Hard Disk File Systems And Why You Should Care

Many have heard of file systems like FAT16, FAT32 and NTFS. A few would have also heard of the less popular ones like exFAT, HFS+, ext4, etc. But what exactly are they all about and why should you care?

Basically, what all these file systems do, according to Wikipedia, is organize data expected to be retained after a program terminates by providing procedures to store, retrieve and update data as well as manage the available space on the device(s) which contain it.

Most times, the file system you are familiar with, is dependent on the type of Operating system you run on your PC.

The following is a brief run down of popular file system formats and their properties;

FAT32 (File Allocation Table)

  • Read/Write FAT32 from both native Windows and native Mac OS X.
  • Maximum file size: 4GB.
  • Maximum volume size: 2TB
  • By default windows systems can only format a drive up to 32 GB. Additional software works around this issue. When formatted at these bigger sizes, FAT32 becomes increasingly inefficient.

NTFS (Windows NT File System)

  • Read/Write NTFS from native Windows.
  • Read only NTFS from native Mac OS X
  • To Read/Write/Format NTFS from Mac OS X: Install NTFS-3G for Mac OS X (free)
  • Native NTFS support can be enabled in Snow Leopard, but is not advisable, due to instability.
  • Maximum single file size: 16 TB
  • Maximum volume size: 256TB

HFS+ (Hierarchical File System, a.k.a. Mac OS Extended)

  • Read/Write HFS+ from native Mac OS X
  • Required for Time Machine or Carbon Copy Cloner backups of Mac internal hard drive.To Read/Write HFS+ from Windows, Install MacDrive
  • To Read HFS+ (but not Write) from Windows, Install HFSExplorer
  • Maximum single file size: 8EB
  • Maximum volume size: 8EB

exFAT (FAT64)

  • Proprietary file system designed especially for flash drives and memory cards
  • Supported in Mac OS X only in 10.6.5 or later.
  • exFAT partitions created with OS X 10.6.5 are inaccessible from Windows 7
  • Windows versions before Windows XP not supported
  • exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table)
  • Maximum single file size: 16 EB
  • Maximum volume size: 64 ZB


  • Default file system in Ubuntu Linux
  • Allows characters in file names such as ‘?’, ‘:’, ‘*’
  • Maximum single file size: 16 TB
  • Maximum volume size: 1 EB

Ok, Enough Of The Stats! Why Should I Care?!

The highlights below are some points to guide you in the choice of filesystem you should adopt for your hard drives or external cards:

  • FAT32 file system has high interoperability between major operating systems with read-and-write capability
  • Windows cannot format drives and partitions larger than 32GB in FAT32. Workarounds usually introduce instability.
  • exFAT is the preferred file system for the memory card of your phones or gadgets, flash drives and external drives because of its unrivaled efficiency. However, not every Operating System supports it, no thanks to Microsoft’s proprietary restrictions. So no point using this format if you can not use it on your Windows XP mini Laptop or your Mac OS machine.
  • If you are into downloading of large file sizes, then FAT32 is not for you. It does not support files larger than 4GB. You may also encounter problems copying DVD images or downloading (pirated) ISO images from the internet, Virtual Machine Images, etc.
  • The complexity of NTFS filesystem causes it to make more demand for system memory and processing power. If your PC has limited amounts of these, you may be better off with a FAT32 hard drive formatting.
  • Some apps do not yet have support for exFAT. On the android platform, for example, the very popular Poweramp app can not read memory cards formatted to exFAT.

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