FAT32 or NTFS? How to format SD cards, memory sticks and hard drives

How should I format my SD card, my USB memory stick, USB external hard disk or my computer’s partition? Should I use the old FAT32 file format or the newer NTFS file format? It is a tough question for most people, and the right answer differs depending on the type of device that you need to format, how and where you will use it. Read this article, and you will understand how it is best to format any device:

NOTE: If you need a guide on how to format storage devices using a Windows computer, read this tutorial: How to format an SD Card, a USB memory stick or a partition, in Windows.

FAT32: Pros and cons

The biggest advantage of the FAT32 file system is compatibility with all kinds of operating systems and devices. Almost any kind of device knows how to work with FAT32, from smartphones and tablets to computers, digital cameras, surveillance cameras and more. Also, starting with Windows 95, any major operating system knows how to work with this file system.

However, there are some significant limitations to this file system, like the fact that it works with files that have a maximum size of 4GB and with partitions that have a maximum capacity of 8 TB. Other downsides include the lack of data protection in case of power loss

Another small downside is a minor decrease in speed when transferring data when compared with NTFS. To compare the actual reduction, we used three USB memory sticks and measured the read and write speed on each of them with CrystalDiskMark. The flash drives that we tested are the following: Kingston DataTraveler microDuo 3C (represented by letter A), IronKey D300 (represented by letter B) and SanDisk Ultra Fit (represented by letter C). Below you can see the speeds that we measured on all three devices when using FAT32. Now go to the next section to compare the results between FAT32 and NTFS.

 

NTFS: Pros and cons

NTFS fixes all the downsides of the FAT32 file system regarding maximum file size and partition size. Also, it adds more features like support for setting permissions and other useful things for modern computers.

The biggest downside is compatibility with mobile devices. This file system works with all versions of Windows, as well as Xbox One consoles. Linux has worked well with NTFS for some time now, but Mac OS X doesn’t unless you install third-party drivers. The biggest downside is that mobile devices tend not to work with the NTFS file system. For example, Android smartphones and tablets can’t use NTFS unless you root them and modify several system settings. Most digital cameras and other smart devices don’t work with NTFS either. If you are using a mobile device, it is safe to assume that it will work using the FAT32 file system and not NTFS.

A small upside is a minor increase in speed when transferring data when compared with FAT32. To compare the actual increase, we used three USB memory sticks and measured the read and write speed on each of them with CrystalDiskMark. The flash drives that we tested are the following: Kingston DataTraveler microDuo 3C (represented by letter A), IronKey D300 (represented by letter B) and SanDisk Ultra Fit (represented by letter C). Below you can see the speeds that we measured on all three devices when using NTFS. You see that we enjoyed slightly better read and write speeds.

How to format SD cards? Answer: using FAT32

SD cards of all shapes and sizes (microSD, miniSD or SD) are used in mobile devices like smartphones, tablets, digital cameras, surveillance cameras and so on. When formatting SD cards your best choice is to format them using FAT32.

How to format USB memory sticks? Answer: using NTFS (unless used on Macs)

USB memory sticks are used mostly on desktop computers and laptops. If you are using Windows and Linux, your best choice is to format USB memory sticks using the NTFS file system, so that you can enjoy the benefits of this file system and of being able to store large files. If you are connecting your USB memory stick to computers with Mac OS X, then FAT32 is your best choice.

How to format USB external hard drives? Answer: using NTFS (unless used on Macs)

External hard drives are used to store many files, as well as large files which go beyond the limitations of the FAT32 file system. Also, they are prone to data correction problems, if you are using FAT32 and you disconnect them while writing data. Therefore, your best choice is to go for NTFS. If you are using external hard drives on a Mac, then FAT32 is not a good option because of its many limitations. In that case, it is best to use Apple’s file system for Macs: HFS Plus.

How to format internal partitions? Answer: using NTFS (unless you’re using Linux or Mac)

If you are talking about partitions on your computer’s hard disk drive or SSD drive, then NTFS should always be your choice. You can’t take advantage of all the features that your operating system has to offer unless you are using NTFS. This applies to Windows computers and devices. For Macs, use HFS Plus, the native file system developed by Apple. For Linux computers, you should use a native filesystem like ext4, which was designed specifically for this operating system.