USB flash drives are formatted with a specific file system before shipping, generally FAT32. The consumer can reformat the flash drive after purchase with any file system, including NTFS. Depending on the intended use of the flash drive, one file system may be more suitable than another.
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A file system is used by the operating system to organise data on a storage device. Flash drives are very similar to any other external drive when it comes to their file systems. The file systems available on Windows are FAT16, FAT32 and NTFS. FAT16 is an older system that is rarely used now. Each file system has specific characteristics and situations in which it is more or less useful.
The New Technology File System (NTFS) was released with Windows NT as a replacement for the FAT file system. It is the default installation file system for the latest versions of Windows, and provides increased stability. Recovering from errors is easier with NFTS since it is a journaling file system. It also offers built in features, including file compression to save disk space, permissions to control access and encryption to secure files.
The FAT32 file system was designed as a replacement for the ageing FAT16 file system. Windows 95 OSR2, Windows 98 and Windows ME all use FAT32 as a default file system. It supports larger drives more efficiently than FAT16, and is the default file system shipped with most external drives and USB flash drives. It should be noted that the maximum partition size supported is 32GB, with files below 4GB in size.
The NTFS file system is compatible only with Windows NT, 2000, XP and 7. A flash drive formatted using NTFS will only be usable on those systems. FAT32 is an almost universally understood file system that can be read by a wide variety of operating systems. In addition to Windows 95 OSR2, 98 and ME, most versions of Linux and recent versions of Mac OS X can read and write to FAT32.
There are disadvantages to formatting a flash drive with NTFS. If permissions are used, the drive may not be accessible even on other Windows systems that support NTFS. The journaling feature that improves the reliability of NTFS also shortens the lifespan of a flash drive because of the additional write overhead, and renders it less efficient for some applications, such as ReadyBoost. Additional steps are required to format a flash drive using NTFS in Windows XP.
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