What file system should I use for my USB flash drive?

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It can be difficult to carry your videos and music across all the devices you use. How do you know your Mac, Xbox, and Windows PC can read your files? Read on to find your perfect USB flash drive solution.

  1. If you want to share your files with most devices and none of the files are larger than 4GB, choose FAT32.
  2. If you have files larger than 4GB, but still want fairly good support on all devices, choose exFAT.
  3. If you have files larger than 4 GB and you mainly share them with Windows PCs, choose NTFS.
  4. If you have files larger than 4 GB and share them primarily with Macs, choose HFS+

File systems are the kind of thing that many computer users take for granted. The most common file systems are FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS on Windows, APFS and HFS+ on macOS, and EXT on Linux, although you may encounter others on occasion. But it can be confusing to figure out which devices and operating systems support which file systems, especially when all you want to do is transfer some files or keep your collection readable by all the devices you use. So, let’s take a look at the major file systems and hope you can find the best solution to format your USB flash drive.

RELATED: What is a filesystem and why are there so many?

Understanding File System Problems

Different file systems provide different ways to organize data on a disk. Since only binary data is actually written to disks, file systems provide a means of translating the physical records on a disk into the format read by an operating system. Since these file systems are essential for the operating system to make sense of the data, an operating system cannot read data from a disk without supporting the file system with which the disk is formatted. When you format a disk, the file system you choose essentially determines which devices can read or write to the disk.

Many businesses and households have multiple PCs of different types at home, with Windows, macOS, and Linux being the most common. And if you carry files around with friends or when you travel, you never know what kind of system you want those files on. Because of this variety, you should format portable drives so they can move easily between the different operating systems you plan to use.

But to make this decision, you need to understand the two main factors that can affect your choice of file system: portability and file size limits. We’ll look at these two factors in relation to the most common file systems:

  • NTFS: The NT File System (NTFS) is the file system that modern versions of Windows use by default.
  • SHF+: Hierarchical File System (HFS+) is the file system that modern versions of macOS use by default.
  • APFS: Apple’s proprietary file system developed as a replacement for HFS+, with a focus on flash drives, SSDs, and encryption. APFS was released with iOS 10.3 and macOS 10.13 and will become the mandatory file system for these operating systems.
  • FAT32: File Allocation Table 32 (FAT32) was the standard Windows file system before NTFS.
  • exFAT: Extended File Allocation Table (exFAT) relies on FAT32 and provides a lightweight system without all the overhead of NTFS.
  • EXT 2, 3 and 4: The Extended File System (EXT) was the first file system created specifically for the Linux kernel.

Portability

You might think that modern operating systems would natively support each other’s filesystem, but they usually don’t. For example, macOS can read, but not write, to disks formatted with NTFS. In most cases, Windows won’t even recognize drives formatted with APFS or HFS+.

Many Linux distributions (like Ubuntu) are prepared to deal with this file system problem. Moving files from one file system to another is a routine process for Linux – many modern distributions natively support NFTS and HFS+ or can get assistance with a quick download of free software packages.

Also, your home consoles (Xbox 360, Playstation 4) only offer limited support for certain file systems and only provide read access to USB drives. To better understand the best file system for your needs, check out this helpful table.

file systemWindows XPWindows 7/8/10macOS (10.6.4 and earlier)macOS (10.6.5 and later)UbuntuLinuxPlayStation 4Xbox 360/A
NTFS YesYesRead onlyRead onlyYesNopeNo Yes
FAT32YesYesYesYesYesYesYes yes
exFATYesYesNopeYesYes (with ExFAT packs)Yes (with MBR, not GUID)No Yes
SHF+Nope(read-only with Boot Camp)YesYesYesNopeYes
APFSNopeNopeNopeYes (macOS 10.13 or higher)NopeNopeNope
EXT 2, 3, 4NopeYes (with third-party software)NopeNopeYesNopeYes

Keep in mind that this table has chosen the native capabilities of each operating system to use these file systems. Windows and macOS both have downloads that can help them play unsupported formats, but we’re really focusing on native capability here.

The takeaway from this portability chart is that FAT32 (which has been around for so long) is supported on almost every device. This makes it an ideal candidate to be the file system of choice for most USB drives, as long as you can live with FAT32’s file size limits, which we’ll cover next.

File size and volume limits

FAT32 was developed many years ago and was based on older FAT file systems intended for DOS computers. Today’s large disk sizes were only theoretical at the time, so it probably seemed ridiculous to the engineers that anyone would ever need a file larger than 4GB. However, with the large file sizes Today’s uncompressed and high-definition video, many users face this same challenge.

Today’s more modern filesystems have upper limits that seem ridiculous by our modern standards, but one day may seem mundane and ordinary. Facing the competition, it is seen very quickly that FAT32 is showing its age in terms of file size limits.

file systemIndividual file size limitSingle volume size limit
NTFS Larger than commercial discs16BE
FAT32Less than 4 GBLess than 8 TB
exFATLarger than commercial discs64 BZs
SHF+Larger than commercially
readers available
8 BE
APFSLarger than commercially
readers available
16BE
EXT 2, 316 GB (up to 2 TB on some systems)32TB
EXT 416 TiB1 EIB

Every newer file system easily uses FAT32 in the file size department, allowing for sometimes ridiculously large files. And when you look at volume size limits, FAT32 still allows you to format volumes up to 8TB, which is more than enough for a USB flash drive. Other file systems allow volume sizes up to exobyte and zetabyte.

Format a disk


The process of formatting a disk is different depending on the system you are using. Rather than detailing them all here, we will give you some practical guides on the subject:


The takeaway from all of this is that while FAT32 has its issues, it’s the best file system to use for most portable drives. FAT32 is supported on most devices, allows volumes up to 8TB and file sizes up to 4GB.

If you need to carry files larger than 4GB, you’ll need to take a closer look at your needs. If you only use Windows devices, NTFS is a good choice. If you only use macOS devices, HFS+ will work for you. And if you only use Linux devices, EXT is fine. And if you need support for more devices and larger files, exFAT can do the trick. exFAT is not supported on as many different devices as FAT32, but it comes close.