Comparing NTFS and FAT32 File Systems: Features, Pros and Cons

Choosing the right file system format: A comparison of NTFS and FAT32 for your Windows computer's storage system.

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What is a File system? / Basics of File system

Regardless of how big or small the business is, every organization has tons of information that  needs to be stored and accessed on a regular basis. Did you ever wonder where all that data is stored and how it is stored? The information is primarily stored on a computer hard drive, sometimes a USB stick, or nowadays the Cloud. The filesystem is a method that helps organize all this information on a storage device for easy access. 

In other words, it provides a way to organize the data we use into individual chunks(files) and store them in a logical way. This helps IT users easily find the files they need, consume the data on them, and manipulate the files (ie., perform actions such as copy, edit, delete, rename, etc). 

Different kinds of File systems

Each Operating system (OS) deploys its own file system. And, every file system is different. Each file system has a structure and logic in place that defines how files have to be named, and how the data has to be stored. For instance, there are rules on how long the filename can be and what characters can be part of the filename. Some file systems work with disks with high storage capacity, some offer additional security features, and some provide better compatibility. There’s no one best file system for all purposes. You should select the one that works best for you based on your requirement. 

Operating System

Common File Systems


FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS.




ext4 (a successor of ext3 and ext2), BtrFS, XFS, and ZFS

Popular Windows systems

Microsoft Windows offers three major kinds of file systems—FAT, NTFS, and HPFS

FAT is an acronym for File Allocation Table and is one of the oldest Windows file systems that’s been around since the 1980s. It was initially introduced for MS-DOS and later for Windows, but today, it is compatible with most operating systems and small storage devices. Over the years, Microsoft introduced various versions of FAT file systems—FAT12, FAT16, FAT32, and exFAT, where the latter two are more common today. The number(12,16, 32) represents the maximum addressable cluster. 

NTFS is short for New Technology File System and was introduced in 1993 by Microsoft with Windows NT 3.1. Today, it is the most widely used file system among Microsoft Windows users. It was introduced to cater to the limitations of the FAT File system and provides enhanced performance, reliability, and security. 

 HPFS stands for High Performance File System and was developed by Microsoft and IBM together. The file system was introduced for OS/2 Version 1.2. It is known for handling large files (2 gigabytes) across multiple hard disk volumes (addressable up to 2 terabytes) and long file names (up to 256 bytes).

What is FAT32?

The most advanced version of the FAT file system is FAT32. The most evolved version of the FAT file system is FAT32. With FAT32, Microsoft aimed to overcome the limitations of FAT16 and accommodate larger volume sizes. Its been around since Windows 95  and continues to remain popular as it is highly compatible with most operating systems (Linux, MAC) and removable hardware devices.  FAT32 supports files smaller than 4GB and partitions with a maximum size of 8TB.

How does FAT32 work?

Just like its predecessors (FAT12 and FAT16), FAT32 adopts a similar organizational structure. In this file system, each file is represented as a linked list of blocks, also referred to as clusters. So whenever a new file is created, the file is broken down into multiple clusters and stored on the disk. These clusters are often distributed across the disk; they aren’t necessarily placed adjacent to each other. So, the File allocation table works as an index that records and maps the locations of these clusters. It indicates the sequence in which the clusters are stored on the disk. 

So whenever a user wants to read a file, the system will first check the root directory for the first cluster of each file in that directory. Then the system can traverse the FAT, looking up the cluster number of each successive part of the file as a cluster chain until the end of the file is reached.

What is NTFS?

NTFS is the latest version of Windows filesystem, and most Windows computers today are equipped with the NTFS file system. It allows users to create large files with long filenames and provides the most efficient way to store and retrieve data. 

How does NTFS work?

Like FAT and FAT32,  NTFS also uses clusters to store data files. However, the size of the clusters does not depend upon the size of the disk or partition. It uses small clusters that help to use disk space more effectively. The default cluster size in NTFS is 4k, however, one can choose a smaller size, too. This ability to use small clusters enables NTFS to provide good performance, especially on large drives. 

