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A file system is the magic tool that lets an operating system read the data on any hard drive or USB drive. Unfortunately, there are a number of file systems out there, and not every operating system plays nice with each one. That’s why the default recommended choice is FAT32. But there’s a better choice: exFAT.
File systems are an unnecessary complication, but they aren’t going anywhere for now. For example, Apple computers use HFS+ (i.e. Mac OS Extended) file system by default, while Windows uses NTFS (New Technology File System). Unsure what’s behind your system? Here’s an easy way to find out!
But for the sake of this article, we are focusing on FAT32 and exFAT, the two best file systems for external hard drives and USB drives.
What Makes FAT32 and exFAT Better Than Others?
If you have ever formatted a hard drive as NTFS, you know that there is a lot of trouble in getting it to work with Mac and Linux. While macOS recognizes and reads NTFS drives, it can’t write to them. Linux needs to be prepped to read NTFS as it doesn’t support the file system by default. In short, NTFS works flawlessly with Windows and not much else. Similarly, Mac OS Extended drives work flawlessly with macOS and not much else.
However, FAT32 and exFAT work with all operating systems by default. FAT (File Allocation Table) is the oldest of these file systems, and is hence recognized by every operating system. For personal computers, the first one used was FAT12, followed by FAT16, and then the current FAT32. Then came exFAT, made with USB drives and external drives in mind.
In short, the primary hard drive of your operating system should be the one that best matches the operating system. But your external hard drives and USB drives should use FAT32 or exFAT.
FAT32 vs. exFAT
Usually when you go to format a USB drive, Windows will suggest FAT32 as the default file system. But you might want to consider using exFAT instead.
FAT32 is the most widely compatible file system. It will work on any operating system as well as video game consoles, Android USB expansions, media players, and other devices.
In contrast, exFAT will work on 99 percent of the devices you use, but may not work on some media players and Android devices. Both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 support exFAT drives, but for some reason, Xbox One often faces issues with exFAT USB drives formatted on a Mac.
Some Linux distros also don’t support exFAT out of the box. You will need to install the package for that by opening a Terminal window and typing:
sudo apt-get install exfat-utils exfat-fuse
Once that’s done, type:
sudo apt-get update
FAT32 can only support files up to 4 GB in size and can only be used as the file system on hard drives that are 8 TB or less. If all your files are smaller than 4 GB, then FAT32’s excellent device support makes it a better choice. If you have ever seen the dialog box saying “Your file is too large for the destination,” ditch FAT32.
In contrast, exFAT has no limitations on file sizes or hard drive sizes. This makes exFAT the best choice if you are going to use a portable drive that stores large files (like unedited videos or 3D projects) and is connected to different computers.
Speed: Which Is Faster?
Generally speaking, exFAT drives are faster at writing and reading data than FAT32 drives. You’ll find plenty of benchmarks online, but Flexense has the most thorough comparison.
Apart from writing large files to the USB drive, exFAT outperformed FAT32 in all tests. And in the large file test, it was almost the same.
Note: All benchmarks show that NTFS is much faster than exFAT.
The bottom line is that unless you are 100 percent sure that you will never have a file smaller than 4 GB, format the drive as exFAT. Remember, the file system you use while formatting is what you’ll continue to use for a long time, so it’s sensible to make the right decision at the start.
How to Format a USB Drive to exFAT
Any USB drive or external hard drive can easily be formatted as exFAT instead of FAT32.
- Open This PC in File Explorer.
- Right-click on the USB drive and choose Format from the shell menu.
- Choose exFAT in file system.
Here’s a full guide with screenshots.
- Open Spotlight (Command + Space) and run Disk Utility.
- Choose the USB drive in the menu on the left.
- Click Erase and choose exFAT in Format.
Here’s a full guide with screenshots.
- Open a Terminal window.
sudo apt-get install exfat-utils exfat-fuseand press Enter.
sudo fdisk -land press Enter.
- Note the address of your external drive. It should read as /dev/sd** (where the last two asterisk are a letter and a number).
sudo mkfs.exfat -n NAME /dev/sd**where you replace sd** with the address you noted earlier and NAME with whatever you want to label your drive.
NTFS vs. exFAT vs. FAT32
As fantastic as exFAT is, don’t forget that NTFS is better in all aspects if you are only using the USB drive on Windows computers. But that’s not the norm any more, is it?
Which file system do you use on your USB drive? Have you ever faced the “File is too large for the destination file system” error?