While it would be easy to think of a hard drive as a vinyl record, storing data in a straight line around a circular platter, that isn’t the whole story. Computer systems need a method for storing data that enables them to quickly reference and locate various blocks of information, wherever they may exist on the drive. For this reason, each drive has a built-in reference table that allows the system to look up specific information’s location and send the read head directly there in an expedient fashion. Over the years, many different standards have come and gone, but no two have been more frequently used than NTFS and FAT32.
FAT32 is an improved version of the original FAT file system, which ran almost exclusively on DOS (Disk Operating System) based machines and Windows versions up to Windows XP. This file system was extremely simple, and very fast for the smaller drives of the day. Today, you can still find FAT32 being used on USB flash drives, portable media players, and many other smaller storage mediums. In addition, FAT32 is recognized by Windows, Linux, and OS X in a read/write capacity. NTFS is not, due in part to its more closed nature.
NTFS (New Technology File System) is the primary file storage system used by Windows operating systems since Windows NT. There are several reasons for this, including the growth of external drives with larger capacities that benefit from the more robust file system. In speed tests, FAT32 outperforms NTFS on smaller drives while it falls short considerably as the capacity of the drive increases. NTFS also introduced the ability to store files of greater than 4 GB — a limitation of the FAT32 file system. Another advantage is object permissions, allowing a user to assign specific permissions to specific users of the drive, a security feature added in Windows NT and still present today on Windows 7. NTFS is also better with fault tolerance, an important factor when dealing with a significantly larger drive more prone to faulty sectors.
If you’re considering formatting a drive, and don’t know whether to choose NTFS or FAT32, consider the intended use for the drive. If you plan on utilizing it to store extremely large >4 GB files, run as the primary drive on a modern Windows installation, or for use with a drive over 250 GB in capacity, you may want to stick with NTFS or another journaled file system. Both OS X and Linux have their own preferred file systems for primary and larger storage drives. If you’re formatting a USB flash drive, there’s a good chance you’ll want to keep FAT32 on it. FAT32 is also preferred if you’re planning on crossing files over from a PC to a Mac or Linux machine, as it is more cross-platform compatible. To date, systems running OS X can only read NTFS, unless there is a special third-party application installed that enables writing.
So, are you more of an NTFS or FAT32 kind of person? Do you prefer the cross-platform functionality of one over the large-volume speed of another? What is your favorite file system? Comments welcome.