Differences Between Windows File Systems (NTFS, FAT32, exFAT)

You have decided to format a USB key, a partition of your PC’s internal disk, or perhaps an external hard disk. After identifying the right icon and clicking on the “Format” item, you have found yourself in front of a small window with several drop-down menus and now unsure which settings to select and which file system to choose. We will explain in detail what are the differences between the various Windows file systems (NTFS, FAT32, exFAT).

This way, you will be perfectly able to format external drives or internal disks and choose the most suitable file system to suit your needs and the hardware you are using.

File systems: What Are They?

Before understanding the difference between NTFS, FAT32, and exFAT, it is essential to understand what a file system is. Let’s start by saying that any media capable of storing and reading files has a file system. So whether it is a simple pendrive, hard disk, SSD, CD, or DVD, there is always a file system inside it.

The file system is used to sort and organize the files saved in the memory. Imagine a department store with millions of shelves, where thousands of products are placed on each of these. The warehouseman, through software, notes the positions of each product to find them as quickly as possible. Here in this example, the warehouse keeper is the file system.

You can also imagine it as a large index of a database. The substance does not change. The purpose of the file system is always to “take note” of the location of the file and indicate it to Windows when requested.

Differences between the Windows file systems

Now that you understand what the file system is for, it is important to understand the differences between the Windows file systems. Yes, the Microsoft home operating system supports different file systems. Those currently used by Windows 10 are three: NTFS, FAT32, and exFAT. To tell the truth, there is also a fourth file system, the ReFS. By default, it is not enabled on Windows 10. If you want to know more about the ReFS file system, we will explain it later in this article. For now, let’s focus on the file systems currently enabled on Windows 10.

As we said earlier, Windows supports three different file systems. The oldest is FAT32, introduced in Windows 95 OSR2 to replace the now obsolete FAT16. With the launch of Windows XP, NTFS, the current default Windows file system, was introduced, while in 2006, the exFAT file system was introduced through a series of updates.

FAT32

As previously written, FAT32 is the oldest file system currently supported by Windows.

This is a file system that is still widely used but has several limitations. The most important being the handling of large files. In fact, FAT32 cannot handle single files larger than 4GB. So if we think about current games, ISO files, or multimedia files with high resolutions, we can immediately understand that this is a rather important limitation. Also, FAT32 does not support partitions larger than 8TB.

However, the FAT32 file system is still widely used today, as it is compatible with most of the hardware currently on the market, be it Windows PC, Mac, Console, TV, car stereo, etc.

If you want to format a pendrive to be used in the car, on a console, in the TV, in the Hi-Fi system, or perhaps to move small files from PC to Mac, FAT32 can be an excellent choice.

Warning: avoid formatting internal drives with FAT32, as the latter does not have various security features and does not allow management of permissions.

NTFS

NTFS, we can define it as the current default Windows file system. Ideal for formatting internal drives or external hard drives. It can handle single files up to 16TB in size and supports partitions up to 256TB in size.

Although it is not a very recent file system, it was, in fact, conceived in the early 90s. It is equipped with numerous features and security levels. Allows file and directory permissions, supports encryption and allows the use of filenames up to 255 characters. Furthermore, it integrates the journal mechanism, the latter keeps track of the changes made to the file system. In the event of an unexpected shutdown or restart of the system, it only loses the operations currently in use, avoiding compromising the integrity of the file system.

Unfortunately, the NTFS also has major flaws. The two main limitations consist in the compatibility of the file system. The NTFS on macOS and various Linux distributions allows the reading of files only, but not writing. It is incompatible with different products: TV, some consoles, car radios, etc. Furthermore, as previously written, even if it is the file system currently in use on Windows, if compared with other Linux or Unix-like file systems, it is much less performing in terms of speed.

In summary, if you need to format a hard drive to install Windows or want to use the disk as an internal drive or external hard drive, always use NTFS, if you want to format a pendrive or other memory drive to use on other products, use FAT32 or the next file system we are about to introduce to you.

exFAT

The introduction of exFAT dates back to 2006. It was designed for flash drives to replace FAT32.

exFAT turns out to be a very light file system and has fewer limitations than FAT32. For example, it can handle single files larger than 4GB. It allows excellent compatibility. In fact, it allows reading and writing both on Windows and macOS. However, it is incompatible with some older consoles such as Xbox 360 and PS3.

exFAT is undoubtedly an excellent file system to format pendrive and SD cards. However, you must always pay attention to the type of compatibility offered by the product you will use.

ReFS

As promised at the beginning, it’s time to talk about the Resilient File System (ReFS). This is Microsoft’s latest file system, designed to ensure efficient scalability for large amounts of data, optimize data availability, and ensure data integrity thanks to so-called resilience.

Currently, it is used in particular on servers, but it is also possible to enable it easily on Windows 10. Compared to NTFS, ReFS introduces several new features, including:

  • Integrity-stream – Detects any file system corruption.
  • Integration with Storage Spaces functionality. ReFS can easily fix corruptions with the alternative data copy offered by Storage Space.
  • Proactive Error Correction. ReFS uses a scrubber (a data integrity scanner) to periodically scan the volume, identify latent corruptions, and repair corrupt files.

In addition, it can handle single files with a maximum size of 35 PB (petabytes) and supports partitions with a maximum size of 35 PB.

These are the main features of the ReFS file system. We stop here. Otherwise, we would go too far. However, for more information, we recommend that you read the dedicated article.

Which file systems to use

In conclusion, after seeing the differences between the various Windows file systems, if you need to format an external hard drive, an internal drive, or the disk you will use to install Windows, always use NTFS. If you need to format a USB stick or SD card that you will use on Windows and macOS, or other devices, use exFAT. If, on the other hand, you want to have maximum compatibility, especially in reading, and you don’t need to manage large files, use FAT32.

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