FAT32 vs ExFAT vs NTFS: File System Formatting Explained
| technology | system admin - Graeme Messina

FAT32 vs ExFAT vs NTFS: File System Formatting Explained

Many of us use computers to get our work done every day, but how much thought have you given to the way in which your files are stored? We have all heard of file systems and know there are different types. But what is a file system really?

The easiest way to describe a file system is that it is a type of data arrangement that  provides a way of organizing a hard drive into virtual compartments in which files are stored. An index is created that tells the operating system where to find files in these compartments and how much space is available on the drive. The file system type determines what information is attached to this data such as filenames, permissions, and additional attributes depending on the file system type.

Most of us are familiar with the need to format flash disks, hard drives, and SD Cards when they encounter issues. However, what are we actually doing when we select FAT or NTFS? What's the difference between FAT32 and ExFAT? Is one better than the other? We'll cover all that and more in this post.

What is FAT32?

FAT32 is a type of file system that is used on hard drives and removable storage. FAT32 stores files as a linked list of blocks in a table. If you have ever seen the chkdsk, or scan disk if you ever used Windows 95 and Windows 98 command, running a repair on a FAT file system then you no doubt have seen the program refer to blocks and sectors.

Each file on a FAT32 hard drive is made up of multiple blocks, and each block is indexed in the File Allocation Table of the hard drive. The table has a column that shows if a block is populated with data or free to be written to, and another column with a reference to the next file block. The "next" column also has information showing the end of the file.

How Does FAT 32 Work?

We can think of the FAT file system as a long row of boxes to simulate blocks on a hard drive. Each box has a consecutive number on it. The boxes are placed in an ordered row. We can tell if there is space in each box as available space will be represented as an empty box.  Our file is a numbered collection of items that we put into each box, and each item number will correspond with a box number. We can place our item into a box in any order we want, as long as the box is empty.

As we put an item into each box, we put a sticky note onto the same box with the number of the next empty box that we are going to use. We can think of this as a bread crumb trail that will show the next person what order to follow when retrieving the items from the row of boxes. The box that we place our final item into will be  marked with a sticker that says 'end' onto it to show that this is the end of the file.

As we place items into each box, we can write down on a piece of paper how many items (file segments) we placed into boxes (blocks), and list the order that we placed them in. We will end up with a File Allocation Table with a Busy Column (box empty or full), and a Next Column (the next box number you need to look at).

Now that we have documented everything, we can ask anyone to read our table and retrieve our file, as long as they know what the starting block number of that file is, regardless of the order that we placed our items into the boxes.

They will know when they have come to the end of the file when they find the box with the 'end' sticker on it that matches the number of the last file segment on our list.

How Does FAT32 Perform?

FAT32 performs very well when there is a lot of free space on a hard drive. Speed generally deteriorates over time as files are deleted and new files are added because file fragments jumble things up a bit for FAT32. This is due to FAT writing files to the hard drive in empty blocks as it finds them. Fragments of the same file are often assigned to empty blocks in different locations on the hard drive wherever empty spaces are. This adds extra seek time to file operations as the hard drive has to move backward and forward when retrieving all the fragments of each file.

With mechanical hard drives this makes the physical read and write head seek around the platter and can slow things down with time. Defragmenting combats this effect by reordering blocks into consecutive lines, freeing up empty blocks between file allocations, and making files faster to read because they are all consecutively stored next to one another.

How is it used? Where is it used? Who would use it? Where is it commonly found? Why is it ideal for the place it is found?

The main areas of modern usage for FAT formats are in removable storage media like memory cards, SD Cards and USB flash disks. It has remained popular with these types of storage devices thanks to its relative reliability and compatibility with a wide array of operating systems and devices.

What is NTFS?

New Technology File System (NTFS) is a more modern file system than FAT32. It is a departure from FAT in many ways. For example, NTFS uses Access Control Lists (ACL) and encryption to manage file security. It also keeps logs of all activity on a hard drive in a log.

All of this information is stored in hidden files on the hard drive that contain metadata. They can be accessed with special software tools. This is mainly for forensic use, and most end users have no clue that they are there.

How Does NTFS work?

As we've mentioned, NTFS is a lot more complicated than FAT. This is because of the advanced encryption and security standards that it supports. NTFS uses Sectors and Clusters to store and manage files on a hard drive. Sectors are the smallest size of an individually addressable area of memory, while a cluster is a contiguous series of sectors. The size of a cluster is defined inside the Master Boot Record of the hard drive.

