Learn more about the format options available for USB drives, the benefits of each, and how you can actually format your storage device in this post.
In this article:
- Types of File Formats and Operating Systems
- New Technology File System (NTFS)
- File Allocation Table (FAT/FAT32)
- Extended File Allocation Table (exFAT)
- Hierarchical File System Plus (HFS+)
- Apple File System (APFS)
- Extended File System (ext4)
- B-Tree File System (BTRFS)
USB Drive File Format Options and When You Should Use Them
USB Formatting Definition: The process of configuring a USB drive so it can read and store data under a specific file system.
Types of File Formats and Operating Systems
The file system format you want your USB Drive to be configured to should be dependent on the operating system (OS) you use frequently. Thus, we’ll discuss the different file format examples in terms of which OS they’re compatible with.
Note: Before you format your USB drive though, please know that all the files in it will be deleted so back up any of your important files before formatting the drive.
Operating System Definition: An essential program that runs on every computer that controls its basic functions. Some examples of popular operating systems include Windows, macOS, and Linux.
1. New Technology File System (NTFS)
The New Technology File System, or NTFS, is the default file system used by the Windows OS. If you use Windows often, you should format your USB drive to NTFS because this kind of file format should work for most recent versions of Windows, from Windows XP up to Windows 10.
NTFS is also compatible with Linux. However, if you primarily use devices with the macOS, it will only allow “read” access for NTFS. This means you’ll only be able to open the files on the drive, but not edit or delete them.
When it comes to file size limits, NTFS has a very high limit for individual file size. It can go up to 16 Exabyte (EB).
If you want to partition your USB drive for better compartmentalization or for a recovery drive, NTFS is also the way to go. Its file system is also recoverable, so you can recover data if any system errors arise.
NTFS5 is the latest addition to the NTFS family. It has similar compatibilities with the NTFS and similar file size limits.
However, the NTFS5 is an improved version of the NTFS as it has a lot of new features.
- Can encrypt your files
- Added file system security
- Permission assignment processes are also improved
If you have a need for these additional features, it’s a good idea to format your drive to NTFS5.
3. File Allocation Table (FAT/FAT32)
File Allocation Table, or FAT, is an old file system, with FAT32 being its most recent version. FAT & FAT32 are compatible with Windows, macOS, and Linux.
Although the FAT format is compatible with several operating systems, its downside is in the individual file size aspect. It has only a 4GB file size limit.
The FAT or FAT32 is the ideal format if you want to transfer files across varying operating systems. As long as you don’t have to transfer any files larger than 4GB, this format should be sufficient enough for you.
4. Extended File Allocation Table (exFAT)
ExFAT is a more recent version of the FAT file system. This file system format is compatible with Windows, the more recent macOS, and Linux (if certain software is installed first).
Aside from compatibility, exFAT has a higher individual file limit compared to its FAT predecessors. ExFAT boasts of a maximum of 16EB file size limit, similar to that of NTFS.
You should format your drive with the exFAT if you want the same broad range of compatibility of the FAT file systems, but need the large file size limits of the NTFS.
5. Hierarchical File System Plus (HFS+)
The HFS+ is the more recent or extended version of the original Apple file system. HFS has very limited compatibility as it’s only compatible with the macOS and Linux, and will only be readable with Windows by running Boot Camp.
Although it’s not as compatible as the previous formats, it still has high file size limits. Plus, HFS+ has the ability to decrease instances of file corruption, which is a good perk.
If you deal with mostly Apple devices, then HFS+ should be satisfactory enough for your needs.
6. Apple File System (APFS)
APFS is the newest file system for Apple, making its compatibility even more limited than HFS+. This file system is only compatible with the newer macOS too, so it is not ideal for portability.
APFS still has a high file size limit, so there are no worries in terms of storage capabilities. Wondering when to use HFS+ versus APFS?
APFS will likely be the default file system for a lot of future Apple devices. If you foresee yourself eventually using those anyway, you might as well format your drive to APFS.
However, compared to APFS, the HFS+ has better compatibility. APFS isn’t even compatible with older macOS unlike HFS+, so if you have older Apple devices and frequent dealings with older macOS, then HFS+ will be better for you.
7. Extended File System (ext4)
Linux most often uses ext as its default file system. Compatibility-wise, the ext4 doesn’t offer much as it is only compatible with Linux and can only be compatible with Windows through software.
In terms of file size limit, the ext4 offers a decent enough limit. Its file size limit can go up to 16TB, which is larger compared to its previous versions.
If you are a frequent Linux user, ext4 may be a sufficient enough format for your storage needs.
Linux supports another file system called XFS. Its compatibility isn’t as good as ext4 since it’s compatible only with Linux and Windows.
The file size limit for XFS is huge. Their maximum file size limit goes up to 8 Exbibyte, a unit of measurement not common in everyday use.
A disadvantage of XFS is that it has weaker protection against data loss from either power loss or system corruption. However, if the formatted drive will only be used for the storage needs of a Linux user, XFS is a good enough alternative to ext4.
9. B-Tree File System (BTRFS)
BTRFS is a file system for Linux similar to XFS. It’s only compatible with Linux and has a maximum file size limit of 8 EiB.
As a simple storage system, the BTRFS format will shape up just fine. However, this format is not recommended if you want to partition different file systems as it’s prone to errors.
The future of BTRFS as a file system across Linux is shaky so you may be better off using formats that are likely to be improved upon by developers.
The important thing to consider when formatting your USB drive is how you will be using it. Always consider what devices you plan to use it across and what files you plan on storing in it.
All formats have different advantages and disadvantages over the others. Consider how you plan to use your USB drive in the future and whether your devices can be supported by the format you choose.
Which of the file systems will you most likely use? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.