Recently, a friend asked me what format is the best format to format his USB drive. When I started explaining this, I realized that this is actually not so clear, and depending on the situation, you may want to format the disk differently.
It also depends on the size of the USB stick. For example, if it’s a small 8GB flash drive, it’s easier to do than if you have a 1TB My Book on hand.
It also depends on what operating systems you want to use the USB stick on. Will it only connect to Windows machines? Or would you need to access it on Mac and Windows and be able to read / write from other operating systems?
In this article, I will go over the different options available for formatting a USB drive, as well as point you to some of the previous articles I wrote that will walk you through the process step by step.
Hopefully this will give you a clearer understanding of the formats and the advantages and disadvantages of each format.
The best file format for a USB drive
So let’s start with the formatting dialog that we all know in Windows. If you right-click a USB drive in Windows and select Format, the following format dialog box appears:
By default, the file system for any external USB device will be set to FAT. You can click the drop-down list and select one of two file systems: NTFS, FAT, FAT32, and exFAT.
By default, most people just switch to FAT, and there is a good reason why it is installed by default. Before we get into what each format is, let’s talk about the actual options you get when you try to execute the format.
– If you try to format an internal hard drive smaller than 32GB, you will see options for NTFS, FAT and FAT32.
– If you try to format an internal hard drive larger than 32GB, you will only see NTFS option.
– If you try to format an external USB device smaller than 32GB, you will see all the options.
– If you try to format an external USB device larger than 32GB, you will only see NTFS and exFAT.
Now that you know this, your final choice is much easier as you have to choose from a limited selection. Now let’s talk about what each file system format provides, if you choose one.
File system formats
The FAT file system is used by default because it is the most compatible file system format in the world. You can practically guarantee that by using the FAT file system format, you can connect your device to any computer with any OS, or connect it to any electronic or digital device, and your data will be readable.
If you want maximum compatibility with other operating systems and hardware devices, FAT is your best bet. Obviously, you cannot use FAT or FAT32 on a USB drive larger than 32GB, as the FAT file system only supports volumes up to 32GB in Windows. In addition, the maximum file size in the FAT file system is 4 GB.
The FAT file system is also faster and takes up less space on the USB device. However, the FAT file system has no built-in security, so anyone can read the files. FAT32 is better than FAT because it has a smaller cluster size and therefore takes up less disk space.
FAT32 is also more reliable because it supports boot sector backups. Generally, you are more likely to lose data using FAT than FAT32. Note that FAT32 can support volumes up to 2 TB, but Windows limits the size to 32 GB, just like FAT. In fact, you can use a separate tool to format your USB drive to FAT32 that is over 32GB in size.
So when would you use NTFS? If you are formatting a drive larger than 32 GB, you will only be able to use NTFS and exFAT. NTFS is usually only required for internal hard drives running the Windows operating system.
It has a lot of extra overhead that you only need if you are using Windows. However, if you really need extra security, you can read my previous post on formatting USB drives to NTFS.
If you’re formatting an external USB drive, then exFAT is your best bet. What’s so great about exFAT? Basically, it is a combination of the good features of NTFS and FAT. It has less overhead than NTFS, and it gets rid of the volume and file size limitations present in the FAT file system.
The main disadvantage of exFAT is that it is not as compatible as the FAT file format. It can only be read on Windows XP and later (with service packs installed) and OS X Snow Leopard and later. Apart from these two operating systems, there are not many other systems that support the exFAT file system.
You can use exFAT on Linux, but you need to install the exFAT drivers first. If you know that the system you intend to use the USB device on supports exFAT, then this is the best choice due to the performance advantages and lack of size restrictions.
Note. One tip when using exFAT: if possible, format the disk on an OS X computer. I used Windows 10 to format the disk to exFAT, but for some reason it was not readable in OS X. When I did it on OS X, it can was read on Mac and PC.
So, to break it down and keep it simple, here are the options and ways to format your USB stick. Let me know in the comments if you disagree.
1. Anything less than 32 GB does not require protection, must be formatted in FAT or FAT32. Choose FAT32 to reduce wasted disk space and improve reliability.
2. All files larger than 32GB that you know will be used with the latest Mac and PC operating systems must be formatted to exFAT.
3. Anything over 32 GB, which should be maximally compatible with other devices and operating systems, should be formatted in NTFS.
4. Finally, if you are technically inclined and your drive is larger than 32GB, you can still format it to FAT32 using the tools mentioned in the above post.
Tell us in the comments how you format your USB drives and why you chose that format. Enjoy!