Choosing filesystem for external HDD under Windows

Windows 8 diskAre you a beginner and you need to format your external HDD? Many computer beginners are confused by something “strange” – filesystem. In this post I won’t explain what is filesystem, I will just notice that every disk must have one. Here I will teach you about most common filesystems you can meet on Windows operating system. Don’t forget, formating your disk will erase all data!

It’s very important to choose right filesystem. Each got its own pros and cons. Now we will look at most common filesystems you can meet on Windows operating system:

  • FAT32
  • NTFS
  • exFAT

First, here is the oldest one – FAT32:

This filesystem is not just very old, but probably most universal. It can be accesed by almost all devices. The biggest issue is file limit. FAT32 can’t handle files bigger than 4 GB. For example, DVD capacity is 4.7 GB, CD is 0.7 GB (700 MB). If you need to store file bigger than 4 GB on FAT32, here are two workarounds. First is to split file on smaller ones with special program, like Total Commander. If you split 6 GB file into three 2 GB, you can store them on FAT32. Second one is to try to compress it – I’m sure you did hear about WinRAR or WinZip. If you got, for example, 4.5 GB file, you can try to compress in into ZIP/RAR file. Maybe you will be lucky and get file under 4 GB. You can combine these workarounds too. But don’t forget, you won’t be able to open these files on FAT32, only to store it, because when you merge or decompress files, it will be over 4 GB again.

Now something directly for Microsoft Windows operating system – NTFS:

This filesystem is most used in Windows world. File limit is much, much, much higher than 4 GB from FAT32. It’s fully supported by Windows, but not very friendly with other operating systems, like macOS and Linux. They often can read NTFS-formated disk, but often only read. Not write. Here are 3rd party utilities, which can enable it, but I personally do not trust them for serious backup. Sometimes, some files may “dissappear”. I was lucky and I have never had problems with it, as many other happy users, but I won’t risk it.

And last one – exFAT:

exFAT is best from these filesystems. Disks with exFAT filesystem can be both read and written by many operating system and devices and all without annoying 4 GB limit on FAT32. It works well with Windows, macOS, Linux and many other operating systems. If you still have Windows XP, please install “WindowsXP-KB955704-x86-ENU.exe” from Windows Update service. You will need to have installed Service Pack 2 or 3.

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