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The pros and cons of the different Windows file systems

A file system is a storage structure on a computer that organizes data. Windows offers three file systems: NTFS, FAT32, and FAT16. Here's the rundown.Which file system is right for you?

A file system is a storage structure on a computer that organizes data. It allows users to access data quickly and easily.
Windows offers three file systems: NTFS, FAT32 and FAT16. For example, disks must be formatted with an appropriate file system before backup.

The FAT file system

FAT stands for File Allocation Table and was developed by Microsoft in 1977. The family of FAT file systems includes FAT12, FAT16, FAT32 and exFAT. FAT is still a common format for USB sticks and external hard drives today. The oldest system is FAT12, which is used for floppy disks up to 16 megabytes. FAT16 is mostly used for mobile data media with a maximum size of 4 gigabytes, but more often only up to 2 gigabytes. FAT32 is also suitable for all mobile storage devices with up to 4 gigabytes. The abbreviation exFAT stands for Extended File Allocation Table and was produced in 2006 especially for flash memory. The maximum file size for exFAT is 512 terabytes.

The NTFS file system

NTFS stands for New Technology File System and was designed in 1993 by Microsoft for Windows NT. The following versions of NTFS exist so far: NTFS 1.0, NTFS 1.1, NTFS 2, NTFS 3.0 and NTFS 3.1., whereby a downward compatibility of the versions is given.
Internal hard drives can be formatted since Windows Vista only with NTFS. The maximum file size of the NTFS file system is theoretically 16 terabytes.

Comparison of the file systems FAT and NTFS

The file system FAT has the advantage over NTFS to be compatible with many operating systems. Thus FAT32 comes along also with Microsoft DOS, Windows 98, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows 7 and Windows Vista. It is also compatible with other operating systems such as Linux. Furthermore, many other devices such as digital cameras, MP3 players or receivers use FAT32.
In contrast, NTFS is supported only by the operating systems Windows NT/2000, Windows XP, Windows 7 and Windows Vista.

A key advantage of the NTFS file system is the file size. But also in terms of data security NTFS has more to offer. Users and user groups can be given permissions to read, write or execute drives, folders or files. When using FAT, data can be lost after a crash, while NTFS has better backup mechanisms by logging file changes. Other advantages of NTFS are file encryption, data compression, fast defragmentation and setting security attributes.

Due to its small file size and high compatibility with various operating systems, FAT is best suited for mobile data media such as USB sticks or memory cards. If external hard disks are to be temporarily connected to computers with other operating systems, FAT is the better choice. NTFS, on the other hand, is optimal for large hard drives

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About the Author Sebastian Müller
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Sebastian Müller is partner and top customer support at Langmeier Software, making him the best person to talk to about Langmeier backup backup solutions.

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Further lookup: NTFS, FAT32

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This article covers:
File system comparison
The FAT file system
The NTFS file system
Windows file system overview