAT without additional software.
- Linux: Linux systems now include solid read/write support for NTFS drives, although this didn’t work well for many years. Linux distributions now have solid support for exFAT, too.
- DVD Players, Smart TVs, Printers, Digital Cameras, Media Players, Smartphones, Anything With a USB Port or SD Card Slot: Here’s where it really starts to get complicated. Many, many devices have USB ports or SD card slots. All these device will be designed to work with exFAT or FAT32 file systems, so they’ll “just work” and be able to read your files as long as you’re using exFAT or FAT32. Some devices—especially older devices—may only support FAT32 and not exFAT. Some devices will work with NTFS, but you can’t count on it — in fact, you should probably assume that most devices can only read exFAT or FAT32, not NTFS.
This is why you really want to use exFAT or FAT32 on your removable drives, so you can use them with almost any device. There’s not much to be gained from using NTFS on a USB stick, aside from support for files over 4GB in size.
The exFAT operating system is now widely supported among a wide range of devices. It’s a good default file system option for your removable devices. However, some devices may not support exFAT—FAT32 is still the most widely supported option.
Ultimately, what you probably want to do is leave the drive formatted with the file system it came with. That SD card or USB stick probably came formatted with exFAT or perhaps FAT32 — that’s fine, it’s the best file system for it.
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