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

FormatHD01   How To Format A Large Hard Drive With Either FAT Or FAT32In 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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27 Comments -

Leo

Nice :) I am a bit curious as to why you would want to format a partition to fat32
(just wondering if there are any hidden benefits to the file format or is it a requirement for some niche application)

Leo

Nice :) I am a bit curious as to why you would want to format a partition to fat32
(just wondering if there are any hidden benefits to the file format or is it a requirement for some niche application)

Tina

Leo,

as Fred points out below, FAT32 is a file format that is supported by basically all operating systems without the need for drivers or other tricks.

If you work only with Windows, then by all means do not format your greater than 32 GB hard drives with FAT32. Stay with NTFS as it is a file system optimized for large partitions / hard drives!

This article is part of a mini series. You should also check out the other two posts:
http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/file-system-find-runs-drives/
http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/format-usb-drive/

Mike

I’m with Leo on this. Why would fat32 be better than ntfs?

Fred

fat32 can be read and written to even by mac computers. So, both pc and mac can have access to it. NTFS can be read by macs, but cannot be written.

Tina

That’s precisely the reason.

I mentioned the ‘compatibility’ issue of NTFS in the previous two articles on formatting and file systems, but should obviously have made it clear in this one! Thanks for your comment.

Mike

Not to mention all those DVD and BD Players/Recorders with a USB connector who won’t be able to read anything different from FAT32.
Also pretty much all digital cameras use FAT32 on their memory cards.

Tina

Leo,

as Fred points out below, FAT32 is a file format that is supported by basically all operating systems without the need for drivers or other tricks.

If you work only with Windows, then by all means do not format your greater than 32 GB hard drives with FAT32. Stay with NTFS as it is a file system optimized for large partitions / hard drives!

This article is part of a mini series. You should also check out the other two posts:
http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/f
http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/f

Tina

That’s precisely the reason.

I mentioned the ‘compatibility’ issue of NTFS in the previous two articles on formatting and file systems, but should obviously have made it clear in this one! Thanks for your comment.

Mike

Not to mention all those DVD and BD Players/Recorders with a USB connector who won’t be able to read anything different from FAT32.
Also pretty much all digital cameras use FAT32 on their memory cards.

lf0

Your command line formatting took so long because you forgot the “/Q” as in “Performs a quick format.”
Maybe you should add this to your post, as formatting a 1 TB drive could lead to some frustations without it.

lf0

Your command line formatting took so long because you forgot the “/Q” as in “Performs a quick format.”
Maybe you should add this to your post, as formatting a 1 TB drive could lead to some frustations without it.

Peter

Unless you have used the drive before and know it is good, you really shouldn’t use the /Q option. Doing a quick format on a brand new drive is asking for trouble because it doesn’t actually verify that all the sectors can be written to. Yes, formatting a 1 TB drive can take a while, but it’s less time than doing a quick format and having to recover your lost data when you find out the drive is bad.

Aibek

thanks for the input

lf0

All drives nowadays come pre-formatted. The only reason to re-format is because you want to have another file-system.
Using the format tool to determine whether the drive has bad sector or not is very unreliable (it does not even check if the written sectors can be read and also only writes zero-bytes). If you are in doubt your drive is still OK you should really use the manufacturers test tools. Those work much more reliable and are also able to properly mark the sectors as bad.

Mike

It is true that Windows won’t mark “weak” sectors, however this is not guaranteed using any other “proper” software for the job either.
I haven’t used them in a while but SeaTools used to have problem with those sectors too. If the sector was found weak and the data couldn’t be read (and relocated) it would be marked as pending until [any] data was written to it again.

I would rather use Check Disk than some third party software simply because in addition to mark bad sectors it is able to detect File System errors. Unless the tool is able to do that it would just relocated the same bad data.

Tina

Great input! Thanks for pointing out the /Q quick format option lf0!

Aibek

good point

lf0

All drives nowadays come pre-formatted. The only reason to re-format is because you want to have another file-system.
Using the format tool to determine whether the drive has bad sector or not is very unreliable (it does not even check if the written sectors can be read and also only writes zero-bytes). If you are in doubt your drive is still OK you should really use the manufacturers test tools. Those work much more reliable and are also able to properly mark the sectors as bad.

Mike

It is true that Windows won’t mark “weak” sectors, however this is not guaranteed using any other “proper” software for the job either.
I haven’t used them in a while but SeaTools used to have problem with those sectors too. If the sector was found weak and the data couldn’t be read (and relocated) it would be marked as pending until [any] data was written to it again.

I would rather use Check Disk than some third party software simply because in addition to mark bad sectors it is able to detect File System errors. Unless the tool is able to do that it would just relocated the same bad data.

Aaron McFarland

This is another tool that allowed me to format an external drive to FAT32 and worked very well ‘Easeus Partition Master Home Edition 7.0.1′ and is a completely free tool.

Bmulligan69

I just upgraded a PS3 with a larger HDD and it will only recognize a FAT32 HDD. In fact, to backup the OEM harddrive using the system’s backup utility to an external drive, you need a FAT32 usb drive for that too.

Guest

You can’t have any single file larger than 4gb in size with Fat32. Now that’s a major limitation! Fat32 is less secure, that’s another reason NTFS was created. There are small addon programs for MAC OSX to enable read/write to to ntfs drives for free. There is also a program from Paragon that allows windows to see Mac drives and read/write to it. Newest versions of Linux can read/write to both windows and Mac drives. Fat32 should be left to flash drives.

Tina

You provide sound reasons why NTFS is to be preferred over FAT32 under normal circumstances.

However, if you read the other comments you will understand that there are situations in which FAT32 is required! Although Linux and Mac OSX can work with NTFS, there is hardware, such as DVD/Bluetooth devices or game consoles, that can work with external storage media, but only if it is formatted with FAT32. And for those people wanting to connect a large hard drive to one of these devices, this article will be extremely valuable.

Tina

You provide sound reasons why NTFS is to be preferred over FAT32 under normal circumstances.

However, if you read the other comments you will understand that there are situations in which FAT32 is required! Although Linux and Mac OSX can work with NTFS, there is hardware, such as DVD/Bluetooth devices or game consoles, that can work with external storage media, but only if it is formatted with FAT32. And for those people wanting to connect a large hard drive to one of these devices, this article will be extremely valuable.

Duckeenie

One thing you need to remember about FAT/32 is that the File Allocation Table which needs to be loaded into memory grows exponentially with the partition size. May or may not be an issue for you depending on your system spec.

Large Pot

I’ll post the same information to my blog, thanks for ideas and great article.