NTFS uses an advanced data structure called the Master File Table (MFT) to record the location of the scattered clusters. And, it also contains meta-data about the files. That is,  information such as includes file creation dates, entry modified dates, access dates, physical and logical file sizes, and access control lists of the files.There are a few attributes that make NTFS stand apart from the other file systems. It incorporates properties such as security access control lists and file system journaling.

A quick comparison between NTFS and FAT32




Release date

First introduced in 1993 for Windows NT 3.1. The current version was unveiled in 2012 alongside Windows 8

It was introduced in 1996

File structure

An advanced, high-performance file system with a customized journaling system            

A simple file system that stores files as a linked list of blocks in a table. 

Ideal use

Ideal for external hard-disk drives with large storage capacities.

Ideal for smaller storage devices with less than 4GB such as SD cards, microSD cards, flash drives, SSDs, digital cameras, and smartphones. 

Max Volume size

It supports large volume sizes up to 256TB.

It supports volume sizes of up to 2TB.

File size

Supports very large files—16EB (Exabytes) theoretically. 

Individual files on a FAT32 drive can’t be over 4GB in size—that’s the maximum. And, 8TB maximum partition size.

Fault tolerance

NTFS automatically repairs files/folders in the case of power failures or errors. 

FAT32 maintains two different copies of the FAT in the case of damage.


NTFS is supported by Windows NT/2000, XP, 7, and Vista. MAC OS  X can only read from NTFS formatted drives, it can not write to them.

It works well 

on all versions of Windows. It’s compatible with other operating systems—Mac and Linux(has both read/write access). 


NTFS allows automatic file compression allowing you to save disk space and archive folders. 

FAT32 lacks the compression feature.


It offers file-level encryption which protects your file from unauthorized access.

No native encryption.


NTFS can transfer files at 25 MB/s.

It’s low—it has a maximum speed of 5 MB/s.


Users and user groups can be given specific permissions to read, write or execute drives, folders, or files.

FAT32 provides very minimal security, every user on the same computer has access to data on that drive.

NTFS vs FAT32: Which one should you choose?

Unfortunately, there’s no one winner. Each of them has its own advantages and disadvantages. You need to choose the one that works best for you. 

The biggest advantage of FAT32 is that almost all operating systems can read from and write to it. That’s why users still use it to transfer a limited amount of data between otherwise incompatible systems like Windows and macOS. It may not be as secure as NTFS, but it works great with portable storage devices such as USB flash drives, SD cards, and flash-based memory cards, as long as the file size is less than 4GB. Besides, you can even use it for Digital cameras, Smart TVs, and Gaming consoles like the Xbox One, PS3, and PS4. 

At a glance: Pros and cons of FAT32



Highly compatible with different operating systems.

It cannot store a file that is larger than 4GB.

It is compatible with most removable storage devices.

FAT32 does not have native file encryption and lacks access permissions present in modern file systems.

FAT32 is slower to read and write data compared to modern file systems. 

⁠At a glance: Pros and cons of the NTFS system

NTFS offer some significant advantages over FAT32 with features such as file-level encryption and permissions, automatic compression, and journaling. However, there are a few limitations. 



Supports very large files and has almost no realistic partition size limitation.

NTFS file systems are only compatible with Windows 2000 and later versions of Windows.

Provides enhanced data security with access-level control features and native encryption.

Mac OS can read drives formatted in NTFS, but they can only be written to NTFS via third-party software.

NTFS supports automatic file compression, enabling faster file transfer and increased storage space on a disk.

Removable devices such as Android smartphones, DVD players, and digital cameras don’t support NTFS.

NTFS also allows disk quotas giving businesses more control over storage space

NTFS is a journaling file system enabling users to keep track of the files added, modified, or deleted on a drive.

NTFS focuses on the consistency of the file system so that in a case power outage or system failure, you can quickly restore your data.

Choose the file system that reduces hassles and works for you in the long run.


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Know your storage formats - key differences between NTFS and FAT

Know your storage formats - key differences between NTFS and FAT

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