How To Format A USB Drive & Why You Would Need To

Format04   How To Format A USB Drive & Why You Would Need ToFormatting a USB drive is no different than formatting any other drive.  But how often have you actually formatted a drive and did you ever wonder what the various options mean?

Most of us go with the default settings without second guessing their logic. Naturally, optimal settings depend on the type of hardware to be formatted and what you are planning to do with it.

This article will hep you make the best choice. It explains what each option does and which one is best suited for your drive and expected use.

How To Format a USB Drive In Windows

Whether you’re running Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows 7, the steps are essentially the same. Connect the USB drive, go to > Computer or > My Computer, right-click the drive and select > Format… from the menu.

Format01   How To Format A USB Drive & Why You Would Need To

The formatting options you have are > File system, > Allocation unit size, > Volume label, and >  Format options.

Format02   How To Format A USB Drive & Why You Would Need To

To format your drive, you simply make your selection, click > Start, click > OK to confirm that you really want to erase all data and the drive will be formatted.

Format03   How To Format A USB Drive & Why You Would Need To

However, before you proceed with formatting, you will want to understand what each of these options actually means. So let’s analyze them one by one.

Which File System To Choose?

In Windows 7 you will see a maximum of four different file systems: NTFS, FAT, FAT32, and exFAT. You will actually not see FAT and FAT32 if your drive is larger than 32 GB. So what is the difference between those file systems and which one should you choose? Let’s look at the benefits of each.

NTFS Compared To FAT & FAT32:

  • read/write files larger than 4 GB and up to maximum partition size.
  • create partitions larger than 32 GB.
  • compress files and save disk space.
  • better space management = less fragmentation.
  • allows more clusters on larger drives = less wasted space.
  • add user permissions to individual files and folders (Windows Professional).
  • on-the-fly file encryption using EFS (Encrypting File System; Windows Professional).

FAT & FAT32 Compared To NTFS:

  • compatible with virtually all operating systems.
  • takes up less space on USB drive.
  • less disk writing operations = faster and less memory usage.

exFAT Compared To FAT & FAT32:

  • read/write files larger than 4 GB.
  • create drive partitions larger than 32 GB.
  • better space management = less fragmentation.

Due to its nature, FAT or better yet FAT32 are suitable for drives smaller than 32 GB and in an environment where you never need to store files larger than 2 or 4 GB, respectively. In other words, any regular sized hard drive (60 GB +) should be formatted with NTFS.

However, due to the way NTFS works it is not recommended for flash drives, even when they are bigger than 32 GB. This is where exFAT comes in. It unites the essential advantages of FAT (small, fast) and NTFS (large file size supported) in a way that is optimal for flash drives.

Keep in mind though that FAT and FAT32 are the only file systems that are cross-platform compatible. NTFS is supported by Linux, but it requires a hack or third party application to work on the Mac. exFAT on the other hand is supported in Snow Leopard, but drivers are required for Linux.

If for compatibility or speed reasons you want to go with FAT or FAT32, always go with FAT32, unless you are dealing with a device of 2 GB or smaller.

Which Allocation Unit Size Works Best?

Hard drives are organized in clusters and the allocation unit size describes the size of a single cluster. The file system records the state of each cluster, i.e. free or occupied. Once a file or a portion of a file is written to a cluster, the cluster is occupied, regardless of whether or not there is still space.

Hence, larger clusters can lead to more wasted or slack space. With smaller clusters, however, the drive becomes slower as each file is broken up into smaller pieces and it takes much longer to draw them all together when the file is accessed.

So the optimal allocation unit size depends on what you want to do with your USB drive. If you want to store large files on that drive, a large cluster size is better as the drive will be faster. If, however, you want to store small files or run programs off your flash drive, a smaller cluster size will help preserve space.

Rule of thumb: large drive and/or large files = large allocation unit size

For a 500 MB USB flash drive, rather select 512 bytes (FAT32) or 32 kilobytes (FAT). On a 1 TB external hard drive select 64 kilobytes (NTFS).

What Is A Volume Label?

The volume label simply is the name of the drive. It’s optional and you can basically name your drive anything you want. However, there are a few rules to follow, depending on the file system you’re going to format with.

NTFS:

  • maximum of 32 characters.
  • no tabs.
  • will be displayed with uppercase and lowercase, as entered.

FAT:

  • maximum of 11 characters.
  • none of the following characters: * ? . , ; : / \ | + = < > [ ]
  • no tabs.
  • will be displayed as all uppercase.

Spaces are allowed regardless of the file system.

Which Format Options Are Recommended?

During a normal format, files are removed from the drive and the drive is scanned for bad sectors. During the > Quick Format only the files are removed and no scan is performed. Hence go with that option if you don’t have time and are dealing with a healthy or new drive.

If you thought this article was useful, please also check out the following:

What are your experiences with formatting USB drives and what are your preferred settings?

Image credits: Julien Tromeur

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20 Comments -

0 votes

darkduck

Because USB drives >32Gb are still very rare and too expensive, I would say that rule of a thumb for normal user would be to use FAT32 on flash drives.
Those who use >32GB flash drives are professionals and they know what they are going to do with this flash drive and how to format it.

