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

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format usb driveFormatting 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.

format usb drive

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

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Formatting Options

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.

format usb drive

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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Comments (28)
  • Alex

    i havea usb 512 GB and it was perfect Before when i used it. sudnlly after 2 month i tried to copy som files from the PC to usb, it says that file is copied but when i open it i don’t find anything in it. please help?

    • Pepi Dachev

      Maybe the flash drive is fake and corrupts the files after certain GB.

  • karolis

    theres no format button what do i do??

  • karolis

    theres no format button help

  • Ila

    Hye Tina, i’ve move files from my pc , then, when to open the Pen drive it ask to format, i don’t to do and spontaneously i was format it as same as show the way to format it.
    My prob here is how to recall the format files from format drive?
    if you could help me to get the files i very glad.
    Thank you

  • 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.

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For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.