Windows file systems

When formatting an internal drive, external drive, USB flash drive, or SD card, Windows gives a choice of using three different file systems: NTFS, FAT32, and exFAT.

NTFS is the latest file system Windows uses by default. NTFS supports file permissions for security, a change journal that can help quickly recover errors in case of a crash, shadow copies for backups, encryption (on a domain level or per user basis), disk quota limits, hard links, compression, auditing, fault tolerance, and 16-bit Unicode character set for naming files. It is proprietary to Windows NT, 2000, XP, Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 10 desktop systems as well as commonly used on Windows Servers 2016, 2012, 2008, 2003, 2000 & NT Server. The Windows system partition must be NTFS.

It has limited compatibility with other operating systems. Mac OS X can only read NTFS drives, not write to them. On most Linux distributions it is possible to enable NTFS-writing support, but mounting a HD formatted like that is a hassle. Sony’s PlayStation, and even Microsoft’s own Xbox 360 do not support NTFS (Xbox One can).

Each file on an NTFS volume is represented by a record in a special file called the Master File Table (MFT). When the number of files grows, so does the MFT. Tools that defragment NTFS volumes cannot move MFT entries.

FAT32 is the oldest of the three file systems available to Windows. It was introduced in Windows 95 to replace the older FAT16 file system used in MS-DOS and Windows 3. Flash drives will often come formatted with FAT32 for maximum compatibility with modern computers and other devices like game consoles and just about anything with a USB port.

Individual files on a FAT32 drive can’t be over 4 GB in size and a FAT32 partition must also be less than 8 TB. It lacks file permissions and other security features.

The exFAT file system was introduced in 2006 and was added to older versions of Windows with updates to Windows XP and Windows Vista.

It works with all versions of Windows and modern versions of Mac OS X, but requires additional software on Linux. More devices support exFAT than they do NTFS, but some older ones probably only support FAT32.