When you’ve got a new hard disk drive, or are trying to reinstall Windows, your operating system may request that you format the drive. The 2 common modes you would need to choose from are NTFS and FAT32. To make an informed choice, there are some key factors to consider.
First, when formatting your disk or USB drive, you need to take portability into consideration. For instance, if you’re a using a file system for the backup hard drive, it is recommended you go for NTFS. However, opt for FAT32 if you would like to make use of the USB drive on older computers, or non-PC systems such as TV sets, digital picture frames, projectors or printers, owing to the fact the format is universally supported.
All operating systems have support for FAT32, the most commonly used version of the FAT (short for File Allocation Table) file system, since it’s a simple file system, which has been in use for a very long time. In comparison, NTFS — New Technology Files System in full — has more robust features and is more effective than FAT because it utilizes advanced data structures for improving reliability, disk space utilization as well as overall performance. While support for NTFS format has increased, it isn’t as universal as FAT32.
Definition – NTFS vs Fat32
32-bit File Allocation Table, FAT32, was developed far back in 1977 by Microsoft. In 1981, it eventually became adopted on the PC-DOS of IBM PC, and was extended to MS-DOS when that was released as a standalone product. This file system is older than NTFS and had been the standard drive format for hard drives as well as floppy disks throughout the DOS years, in addition to Windows versions up to and including Win 8.
NTFS, on the other hand, is the newer format introduced in 1993 by Microsoft as a part of the corporate-oriented Win NT 3.1 and later Win 2000. But it did not become commonly used on computers until Windows XP in 2001. Some versions of Windows, specifically Win 7 and 8, default to NTFS New Technology Files System drive format on new personal computers.
NTFS vs FAT32 Comparison Chart
|Year Introduced||1977 (with Standalone Disk BASIC-80)||1993 (Windows NT 3.1)|
|General Performance||Lacks built-in security & recoverability. File compression isn’t possible||Recoverability, encryption as well as compression are developed into NTFS in a manner that users will find transparent|
|Maximum Volume Size||2 TiB (having 512 byte sectors, the most common config.), 8 TiB (having 2 KiB sectors & 32 KiB clusters), 16 TiB (having 4 KiB sectors & 64 KiB clusters)||264 clusters with a single cluster (format) and 256 TB (256 bytes × 10244 bytes) with 64 KB (64 bytes × 1024 bytes) (implementation)|
|Maximum File Size||Around 4GB. The limits of the file size are, technically, 2,147,483,647 bytes (2 GiB – 1) (without LFS) 4,294,967,295 bytes (4 GiB – 1) (with LFS) 274,877,906,943 bytes (256 GiB – 1) (only with FAT32+)||16 EiB – 1 KiB (format);, 16 TiB – 64 KiB (Win 7, Windows Server 2008 R2 or earlier implementation), 256 TiB – 64 KiB (Win 8, Windows Server 2012 implementation)|
|Attributes||Hidden, Read-only, System, Volume, Archive, Directory||Hidden, Read-only, system, archive, offline, not content indexed, compressed, temporary,|
|Maximum Number of Files||268,173,300 for 32 KiB clusters||4,294,967,295 (2^32-1)|
|Dates Recorded||Modified time/date, creation time/date (DOS 7 & higher only), access date (available only with ACCDATE enabled),  deletion time/date (with DELWATCH 2 only)||Modification, creation, POSIX access, change|
|Date Range||1980/01/01 – 2099/12/31||1 Jan. 1601 – 28 May 60056 (File times, 64-bit numbers that are counting 100-nanosecond intervals (10 million each second) since 1601, which is more than 58,000 years)|
|Date Resolution||2 sec. for last modified time, 10 millisec. for creation time, 1 day for access date, 2 sec. for deletion time||100 nanosec.|
|File system permissions||Partial, with DR-DOS only, REAL/32 & 4690 OS||ACLs|
|Maximum Filename Length||255 UCS-2 characters when using LFN||255 UTF-16 code units|
|Transparent Encryption||Not supported||Per-file,, DESX (Win 2000 and above),, Triple DES (Win XP and above),, AES (Win XP Service Pack 1, Windows Server 2003 and above)|
|Transparent Compression||Not supported||Per-file, LZ77 (Win NT 3.51 onward)|
|Size and Storage||Max. volume size: 32GB for all OS & 2TB for select OS. Max. size of files is 4GB.||16 EiB – 1 KiB (format);, 16 TiB – 64 KiB (Win 7, Windows Server 2008 R2 or earlier implementation), 256 TiB – 64 KiB (Win8, Windows Server 2012 implementation)|
|Developing Company||Caldera, Microsoft, Compaq, IBM,||Microsoft|
|Name in Full||32-bit File Allocation Table||New Technology File System|
|Supported OS||All versions of Windows, Linux, macOS, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4||Windows NT series (Win NT 3.1 – 4.0, Win 2000, Win XP, Windows Server 2003, Win Vista, Windows Server 2008, Win 7, Windows Server 2008 R2, Win 8, Windows Server 2012), Linux/GNU, Mac OS X|
Importance of File Size
The maximum file size support of the FAT32 format stands at 4GB and its maximum volume size 2TB. This implies you are restricted to FAT32 partitions of 2TB if you choose to make use of a 4TB hard drive. It equally means you’re restricted to 4GB files.
This poses an issue with uncompressed high-definition movie files, in which 30GB files are not common. NTFS, when looked at from a theoretical angle, is limited by design to 16 Exabytes (EB). Since 1EB is the equivalent of 1 billion GB, maxing out NTFS remains a far cry. In practice, 2TB to 4TB volumes represent the current limit. Volumes that are larger than this will need a 64-bit operating system, coupled with compatible hardware.
Which Is the Faster System?
Though speed of file transfer and max. throughput is limited by the slowest link (which is normally the drive interface to the computer such as SATA or a network interface such as 3G WWAN), hard drives formatted in NTFS have tested faster on benchmark tests in comparison with those formatted in FAT32. But other factors will also have an effect, such as drive technology (SDD vs. HDD, Flash vs. non-Flash, and others) as well as file fragmentation (on spinning drives).
Final Verdict – NTFS vs Fat32
Though your operating system typically chooses a format for a hard drive for you ahead of time, you can make your choice of your preferred format while re-formatting a drive, especially the external type.
If you require the hard drive for a Windows-only environment, your best bet is NTFS. If you need to carry out file exchange, even if it is occasionally, with a non-Windows computer that boots a Mac or Linux OS, then FAT32 is your best choice, so long your file sizes are not more than 4GB. That explains NTFS vs Fat32