How to Choose a Filesystem for Your USB Drive

When you get a new USB drive and are about to format it before its first use, you may be wondering which of the available options, a.k.a. file systems, is the best.

While there isn’t a single best file system for USB drives in general, depending on what you use the USB drive for, one file system could be better than the rest. Here are some of the most important considerations before choosing a filesystem for a USB drive.

First, before we go any further, let’s clarify what a file system is. A file system is a piece of software that controls how data on a media is stored and retrieved. A file system manages operations such as copying, moving, and deleting files on a drive.

A file system is different from an operating system – in a sense, a file system runs atop an operating system and depends on it for many operations with the underlying hardware. Each of the major operating systems (e.g. Windows, MacOS, Linux) can work with various file systems (natively or through third-party tools).

Basically, the most important considerations regarding your choice of a file system for your USB drive are which operating systems you plan to use it with and how large the files you will most likely transfer are.

If you will be using your USB media mostly on Windows devices, you can go with FAT32, exFAT, or NTFS. FAT32 and NTFS run with Linux, too, but exFAT requires additional tools. If you will be using the drive on Linux devices only, you can add its native EXT 2, 3, or 4 to the mix. As for MacOS, it can natively run FAT 32, works with exFAT, too, but you will need additional tools for NTFS, and its native file system is HFS+ (and the latest APFS), not EXT.

As you see, FAT 32 and to some extent NTFS, are present on all major OSes. They are not interchangeable and have their differences, as I will explain next – the main point here is the file size of the files you will be transferring because FAT 32 is limited to 4GB per file.

There are really many file systems out there, and if you are curious, you can try a few of them before you land on the familiar ones.

usb-file-system-01-partitions-list

However, your choices for a USB file system basically boil down to these:

  • NTFS. NTFS, short for NT File System, is the default file system for Windows partitions. NTFS supports journaling, large file sizes, file compression, long file names, access control, etc. If you are functioning in a Windows-only environment, it’s safe to go with NTFS. Linux can also handle NTFS, and MacOS reads it but needs third party tools to write, so even if you are not in a Windows only environment, it’s still a good choice.
  • FAT32. FAT32, or File Allocation Table 32, is the file system that typically comes preinstalled on a USB drive. It was the Windows standard before NTFS. FAT32 is slower than NTFS, less secure, and has a 4GB limit per file, but it is widely recognized by all major operating systems. If you will be using the USB drive in a highly heterogeneous environment, and portability is your main concern, FAT32 is your option.
  • exFAT. exFAT, or extended File Allocation Table, is the newer version of FAT32. It’s lightweight but doesn’t have journaling. It’s compatible with Microsoft and MacOS but needs additional tools with Linux. It doesn’t have the 4GB limit per file restriction like FAT32.
  • HFS+. The Hierarchical File System (HFS+) is the default file system in the macOS world. If you are going to use your USB drive on Mac devices mainly, choose this file system. HFS+ can be used with Windows and Linux, but if you need a multi-OS file system, you definitely have better choices.
  • EXT 2, 3, and 4. The extended file system is the native for Linux. Similarly to HFS+, you can use it with the other operating systems but it’s not your best option. Use this file system if you are using the USB device on Linux computers mainly.

Most of these USB file systems run with multiple operating systems – e.g. Windows, macOS, Linux, etc., – so usually your choice isn’t limited to just one USB file system. If you don’t have large files to deal with, you have even more options. If speed of transfer isn’t a top priority either, there are even more choices. And if it turns out your first choice of a USB file system wasn’t the best, you can always reformat the drive, provided there is no valuable data on it, of course.

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