Files that are stored onto a hard drive are broken down into fragments and then placed into clusters throughout the hard drive. NTFS uses something called the Master File Table (MFT) to keep track of all of the files, as well as their addressable locations.

The MFT keeps records of all files that were written to the disk, the addressing data, as well as date and time stamp information. NTFS uses 27 record metadata files in total, and they are stored on the hard drive. The logs that are stored also help with data integrity as they are used for verifying files that are stored in the data section of the drive. This data is stored in a series of cluster chains and are all represented in hexadecimal format.

How Does it Perform?

NTFS has a lot of additional performance features that makes it run much better than traditional FAT systems. One example of these speed tweaks is the Multiple Data Streams feature. This allows for files to be accessed simultaneously for increased throughput. An added benefit of this approach is that files can be opened by multiple people at the same time. File locks will prevent changes to files if multiple people are working on networked files, making NTFS far more suitable for business applications.

NTFS performs very well on large hard drives because of the way that data is stored and retrieved, so performance for operating systems like Windows are able to take advantage of this design feature. Cluster sizes on NTFS hard drives can also affect performance depending on the intended file sizes that are going to be stored on the drive.

How is it used? Where is it used? Who would use it? Where is it commonly found? Why is it ideal for the place it is found?

NTFS is used in operating systems for desktop computers, laptops and servers, primarily in Microsoft Windows. Linux is able to use NTFS as well, although this is more for compatibility with Windows Systems as Linux has many different file systems available for it. NTFS is suitable for these kinds of devices because of the enhanced security and performance that are needed in corporate businesses and home use.

What is ExFAT?

Extended File Allocation Table (ExFAT) is the newest file system of our three examples, but that doesn't necessarily make it better than NTFS. In fact, ExFAT was designed especially for use in flash memory products such as USB storage devices and SD cards.

ExFAT can be thought of as a mixture between large file support as seen in NTFS and a less complex file structure as seen with FAT32. This makes it an ideal format for devices such as digital cameras and video cameras when large files are needed, but complicated ACLs and file attributes are not.

How Does ExFAT work?

ExFAT works very similarly to other versions of FAT in the way it stores and retrieves files. The only difference is that ExFAT supports large files like NTFS — without the journaling and encryption capabilities of NTFS.

How Does it Perform?

Not surprisingly, ExFAT performs better than FAT32, and slightly slower than NTFS on removable storage media. ExFAT aims to be compatible with as many operating systems as possible while making improvements to FAT systems, without the overhead of NTFS.

How is it used? Where is it used? Who would use it? Where is it commonly found? Why is it ideal for the place it is found?

ExFAT was adopted by the SD Association (SDA) as the standard format for SDXC cards with capacities greater than 32GB. The SDA is a non-profit organization that helps keep memory card standards simple for consumers and manufacturers alike.

ExFAT supports a maximum file size of 16EB and has been optimized for use in high capacity flash storage devices. All of these factors make ExFAT the perfect choice for portable storage solutions with large storage requirements.

And the Winner Is…

Unfortunately, there are no clear winners in this round up. Like many things in life, there are reasons why direct comparisons between these particular file systems are not especially useful to us.

Each of these file system formats has its own special place in the arena of competitive storage solutions, however, they don't necessarily compete with one another in the same events. FAT32 is a champion of legacy systems where backward compatibility and widespread adoption makes it the king of easy-going file systems. It is recognized by most operating systems and media devices, which is why it is a safe format to choose if you have an older mp3 player or other multimedia device that can take either SD cards or USB storage devices.

NTFS is unrivaled in the world of Windows, where Microsoft has meticulously built its operating systems around advanced ACLs, journaling and file attribute features. If we had to add the security controls and encryption capabilities of NTFS versus ExFAT and FAT32 then we would have a clear winner, NTFS.

On the other hand, if we are looking to use a format that has been selected by leading SD manufacturers in the SDA such as Panasonic, SanDisk and Toshiba, then ExFAT would walk away with the trophy without breaking a sweat.

Final Thoughts

The key takeaway from all of this is that different scenarios have different technical requirements, and file systems are no exception. Now that we understand why you can't format your primary OS drive to FAT32 when installing Windows 10. Newer versions of Windows need NTFS to operate properly. We also know why your 20GB raw video file won’t copy onto a FAT32 USB disk. FAT32 doesn't support file sizes larger than 4GB.

Knowing what we know now about FAT32, NTFS and ExFAT, we can more easily make sense of why we use different file systems the way we do. What file system works best for you needs?

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