How To Format A Large Hard Drive With Either FAT Or FAT32

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how to format a hard driveIn a recent article I detailed how to format a USB drive and in a follow-up article I explained what file systems are good for. In both articles I mentioned that there is a 32GB size limit for partitions when formatting with FAT or FAT32. Well, as some of you certainly know, that is not the entire truth. FAT / FAT32 itself can handle up to 16TB hard drives and up to 2TB are supported in most operating systems. Microsoft has set a 32GB partition size limit for the FAT / FAT32 file system to promote NTFS, which is generally more efficient when working with large partitions.

So first of all, this limitation only exists in recent versions of Windows. Secondly, Windows does recognize large hard drives formatted with FAT / FAT32. And finally, you can circumvent the 32 GB limit.


In this article I will show you how to format a large hard drive with FAT / FAT32 or create a 32+ GB partition with said file system.

The Manual Way

You don’t need a tool to circumvent the 32 GB partition limit, you can do it manually and it’s fairly easy. Rather than using the standard Windows formatter, you switch to the command line.

In Windows XP, go to > Start > Run. In Windows Vista and Windows 7, go to > Start, type > Run in the search field, and launch it. Type > cmd into the text field and click > OK.

how to format a hard drive

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Enter the following command at the prompt: format /FS:FAT32 X:

Replace the letter X with the drive letter for the external device you wish to format and hit > Enter.

how to format hard drive

That’s it! The formatting may take a long time as it did in my 15.2 GB example above, but it works.

The Tools

If you don’t want to mess with the command line, you can use tools that apply the same principle, but provide a nice graphical user interface (GUI) for your convenience.

SwissKnife (Windows XP)

SwissKnife is a simple partition manager that lets you do more than just format your hard drive with different file systems. You can also use it to delete, create, and resize partitions and it works faster than Windows.

format hard drive

However, the free version of SwissKnife is only available for Windows 95 through XP. If you would like to use it on more recent versions of Windows, you have to purchase SwissKnife Premium or try one of the other free tools below.

Fat32Formatter

Windows 7 users can try Fat32Formatter. It’s a self-executable tool with a decent GUI that allows you to format large hard drives with FAT32. Balloon tips guide the user through its functions. No other documentation is available.

format hard drive

This tool is almost too simplistic. While you can delete a partition and create new ones, you cannot choose the allocation unit size, which does make a different as I outlined previously.

FAT32 Format

FAT32 Format is another very basic portable GUI tool that doesn’t require installation. It just does one task, and it does it very efficiently: format drives with FAT32.

format a hard drive

FAT32 Format works with Windows XP through 7 and supports up to 2TB partition size. You can choose the allocation unit size and give the partition a new volume label. Unfortunately, it can not create new partitions.

If you want to manage your partitions, i.e. create new ones or change their size, I recommend that you use dedicated software. First, create a partition that you want to format with FAT32. Then, in case your partition manager can’t do it, use one of the tools above to carry out the FAT32 formatting.

For detailed instructions, see James’ article on How To Set Up A Second Hard Drive In Windows: Partitioning. For a third party alternative to Windows’ partition manager, see Justin’s article on GParted – The Ultimate In Partitioning Software. If you are interested in the limitations of FAT32 in Windows XP, check out the respective Microsoft Support article.

What is your favorite file system? Did you switch from NTFS to FAT32 before and what were the reasons?

Image credit: Kar

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