0 votes

DarkDuck

Because USB drives >32Gb are still very rare and too expensive, I would say that rule of a thumb for normal user would be to use FAT32 on flash drives.
Those who use >32GB flash drives are professionals and they know what they are going to do with this flash drive and how to format it.

0 votes

Tina

You’re right, small flash drives should be formatted with FAT32 because it’s faster, compatible with most operating systems, and takes up less space. Also, large flash drives are very expensive.

However, this articles is concerned with USB hard drives in general and these tend to be rather cheap.

0 votes

Mike

IMHO anything above 4GB [usable storage] should be formated using NTFS

Windows native support, opensource/freeware drivers for Mac and other *NIX
frustration-free usage when you encounter files over 4GB size

0 votes

Tina

True, FAT does not support files larger than 4 GB. Since the opportunity to transfer a 4+ GB file might occur on 4+ GB flash drives, they should be formatted in NTFS. It still depends on the intended use, though. To be safe, throw the drivers you might need on that flash drive, it’s large enough.

0 votes

Elton Sites

It seems there are more to consider than a quick format which is the wider choice of many users. The file system is very important in the formatting since some computers may not read your USB drive if you had chosen other than the most widely used and accepted.

0 votes

Tina

Indeed Elton, a quick format doesn’t check whether the drive is still healthy. And as pointed out in the article, only FAT / FAT32 is compatible with a wide selection of operating systems.

0 votes

Ulf

USB drives and memory cards auto detect bad sectors and disable the usage of them. There´s no need for a health check on USB drives or memory cards.
Quick format is recommended for flash memory.

HDDs sometimes get bad sectors but usually it´s a rare situation. Happened to me only twice. One was a HDD i bought as being defective (one defective sector, stable situation since five years), the other one was one of the famous “Death Star series” from IBM.

0 votes

Tina

You’re right, small flash drives should be formatted with FAT32 because it’s faster, compatible with most operating systems, and takes up less space. Also, large flash drives are very expensive.

However, this articles is concerned with USB hard drives in general and these tend to be rather cheap.

0 votes

dm83737

I had a USB drive that would not format using Windows format application. I downloaded and tried the HP USB Disk Storage Format Tool (you can get it from cnet and other places). It formatted my corrupted drive without any problems.

1 votes
0 votes

Tina

Thank you for the recommendation. Here is the link in case anyone would like to try it: http://download.cnet.com/HP-US… The

0 votes

Mike

IMHO anything above 4GB [usable storage] should be formated using NTFS

Windows native support, opensource/freeware drivers for Mac and other *NIX
frustration-free usage when you encounter files over 4GB size

0 votes

Tina

Good point, Bob! I didn’t sum it up because I thought it was obvious. Let me make up for that!

6 Reasons Why You Would Want to Format Your USB Drive:
1. To write files bigger than 4 GB on your USB drive (FAT to NTFS).
2. To create partitions larger than 32 GB (FAT to NTFS).
3. To make your USB drive faster when writing mostly large files to it (increase allocation size and change from NTFS to FAT on a small flash drive).
4. To better use the space on your drive when writing mainly small files to it (reduce allocation size).
5. To guarantee compatibility with non-Windows operating systems (from NTFS to FAT).
6. To clear the drive and check for damaged sectors (remove check for Quick Format).

Does that make sense?

0 votes

bobconstans

Where is the “Why You Would Need To” part?

0 votes

Tina

Good point, Bob! I didn’t sum it up because I thought it was obvious. Let me make up for that!

6 Reasons Why You Would Want to Format Your USB Drive:
1. To write files bigger than 4 GB on your USB drive (FAT to NTFS).
2. To create partitions larger than 32 GB (FAT to NTFS).
3. To make your USB drive faster when writing mostly large files to it (increase allocation size and change from NTFS to FAT on a small flash drive).
4. To better use the space on your drive when writing mainly small files to it (reduce allocation size).
5. To guarantee compatibility with non-Windows operating systems (from NTFS to FAT).
6. To clear the drive and check for damaged sectors (remove check for Quick Format).

Does that make sense?

0 votes

bobconstans

yep. thanks

0 votes

Simon Delancey

FAT and FAT32 are indeed supported by Apple’s OS X – but very poorly. Transfers between an OS X Mac and a FAT-formatted USB drive can (in my personal experience) take anything up to 10 times as long as they would on a PC. There is as yet no solution to this irritating problem; Apple just don’t seem to care.

0 votes

Ulf

USB drives and memory cards auto detect bad sectors and disable the usage of them. There´s no need for a health check on USB drives or memory cards.
Quick format is recommended for flash memory.

HDDs sometimes get bad sectors but usually it´s a rare situation. Happened to me only twice. One was a HDD i bought as being defective (one defective sector, stable situation since five years), the other one was one of the famous “Death Star series” from IBM.

0 votes

Philwebservices

just follow the instruction on how to format a usb and you won’t go wrong. By the way that’s nice to visualize an e-how blog.