What is the difference between FAT32, NTFS and exFAT?

NTFS, FAT or exFAT are completely different file systems that can be used to store data on different media. Both are created in Microsoft and are mainly used for Windows, but there is also support for them in the Linux kernel.

What is a File System?

The file system sets the basic rules for how data will be organized when writing to the media, regardless of whether it’s a hard drive or flash drive. The file system describes how folders will be organized.

A certain part of the data called the file is located in the desired area of the drive. The file system performs all necessary calculations, and also determines the minimum indivisible size of the data block, the maximum file size, monitors fragmentation. There are many different types of file systems, for example, file systems for installing OS, for external media, for optical disks, distributed file systems. But in this article, we will only overview FAT and NTFS.

By default, the program will propose the formatting the drive while retaining its original file system. In any case, before starting the formatting, the user has the possibility to change the type of file system among these FAT, FAT32, and NTFS.

The problem is that windows do not offer any explanation on these file systems, so those who have no knowledge about it will always tend to leave every setting on default (which is indeed a good thing). However, its good to know the differences between these file systems and their utility.

What is the FAT File System?

The file systems FAT32 and NTFS are very different. FAT stands for File Allocation Table. This is a very old file system in the history of computing systems. Its history began in 1977. Then an 8-bit file system was developed, which was used in the NCR 7200 based on the Intel 8080. It was an input terminal that worked with floppy disks. The file system was written by a Microsoft employee, Mark McDonald, after discussing her concept with Bill Gates.

Then the FAT file system began to be used in the MS DOS operating system. A few years later, new versions were released, such as FAT12, FAT16 and FAT32.

FAT32 has increased the maximum volume size to 16TB, compared to FAT16. Also, the file size was increased to 4 GB. File Allocation Table 32 bits came out in August 1995 for Windows 95. But this file system still can not be used to install heavy applications or store large files. Therefore, Microsoft developed a new file system – NTFS, which has no such drawbacks.

What is the NTFS File System?

For its new systems, Microsoft developed a new file system – New Technology File System or NTFS. It appeared in 1993, in Windows NT 3.1. NTFS has removed many restrictions on file and disk sizes. Its development began in the distant 1980, as a result of the merger of Microsoft and IBM to create a new file system with improved performance.

But the cooperation of the companies did not last long, and IBM released HPFS, which was used in OS/2, and Microsoft created NTFS 1.0. The maximum size of a single file in NTFS can reach 16 exabytes, which means that even the largest files will fit in it.

NTFS 3.1 was released for Windows XP and received many interesting improvements, such as support for partition size reduction, automatic recovery, and symbolic links, and the maximum file system disk size was increased to 256 TB.

One interesting feature that was added later, you can note a delayed write to disk, support for defragmentation, setting disk quotas, link tracking, and file-level encryption. With all this, NTFS keeps compatibility with previous versions.

Now it is a journaling file system, all actions with files are recorded in a special log with the help of which the file system can be restored very quickly in case of damage. NTFS is supported in Windows XP and later versions. If we compare fat or NTFS, then the latter is not fully supported in Linux, it is possible to write and recover from damage, and MacOS only supports reading.

What is the ex-FAT File System?

The exFAT file system is another Microsoft project to improve the old file system. It can be used where FAT32 does not fit. It is much easier for NTFS, but it supports files larger than 4GB, and is also often used on flash drives and drives. In its development, Microsoft used its file name search technology by hash, which greatly improves performance.

Most countries recognize the US patent law, so any exFAT implementation is impossible in any system with closed or open source code. But Microsoft wants this file system to be freely distributed and used. Therefore, an exFAT version based on FUSE was developed, called fuse-ex-FAT. It gives full access to read and write. Also, there was an implementation at the level of the Linux kernel in Samsung, which is now also available in the public domain.

Speaking about compatibility, it is fully supported in Windows, MacOS, Android and Linux.

Differences between FAT and NTFS

And now let’s look at the main differences between FAT and NTFS in the form of a brief summary of each of the file systems:

FAT32

  • Compatibility:  Windows, Mac, Linux, game consoles, almost all devices that have a USB port;
  • Pros: cross-platform, lightness;
  • Cons: maximum file size 4 GB and 16 GB partition, not journaled;
  • Use: external media.

NTFS

  • Compatibility: Windows, Linux, Xbox One, and read-only in Mac;
  • Pros: journaled, large limits on partition size and file size, encryption, automatic recovery;
  • Cons: limited cross-platform;
  • Usage: to install Windows.

ex-FAT

  • Compatibility: Windows XP and above, MacOS X 10.6.5, Linux (fuse), Android;
  • Pros: a large limit on the size of the partition and file, easy compared to NTFS;
  • Cons: Microsoft limits its use of the license agreement;
  • Usage: for external media and external hard drives.

Conclusion

In this article, we performed a comparison of FAT and NTFS. These are very different file systems. But to understand which file system is better.

On the one hand, NTFS has much more features, but FAT is easier and is supported wherever possible. For data partitions in Linux that should be available in Windows, it’s better to use FAT rather than NTFS because it is better supported.

Authored By Imran Yousaf

I am Imran Yousaf, a computer geek, founder of the site Smashinglab.com. I am a die hard fond of open-source software and Linux operating system. In addition to Linux, I am interested in everything related to information technology and modern science.

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