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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! What A File System Is & How You Can Find Out What Runs On Your Drives What A File System Is & How You Can Find Out What Runs On Your Drives Read More

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.

fat32 exfat ntfs windows

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.

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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.

Devices Supported

FAT32 is the most widely compatible file system. It will work on any operating system as well as video game consoles, Android USB expansions Get Extra Storage On Android With A USB Flash Drive Get Extra Storage On Android With A USB Flash Drive Want to add more storage to your Android device using a USB flash drive? We can show you how to do that, step by step. Read More , media players, and other devices.

fat32 exfat devices supported

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

Sizes Supported

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.

fat32 exfat 8 gb drive

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.

fat32 exfat speed

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.

For Windows

  1. Open This PC in File Explorer.
  2. Right-click on the USB drive and choose Format from the shell menu.
  3. Choose exFAT in file system.

Here’s a full guide with screenshots How to Format a USB Drive & Why You Would Need To How to Format a USB Drive & Why You Would Need To Formatting 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? Read More .

fat32 exfat format mac

For macOS

  1. Open Spotlight (Command + Space) and run Disk Utility.
  2. Choose the USB drive in the menu on the left.
  3. Click Erase and choose exFAT in Format.

Here’s a full guide with screenshots Preparing An External Hard Drive For Use With Mac OS X Preparing An External Hard Drive For Use With Mac OS X If you've just purchased a new external hard drive for your Mac, it's important to take the time to prepare your hard drive for use with Mac OS X. Read More .

For Linux

  1. Open a Terminal window.
  2. Type sudo apt-get install exfat-utils exfat-fuse and press Enter.
  3. Type sudo fdisk -l and press Enter.
  4. Note the address of your external drive. It should read as /dev/sd** (where the last two asterisk are a letter and a number).
  5. Type 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?

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  1. ganastor
    June 20, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    I'm sure most linux users know this... but you should really reverse these two commands below to install exfat in linux.

    Written:
    sudo apt-get install exfat-utils exfat-fuse
    Once that’s done, type:
    sudo apt-get update

    Correct:
    sudo apt-get udpate
    Sudo apt-get install exfat-utils exfat-fuse

    Or, done more easily in one command - sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get install -y exfat-utils exfat-fuse

  2. Sean
    June 20, 2017 at 3:32 am

    This is probably a "no shit Sherlock" piece of information for most people, but you may want to include a warning or notice in the article that formatting a drive will forever delete any of its data, ya know?

  3. FeRD (Frank Dana)
    June 15, 2017 at 11:56 pm

    Also, THIS VERY SITE has a guide on enabling NTFS write support on the Mac: http://twistedgourmet.ca/?tv=tag/write-ntfs-drives-el-capitan-free/
    So why does this article pretend it's not possible?

  4. Ed
    June 15, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    The big problem with ExFat is that it is easily corrupted if the drive becomes disconnected before ejecting.

    • FeRD (Frank Dana)
      June 15, 2017 at 11:54 pm

      This really can't be overstated, and is the primary flaw exFAT shares with FAT32. Because all of the FAT filesystems lack the journaling features that provide modern filesystems (even exFAT is not "modern" by any reasonable definition) with their speed and reliability, the user must be careful to ALWAYS use the OS's "Eject" feature to ensure that the FAT tables on the media have been fully written to disk before physically disconnecting the stick. Fail to do so and pull it out at the wrong time, or have an unplanned disconnection when power is interrupted or someone trips over a cable, and there is significant, non-theoretical risk of filesystem corruption (necessitating a lengthy disk repair process when next using the media) and possible data loss.

      The difficulty of using NTFS on non-Microsoft OSes is also somewhat overstated in this post. True, Macs can't easily write to NTFS volumes out of the box, but both Paragon and Tuxera offer easily-installable software to enable read/write NTFS support at fairly low cost. And on Linux, yes NTFS write support may require installing additional software (readily available in distros' package repos), but then again as you note exFAT may as well.

      I recommend using NTFS if at all possible, for anyone who needs to use removable media and actually cares about the data they store on it.

    • Hermelindo
      June 22, 2017 at 5:43 pm

      This happen with all file system, not with exFat only...

  5. Jakub Kaszycki
    June 15, 2017 at 6:30 am

    I usually move files between Linux systems, or Linux to Mac. When moving between Linuxes, I use ext2 (a journaled fs like ext4 is good for HDDs, but not exactly for a temporary file storage). When moving to/from macOS, I use HFS/HFS+, perfectly understood by Linux (with some drivers from my distro's repository). When I really HAVE TO move something to Winshit (I hate that OS), I use NTFS, which both OSes support. I have seen one strange thing: saving much stuff on an NTFS drive, using a Linux machine as a midpoint, moving files to HFS+ and dropping them on macOS is faster than any kinds of FAT.

    FATs are in general archaic. They were invented years ago. The reason they are still used is that they are simple to implement. For example, I've even managed to write a simple FAT12 header and table in Assembler, while writing a boot loader. Ext2/3/4 has its structures, which, although taking much time to implement, make it really fast and reliable. Some people even call the new APFS "ExtApple". HFS(+) isn't bad. Although it's old, it still does it's job. It has very high limits on file/disk size, directory file count and similar.

    I recommend not to use FAT unless it's 100% necessary. Use better file systems.

  6. William Vasquez
    June 15, 2017 at 4:59 am

    Sometimes a USB drive "forgets" how much GB storage it has and no amount of reformatting will get it back, do this little trick (it works in Windows only).
    Click on the start button in the lower left corner; go to search line and type in...
    cmd (this brings up the command prompt. Then type)
    diskpart (make sure USB drive was already inserted and look for the USB disk number)
    list disk (this will list all the disks connected to your computer. Look for the USB disk)
    select disk 1 (probably your main OS drive is 'disk 0' but it is very important to make sure)
    clean (type this in to clean the drive memory. Try it again if you get an error)
    create partition primary (type this in next, wait for a positive response, then type....) active (type this in next)
    format fs=Fat32 (make sure it's exact. Space after 'format and capital 'F' in Fat32)
    And magically all of the lost memory will be recovered and it is freshly formatted in Fat32.

    • Antonio
      June 16, 2017 at 2:55 pm

      The USB stick does not lose memory. You should consider allow explorer to see hidden folders, probably the space you are claiming are filled with deleted archives.

      • William Vasquez
        June 18, 2017 at 3:36 pm

        Sorry, Antonio, I misused the word 'forgets' as far as memory on a USB stick is concerned. I should have said that thumbdrives tend to not make available partitions so that the USB appears to have smaller memory. This is a fact. Google it. This is a common problem for especially people who tend to use USB drives to load Linux distros . For some reason, after trying to erase a USB drive with a Linux distro OS iso on it, the drive will not reallocate partitions on the drive no matter how many times you reformat . Yes, I know, you can use some sort of partitioning software to probably get it back, but the average Joe looks at something like Gparted like a deer in the headlights.

        • Brian Hartson
          June 23, 2017 at 7:55 pm

          You dont have to use Gparted. There is a graphical program called disk in the preferences menu in Mint, that will show you what partitions are on the usb drive. Allow you to add delete reformat the usb drive very easy simple. So simple my 9 year old was able to use it to recover a 64G usb stick that had multiple partitions with multiple linux distros on it so he could use it on his PS4.