Understanding File System Formats

Written by Allen Wyatt (last updated May 6, 2019)

Over the history of Windows computers, there have been a good number of file systems used to format disk drives so that you can store information on them. A rough overview is that file system is used to divide a drive into tracks and sectors, define how directory entries are stored on the drive, and establish limits as to what can be stored there.

In today's world of Windows, there are three general file systems you can use to format drives: NTFS, FAT32, and exFAT.

NTFS is an acronym for New Technology File System, and is arguably the oldest of the three file formats currently in use. It was first introduced with Windows NT, back in 1993. It is still used for any Windows system drives, meaning the drive on which Windows itself is actually installed. NTFS is a great choice if you are formatting hard drives installed inside your system. (More on external drives in a moment.) It supports huge files and supports larger hard drives than are commercially available.

FAT32 is an updated version of the very, very old FAT file system. FAT is an acronym for File Allocation Table. FAT32 was released in 1996 and allows for the storing of files up to 4GB in size. This is typically the default file system used for USB flash drives and many external hard drives.

The exFAT file system is the relative newcomer, being introduced in 2006. It was created to address some of the limitations in the FAT32 file system, most notably the 4GB file size limit. Under exFAT, you can store files up to 16 EB in size. (That's exabytes, which is impossibly large for today's disk drives.)

In general, if you are going to be sharing a drive (such as an external drive) with other systems, it is a good idea to make sure that drive is formatted using exFAT or FAT32. The reason is simple—all other systems can read and write both exFAT or FAT32, but Mac systems and most Linux systems can only read NTFS, not write to an NTFS-formatted drive.

If you want to format a drive—which is the most common way to change the file system used on a drive—the easiest way is to press Win+E to display the Explorer window. Navigate (if necessary) until you can see each of the drives on your system. Right-click the drive you want to format and choose the Format option. Windows then displays the Format dialog box. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1. The Format Removable Drive dialog box.

Use the File System drop-down list to choose which file system you want to use. The options in the drop-down list depend on the characteristics of the drive you are using, and they may be limited. For instance, if I choose to format a USB flash drive in this way, I have all three file systems available, but if I choose to format an internal drive, I only have NTFS available.

Understand that when you click the Start button, everything on the drive is erased. Thus, you should only format drives that are brand new or ones that you've backed up to other drives.

 This tip (13421) applies to Windows 7, 8, and 10.

Author Bio

Allen Wyatt

With more than 50 non-fiction books and numerous magazine articles to his credit, Allen Wyatt is an internationally recognized author. He is president of Sharon Parq Associates, a computer and publishing services company. ...


Printing Based on Cell Contents

Would you like to have a worksheet automatically printed when a particular cell contains a specified value? You can ...

Discover More

Inserting Page Number Cross-References

Want to insert a dynamic cross-reference to a particular page number? It's easy to do following the steps in this tip.

Discover More

Specifying a Table of Contents Entry

If you need to create a specialized table of contents, you need to know how to add TOC entries to your document. It's ...

Discover More
More WindowsTips

Moving Your Page File

It's quite possible to move your system's page file to a different disk. This tip provides the steps you should follow to ...

Discover More

How to Encrypt a File or Folder via NTFS

Windows 10 provides two ways to password protect files and folders. One way is to use the Zip utility, as discussed in a ...

Discover More

Disabling System Restore

Restore points are good to have in case a problem occurs while trying to make changes to your system. If for some reason ...

Discover More

If you would like to add an image to your comment (not an avatar, but an image to help in making the point of your comment), include the characters [{fig}] (all 7 characters, in the sequence shown) in your comment text. You’ll be prompted to upload your image when you submit the comment. Maximum image size is 6Mpixels. Images larger than 600px wide or 1000px tall will be reduced. Up to three images may be included in a comment. All images are subject to review. Commenting privileges may be curtailed if inappropriate images are posted.

What is 3 + 5?

There are currently no comments for this tip. (Be the first to leave your comment—just use the simple form above!)

Newest Tips