What Is the Best File Format for USB Drives?.
Everyone gets nervous when their last flash drive displays far less memory than it should. Usually, the file format is to blame.
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You’ve probably come across options like NTFS, FAT32 and exFAT when formatting a disk. What do all these file formats mean? What is the difference? And most importantly, what is the best file format for a USB stick?
An Introduction to File Formats
Before discussing which file format is best for USB drives, we need to understand what that file format does. How do different file systems differ? What makes one portable storage standard better than others?
File Allocation Table
In the simplest case, the file format is a lookup table. It stores the location of each file on disk, allowing the operating system to quickly find any file without having to go through the entire storage multiple times.
This is why the first file format was simply called the File Allocation Table, or FAT as you may have heard of it. The basic principle has remained the same over the years, simply adding additional storage with FAT12, FAT16 and FAT32 formats.
However, over time, the FAT standard began to show its age. The format was too vulnerable to malicious code and did little to implement redundancy from data corruption. These were critical issues for the hard drive used to store operating system system files.
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A new generation of file formats
File systems such as NTFS (New Technology File System) and HFS + (Hierarchical File System), developed by Microsoft and Apple respectively for their own operating systems, specialize in ensuring the security and reliability of data stored on a hard drive. While this naturally makes them better than FAT32, it also makes them too ineffective for portable storage devices.
Devices like SD cards or USB sticks need a simple file system to write and don’t have a lot of overhead. Unfortunately, file formats such as NTFS use up too much of their limited resources without offering a performance advantage.
This is where exFAT comes in. It combines an efficient, robust FAT structure with modern storage capacities, allowing all portable devices to manage their data with minimal overhead. As we’ll see, exFAT is best for formatting a small storage device like a USB stick.
The Contrstrained Choices: NTFS and HFS+
If you are on Windows, your hard drive is probably formatted using the NTFS file system. This is great because NTFS is the most modern file format that offers increased security and reliability.
The only problem with NTFS is the rather significant “overhead”. Simply put, the NTFS based file table takes up too much space. The file system is designed with Windows in mind, but for a small storage device that is not meant to boot the operating system, this may not be the best choice.
HFS + suffers from similar problems. It is a proprietary file system for Mac computers, and as such can only be recorded and accessed on an Apple computer. This is detrimental to portability as most systems cannot read data from a USB stick. Also, like NTFS, it is not the most efficient file storage format.
The Legacy Option: FAT32
The File Allocation Table or FAT is the oldest and simplest file system. Its improved version, FAT32, was until recently the default file format for most computers and storage devices.
The reason it lost popularity is simple; it cannot support devices with more than 4GB of storage. Since USB drives offer tens of gigabytes of storage, FAT32 is no longer a viable choice.
But if you want to format an old flash drive that doesn’t cross that mark, FAT32 might be a good choice. It’s easy to read and write on all platforms including Windows, Macintosh, and even Linux. It may not be as secure as NTFS, but it is fine for portable storage.
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The Best Format: exFAT
Not everyone was thrilled when Microsoft introduced the NTFS file format as a replacement for FAT32. Small storage devices like USB sticks or SD cards suffered from NTFS’s high data overhead and needed something a little thinner. Something like FAT32, but with a larger maximum storage size.
And Microsoft listened. The exFAT file format has been released as the file system of choice for embedded systems. This is an enhanced version of the FAT32 format, supporting storage up to 128PB (unlikely to be jailbroken anytime soon).
Like FAT32, exFAT is a very compact file format that requires minimal system resources to operate. This is great for portable storage devices as it allows them to squeeze out every ounce of storage for actual use, rather than being tied to system partitions.
Another advantage is that it is also supported by Macintosh. Mac computers can both read and write to exFAT USB drives, providing portability between them and Windows. For Linux systems, you might have to jump over a few obstacles, but it’s still doable.
Which File Format Should You Use for USB Drives?
ExFAT is the best file format for USB sticks. It is fast, efficient, and requires much less overhead than NTFS. Unlike FAT32, it is not limited to 4GB of storage, making it suitable for high-capacity flash drives.
For older USB drives, FAT32 is also a decent choice. As long as the storage capacity does not exceed 4GB, you can safely use FAT32 to format the disk. This will give you the efficiency of exFAT with a much wider range of portability.
File formats like NTFS or HFS + are not ideal for small storage devices. Instead, you should use them for the internal or external hard drives that you use to boot the operating system and start your computer.
What Is the Best File Format for USB Drives?
What Is the Best File Format for USB Drives?