A USB drive inserted into a Windows 11 laptop.
Hannah Stryker / How-To Geek
Use FAT32 if you need maximum compatibility between devices and won't be moving files larger than 4 gigabytes. Otherwise, use exFAT --- it supports larger drives, larger files, and almost all newer game consoles and operating systems. If you only use Windows PCs you can use NTFS, and if you only use Macs you can use APFS, but neither is widely supported on other devices.

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.

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, APFS and 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 support 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+) was the file system older Macs used by default.
  • APFS: The proprietary Apple file system developed as a replacement for HFS+, with a focus on flash drives, SSDs, and encryption. APFS was released with iOS 10.3 and macOS 10.13, and has become the norm in modern versions of the operating systems.
  • 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.
  • ext2, ext3, & ext4: The extended file system (ext) was the first file system created specifically for the Linux kernel.

RELATED: FAT32 vs. exFAT vs. NTFS: What's the Difference?


You might think that modern operating systems would natively support each other’s file systems, 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 APFS or 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 NTFS and HFS+ or can get support with a quick download of free software packages.

In addition to this, your home consoles (Xbox Series X|S, Playstation 5) only provide limited support for certain filesystems and only provide read access to the USB drives. In order to pick the best file system for your needs, take a look at this helpful chart.

File System Windows 7/8 Windows 10/11 MacOS (10.6.4 or Later) Ubuntu Linux
PlayStation 4/5 Xbox One/Series X|S
NTFS Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes
FAT32 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
exFAT Yes Yes Yes Yes (20.04+) Yes (Kernel 5.4+) Yes
(MBR, not GPT)
HFS+ No No Yes Yes Yes No No
APFS No No Yes No No No No
EXT 2, 3, 4 No Yes
(With WSL2)
No Yes Yes No No

Keep in mind that this chart chose the native abilities of each OS to use these file systems. Windows, macOS, and Linux all have third-party drivers and software 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 a 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
APFS Greater than commercially available drives 16 EB
EXT 2, 3  16 GB (or up to 2 TB) 32 TB
EXT 4  16 TiB 1 EiB

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 file systems allow volume sizes all the way up into the exabyte and zetabyte range.

Formatting a Drive

The process for formatting a drive is different depending on what operating system you’re using.

On Windows 10 or Windows 11, you can open File Explorer, right-click the drive, and select “Format” to format the drive. The Format window will let you pick a file system and other settings, like an allocation unit size. You can also use the convert command on the Windows command line.

On a Mac, you can use Disk Utility to format drives. To find it, open the Applications folder in Finder, look in the Utilities folder, and launch the Disk Utility app.

On a Linux PC, you can partition a drive using command-line tools like fdisk or graphical partitioning interfaces like GParted.

RELATED: How to Erase and Format a Drive in Windows

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 — support is often lacking on older gadgets — but it comes close.

Profile Photo for Nick Lewis Nick Lewis
Nick Lewis is a staff writer for How-To Geek. He has been using computers for 20 years --- tinkering with everything from the UI to the Windows registry to device firmware. Before How-To Geek, he used Python and C++ as a freelance programmer. In college, Nick made extensive use of Fortran while pursuing a physics degree.
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Profile Photo for Walter Glenn Walter Glenn
Walter Glenn is a former Editorial Director for How-To Geek and its sister sites. He has more than 30 years of experience in the computer industry and over 20 years as a technical writer and editor. He's written hundreds of articles for How-To Geek and edited thousands. He's authored or co-authored over 30 computer-related books in more than a dozen languages for publishers like Microsoft Press, O'Reilly, and Osborne/McGraw-Hill. He's also written hundreds of white papers, articles, user manuals, and courseware over the years.
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