FAT32 and NTFS are file systems i.e., a set of logical constructs that an operating system can use to track manage files on a disk volume. Storage hardware cannot be used without a file system, but not all file systems are universally supported by all operating systems.

All operating systems support FAT32 because it is a simple file system and has been around for a really long time. NTFS is more robust and effective than FAT since it makes use of advanced data structures to improve reliability, disk space utilization and overall performance. Support for NTFS has grown but is not as universal as FAT32.

This comparison looks at the features, advantages and disadvantages of NTFS vis-à-vis FAT32.

If you're looking to decide which file system to use when formatting a disk or USB drive, consider portability. For example, if you'd like to use the USB on older computers, or non-PC systems like digital picture frames, TV sets, printers or projectors, choose FAT32 because it is universally supported. If you are choosing a file system for the backup hard drive, select NTFS.

Comparison chart

FAT32 versus NTFS comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartFAT32NTFS
Introduced 1977 July 1993 (Windows NT 3.1)
Overall Performance Both built-in security and recoverability are absent. File compression is not possible. Recoverability, encryption and compression are designed into NTFS in a way that's transparent to the user.
Max. volume size 2 TiB (with 512 byte sectors, which is the most common configuration) 8 TiB (with 2 KiB sectors and 32 KiB clusters) 16 TiB (with 4 KiB sectors and 64 KiB clusters) 264 clusters − 1 cluster (format);, 256 TB (256 × 10244 bytes) − 64 KB (64 × 1024 bytes) (implementation)
Max. file size About 4GB. Technically, the file size limits are 2,147,483,647 bytes (2 GiB – 1) (without LFS) 4,294,967,295 bytes (4 GiB – 1)[1] (with LFS) 274,877,906,943 bytes (256 GiB – 1) (only with FAT32+[35]) 16 EiB – 1 KiB (format);, 16 TiB – 64 KiB (Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 R2 or earlier implementation), 256 TiB – 64 KiB (Windows 8, Windows Server 2012 implementation)
Max. number of files 268,173,300 for 32 KiB clusters 4,294,967,295 (2^32-1)
Attributes Read-only, Hidden, System, Volume, Directory, Archive Read-only, hidden, system, archive, not content indexed, off-line, temporary, compressed
Dates recorded Modified date/time, creation date/time (DOS 7.0 and higher only), access date (only available with ACCDATE enabled), [2] deletion date/time (only with DELWATCH 2) Creation, modification, POSIX change, access
Date range 1980-01-01 to 2099-12-31 1 January 1601 – 28 May 60056 (File times are 64-bit numbers counting 100-nanosecond intervals (ten million per second) since 1601, which is 58,000+ years)
Date resolution 2 seconds for last modified time, 10 ms for creation time, 1 day for access date, 2 seconds for deletion time 100 ns
File system permissions Partial, only with DR-DOS, REAL/32 and 4690 OS ACLs
Max. filename length 255 UCS-2 characters when using LFN 255 UTF-16 code units
Transparent compression Not supported Per-file, LZ77 (Windows NT 3.51 onward)
Transparent encryption Not supported Per-file,, DESX (Windows 2000 onward),, Triple DES (Windows XP onward),, AES (Windows XP Service Pack 1, Windows Server 2003 onward)
Size & Storage The Maximum volume size is 32GB for all OS and 2TB for some OS. Max file size is 4GB. 16 EiB – 1 KiB (format);, 16 TiB – 64 KiB (Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 R2 or earlier implementation), 256 TiB – 64 KiB (Windows 8, Windows Server 2012 implementation)
Developer Microsoft, Caldera Microsoft
Full name 32-bit File Allocation Table New Technology File System
Supported operating systems All Windows versions, macOS, Linux, PlayStation 3 and 4 Windows NT family (Windows NT 3.1 to Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, Windows Vista, Windows Server 2008, Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows 8, Windows Server 2012), Mac OS X, GNU/Linux
Partition identifier MBR/EBR: FAT32: 0x0B 0x0C (LBA), e.a. BDP: EBD0A0A2-B9E5-4433-87C0-68B6B72699C7 0x07 (MBR), EBD0A0A2-B9E5-4433-87C0-68B6B72699C7 (GPT)

Origins of FAT and NTFS

FAT (File Allocation Table) was created by Bill Gates and Marc McDonald in the year 1977. It has undergone many changes since then. The number "32" in FAT32 denotes the number of bits needed to keep track of the files. FAT16 was popular until the arrival of 4GB hard disks. NTFS was born from HPFS file system in collaboration of Microsoft and IBM. NTFS appeared initially for Windows NT platform. Since then it has developed and appears in recent versions of Windows like Vista, XP. Microsoft continues to hold on to NTFS patent.

Features of NTFS vs FAT

FAT32 is a fluff-free and simple system that is documented and mainly keeps track of file locations. The simplicity of FAT32 has made it the file system of choice for portable storage mediums like in memory cards, mp3 players and flash players. NTFS file system is more complex and offers multiple enhancements that increase security as well as performance. NTFS file system allows automatic file compression prior to being written freeing up hard disk space and also has disk quotas which allows system administrator to allocate disk space to users.

FAT32 is a derivative of the (FAT) File Allocation Table which supports drives with more than 2GB storage. The largest possible file is 4GB minus 2 bytes. In comparison to its earlier versions, FAT32 uses small clusters and hence uses space more effectively. It can relocate the root folder and use the backup copy of the FAT instead of the default copy. NTFS is much more flexible than FAT32. NTFS does file-level encryption, sparse file support, disk usage quotas, distributed link tracing, file compression, hierarchical storage management etc.

Advantages and Disadvantages

FAT32 can be converted to NTFS but it is not so easy to convert NTFS back to FAT. NTFS has great security, file by file compression, quotas and file encryption. If there is more than one operating system on a single computer, it is better to format some volumes as FAT32.

Using multiple operating systems in same computer would make FAT32 a better choice if you want both OSs to read the drive. If there is only Windows OS, NTFS is perfectly fine. Thus in a Windows computer system NTFS is a better option.

Video explaining the differences

References

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