If you’ve ever used any version of Windows, you’ve probably run into the terms Fat 32, Ex Fat or NTFS. It might be while formatting your USB storage devices, or while partitioning a hard drive. To comprehend what these terms are, and why they’re used so extensively in the Windows ecosystem, we must first understand the basics of the file system.
A file system provides a method to organise data stored on a drive. It provides specifications on how data is to be stored on a drive, and also other attributes such as filenames, permissions and other essential characteristics.
Windows supports three different file systems throughout various versions — Fat 32, Ex Fat and NTFS — and below we’ve compared them to give you a better idea about which one is used where and why.
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File Allocation Table 32 (Fat 32)
Fat 32 is the oldest file system among the three. It launched alongside Windows 95, as a replacement for Fat 16. Modern versions of Windows cannot be installed on a drive formatted to Fat 32 specifications. It needs to be formatted into NTFS to ensure compatibility.
- Size: The individual file size in a Fat 32 drive has to be lesser than 4GB, and the maximum capacity of storage drives have to be lower than 8TB.
- Compatibility: Fat 32 formatted drives are compatible with Windows, Linux, macOS, game consoles and any device that uses a USB interface to read and write data.
- Use case: The ideal use case would be to format external storage devices to Fat 32 to ensure compatibility with a range of platforms.
Extended File Allocation Table (Ex Fat)
Ex Fat was introduced in 2006, and backwards compatibility rollouts were sent to Windows XP and Vista. It was primarily launched to circumvent the file size restrictions of Fat 32. It is optimised for flash drives and is designed to create a file system that retains the broad compatibility while overcoming limitations of the Fat 32 system.
- Size: Ex Fat allows individual file sizes of up to 16EB (exabytes) and maximum volume size of up to 128PB (petabytes).
- Compatibility: Ex Fat formatted drives are compatible with Windows and modern versions of macOS, but Linux support is limited. Using the Ex Fat format with any Linux distributions needs an external software to ensure compatibility.
- Use case: The ideal use case for Ex Fat presents itself when the user needs to store data involving individual files that exceed the Fat 32 limitations.
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New Technology File System (NTFS)
NTFS is proprietary to the Windows ecosystem. It was launched with Windows NT but is now the default standard for Windows installations. NTFS is optimised for non-removable drives. As it is a proprietary system, Microsoft added some exclusive features to enhance its capabilities. The NTFS file system supports features such as file-level security, transactions, encryption, compression, and auditing, to name a few.
- Size: NTFS allows file and partition sizes that are so theoretically huge, that no consumer should ever face issues whatsoever.
- Compatibility: Compatibility is an issue, as drives formatted using NTFS can be read-only on macOS. Linux support varies, but most distributions view NTFS drives as read-only by default.
- Use case: The ideal use case would be to use the NTFS option for all internal drives that will be mainly used with Windows.
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