What File System Should I Use for My USB Drive?

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

  1. If you want to share your files with the most devices and none of the files are larger than 4 GB, choose FAT32.
  2. If you have files larger than 4 GB, but still want pretty good support across devices, choose exFAT.
  3. If you have files larger than 4 GB and mostly share with Windows PCs, choose NTFS.
  4. If you have files larger than 4 GB and mostly share with Macs, choose HFS+

File systems are the sort of thing that many computer users take for granted. The most common file systems are FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS on Windows, HFS+ on macOS, and EXT on Linux—though you may run into others on occasion. But it can be confusing understanding what devices and operating systems supports which file systems—especially when all you want to do is transfer some files or keep your collection readable by all the devices you use. So, let’s take a look at the major file systems and hopefully, you can figure out the best solution for formatting your USB drive.

Understanding File System Problems

Different file systems offer different ways of organizing data on a disk. Since only binary data is actually written to disks, the file systems provide a way to translate the physical recordings on a disk to the format 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 disk without support for the file system with which the disk is formatted. When you format a disk, the file system you choose essentially governs which devices can read or write to the disk.

Many businesses and households have multiple PCs of different types in their home—Windows, macOS, and Linux being the most common. And if you carry files to friends houses or when you travel, you never know what type of system you may want those files on. Because of this variety, you need to format portable disks so that they can move easily between the different operating systems you expect to use.

But to make that decision, you need to understand the two major factors that can affect your file system choice: portability and file size limits. We’re going to take a look at these two factors as they relate to the most common file systems:

  • NTFS: The NT File System (NTFS) is the file system that modern Windows versions use by default.
  • HFS+: The Hierarchical File System (HFS+) is the file system modern macOS versions use by default.
  • FAT32: The File Allocation Table 32 (FAT32) was the standard Windows file system before NTFS.
  • exFAT: The extended File Allocation Table (exFAT) builds on FAT32 and offers a lightweight system without all the overhead of NTFS.
  • EXT 2, 3, & 4: The extended file system (EXT) was the first file system created specifically for the Linux kernel.

Portability

You might think that modern operating systems would natively support each other’s file system, but they largely do not. For example, macOS can read—but not write to—disks formatted with NTFS. For the most part, Windows will not even recognize disks formatted with HFS+.

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 4) 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.

File System Windows XP Windows 7/8/10 macOS (10.6.4 and earlier) macOS (10.6.5 and later) Ubuntu Linux Playstation 4 Xbox 360/One
NTFS  Yes Yes Read Only Read Only Yes No No/Yes
FAT32 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes/Yes
exFAT Yes Yes No Yes Yes (with ExFAT packages) Yes (with MBR, not GUID) No/Yes
HFS+ No (read-only with Boot Camp) Yes Yes Yes No Yes
EXT 2, 3, 4 No Yes (with third-party software) No No Yes No Yes

Keep in mind that this chart chose the native abilities of each OS to use these file systems. Windows and macOS both have downloads that can help them read unsupported formats, but we’re really focusing on native ability here.

The takeaway from this chart on portability is that FAT32 (having been around for so long) is supported on almost all devices. This makes it strong candidate for being the file system of choice for most USB drives, so long as you can live with FAT32’s file size limits—which we’ll go over next.

File and Volume Size Limits

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 anyone would ever need a file larger than 4 GB. However, with today’s large file sizes 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 in terms of file size limits.

File System Individual File Size Limit Single Volume Size Limit
NTFS  Greater than commercially available drives 16 EB
FAT32 Less than 4 GB Less than 8 TB
exFAT Greater than commercially available drives 64 ZB
HFS+ Greater than commercially
available drives
8 EB
EXT 2, 3 16 GB (up to 2 TB on some systems) 32 TB
EXT 4 1 EB 16 TB

Every newer file system handily whips FAT32 in the file size department, allowing for sometimes ridiculously large files. And when you look at volume size limits, FAT32 still lets you format volumes up to 8 TB, which is more than enough for a USB drive. Other files systems allow volume sizes all the way up into the exobyte and zetabyte range.

Formatting a Drive

The process for formatting a drive is different depending on what system you’re using. Rather than detailing them all here, we’ll instead point you at a few handy guides on the subject:


The conclusion to draw from all this is that while FAT32 has its issues, it’s the best file system to use for most portable drives. FAT32 finds support on the most devices, allows volumes up to 8 TB, and file sizes up to 4 GB.

If you need to transport files greater than 4 GB, you’ll need to take a closer look at your needs. If you only use Windows devices, NTFS is a good choice. If you only use macOS devices, HFS+ will work for you. And if you only use Linux devices, EXT is fine. And if you need support for more devices and bigger files, exFAT may fit the bill. exFAT is not supported on quite as many different devices as FAT32 is, but it comes close.

Walter Glenn is a long time computer geek and tech writer. Though he's mostly a Windows and gadget guy, he has a fondness for anything tech. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.