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FAT32 and NTFS are two different file systems or ways of storing data on hard disks. Each have pros and cons. I tend to prefer NTFS, and explain why.

I have Windows XP Pro on my computer, but both of my drives' file systems are FAT32. Should I change them to NTFS so that I can take advantage of certain features, like Windows-based encryption (instead of third party applications)?

I tend to prefer NTFS over FAT32, though that even represents a change for me in recent years. There are a couple of reasons I've come to prefer NTFS, but I can tell you one thing:

Windows native encryption is not one of them.

I prefer NTFS for several reasons:

  • NTFS stores dates and times in GMT rather than local time. This can be incredibly important for file transfers and interoperability with other systems, particularly around daylight savings time changes, or if you ever move your machine from one time zone to another.

  • NTFS uses disk space more efficiently. The default "cluster size", which is the increment of disk space set aside for each file, can be smaller in NTFS on larger drives. Without getting into all the gory details of what clusters are and how disk space is allocated, the (grossly oversimplified) example is that a file of 1 byte in length can actually cause 32k of disk space to be set aside for it in FAT32 whereas only 512 bytes might be required on NTFS.

  • NTFS is slightly faster on average. I know, I'll get disagreement on this, since FAT32 can in fact be faster in certain circumstances. In reality unless you're doing something very disk intensive, you won't notice.

  • NTFS allows per-user security permissions. That means that if I want to, I can restrict who by login account is allowed what access to specific files or folders.

"The arguments for FAT32 have, by and large, become few and far between."

There are other differences, both minor and major, but those are the biggies for me.

The arguments for FAT32 have, by and large, become few and far between. Originally I was concerned that there was no boot media that could read a NTFS drive for data recovery, but that has long since passed with various solutions now available.

The one scenario where there's still a fairly compelling argument for FAT32 is dual boot systems that run both Linux and Windows. Linux currently only handles reading NTFS partitions. If you want a partition to be shared between Windows and Linux on the same computer, then you probably want it to be formatted FAT32 so both systems can read and write to it without problem.

Now, there's one thing you've mentioned that I specifically want to address, and that's Windows-based encryption. I avoid it.

Understand that I'm certain that it's fine and secure encryption mechanism. I expect it's fast, and obviously once selected it's very easy to use.

My objection is simple: the encryption keys are tied to your login account. If you lose your login account then you're in trouble. Just recreating the account won't work even with the same name it's a different account under the hood. Recovery may still be possible but difficult for the average user. In fact, it can be even more difficult, perhaps even impossible, if it's the administrator account that you've lost.

My fairly strong preference is TrueCrypt. TrueCrypt encrypts using a pass phrase that you can make as simple or complex as you like. All you need do is remember it. It's not tied to any login account. In fact, it's not even tied to the machine or the operating system. TrueCrypt encrypted volumes can be securely copied to other machines and even other operating systems.

But of course, if you forget your pass phrase, then you've still lost your data.

Article C3075 - July 4, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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11 Comments
Simon
July 4, 2007 10:41 AM

There are quite a few other advantages to NTFS over FAT32 as well, especially under the hood.

For a start, you can't create > 4GB files in FAT32. This can be a problem with things like video editing.

Then there's journalling, which NTFS does and FAT32 doesn't. That's the sort of thing, like backing up regularly, that is completely useless in day-to-day use but you'll be very thankful for if something goes wrong. For example, if there's a power cut in the middle of a write operation, with NTFS the system will use the jornal to automatically clean-up the half-done operation on next boot-up -- with FAT32, you'd have to run CHKDSK /F and hope it finds and fixes it without corrupting any data.

Then there's fragmentation. NTFS is pretty good at keeping performance detriment due to fragmentation to a minimum, especially if the hard disk is less than half full; e.g. through the use of extents ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extent_(file_systems) ). FAT32 has no mechanisms for anticipating or preventing fragmentation at all.

Etc., etc. The point is, for internal hard drives, Microsoft's efforts to try and get people to switch to NTFS are for good reason. Even "Linux currently only handles reading NTFS partitions" is no longer true: ntfs-3g (http://www.ntfs-3g.org) was declared stable on 21 February 2007, and is perfectly capable of writing to NTFS partitions with negligible chance of data loss. NTFS should really be the default choice (especially for >32GB paritions) for anyone trying to decide on a file system.

John Ellerington
July 9, 2007 2:02 AM

I agree that changing your file system to NTFS is good advice, with one exception - USB flash drives. These generally come formatted as FAT32. A common use for these drives is to back up your BIOS - as far as I know, all BIOS loading programs will only read a USB flash drive that's formatted as FAT32.

Linda
July 20, 2007 7:05 PM

I disagree. I have no problem with a 2GB NTFS formatted flash drive being read in BIOS. As flash drives become larger (8 & 16GB) it becomes more significant with someone using them for video, to convert to NTFS. They can still be safely removed without losing data.

Essam
July 29, 2008 6:46 AM

Is it possible to read an NTFS drive from DOS ?
If it's possible then what's the best way to do that ?

Cristie
January 4, 2010 6:32 PM

So, given the information here, a good practice would be to format the USB flash to NTFS before using it??

I can't make that generalization - it depends on how you use your flash drive. You might need FAT32 for some computer you plan to use it with.
Leo
05-Jan-2010

kevin
March 19, 2010 4:51 PM

i have a car cd player with a usb port. my flash drive is formatted and defaulted as FAT32, but it wont play in my cd player. it gives me an error message saying that a FAT16 or FAT32 is required...what am i doing wrong???

Mark
April 8, 2010 6:17 AM

As far as I see there's very little advantage in having a NTFS Usb stick. FAT32is compatible with more machines including many video machines and cd players and unless you need files greater than 2gb or losing up to 32kb per file would cause you to run out of space, it would in most cases be better to use FAT32 for USB sticks.

Jan Lam
July 6, 2010 9:31 AM

The main reason I convert FAT32 to NTFS is because large files (over 4GB) cannot be copied to a FAT32 drive.

Jean
October 8, 2010 7:53 PM

Well done.
Actually, I found that the most efficient way to convert NTFS to FAT32 can be realized perfectly through the newly released software named NTFS to FAT32 Converter, it can easily convert NTFS to FAT32 without data losing. NTFS to FAT32 Converter will be a right-hand file system assistant. Your trouble to convert NTFS to FAT32 will no longer fret you.
http://aomeitech.com/n2f/convert-ntfs-to-fat32.html

Effect
June 18, 2011 6:41 AM

if you want to be able to listen music to MP3 players, CD player, Auto CD players, use FAT32. NTFS uses a lot of...let's say "resources" that most of the audio devices (besides the PC) can't handle. FAT is obsolete, NTFS won't work. Try FAT32 ;)

Dr Anonymous
January 8, 2012 8:22 PM

NTFS is good. But there is another option. UDF.

UDF is only available through the commandline in Windows 7, but it is there.

UDF formatted flash drives can be read under Windows XP, but not written to, which is a good thing.

Blocks all viruses from an XP machine, including autorun ones.

Since Windows 7 removed the ability to run autorun.inf files on flash drives, but can still read & write to a UDF flash drive, it may be a good file system of choice.

It support large file sizes & just may be the best combination of security & speed in what your looking for.

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