Best Drive Format For Multiple Operating Systems

Dedicated. Data-driven. Digital Marketing.

Best Drive Format For Multiple Operating Systems

So, you have a Mac at work, a PC at home and that old Linux box hooked up to the TV that you use from time to time (or some other scenario that makes you a cool, multi-skilled, super-awesome cross-OS user) but you have one problem.

“Is there a drive format I can use for my external hard drive that will work on my multiple operating systems”

Well, the simple answer is… no. Not really. Not across all releases of the main three operating systems, Windows, OS X and Linux. However there are three common drive formats that you can use, FAT32, NTFS and exFAT but they each have their limitations – you just have to choose what’s best for you.

Shopping (E-commerce)

FAT32 – Advantages and Limitations

Probably the most commonly used drive format in today’s modern world is FAT32 (File Allocation Table 32-bit), predominately due to the influx of flash memory sticks and cards.

Advantages of FAT32

  • FAT32 will run on pretty much all fairly modern devices and operating systems including Windows XP or later, Mac OS X Panther 10.3 or later and the majority of all Linux distributions.
  • Quick, easy and removable – perfect for flash drives.

Limitations of FAT 32

  • FAT32 was only designed to work with devices up to 32GB in size which means if you want to format your 500GB external hard drive then you can but tricks are put in place by your operating system to get around the 32GB limit. This has consequences to the speed of you’re drive and therefore regards the drive format as poor for anything above 32GB.
  • FAT32 has a file size limit of 4GB, this means that no matter how big your device if it’s formatted with FAT32 you cannot store an individual file that is greater than 4GB. Sure you can have folders full of files accounting to more than 4GB within them but a single file cannot exceed the 4GB limit. With high definition technology becoming even more popular along with the introduction ultra definition the file size limit is making FAT32 increasingly unpopular.
  • Depending on your operating system the true maximum drive size you can use with FAT32 is 2TB, so with 3TB and 4TB hard drives becoming ever more popular FAT32 has a second issue with modern technology advancing beyond its capabilities.

NTFS – Advantages and Limitations

NTFS (New Technology File System) which is now considered as old technology, making its ridiculous time paradox name almost laughable, is the most popular drive format choice for both internal and external hard drives. However there is a reason for this, it’s because of the Microsoft monopoly hold that they have of their customers. NTFS was developed by Microsoft for Windows so all of the Windows pre-installed machines that get pumped out by places like PC World are all running their OS’s on NTFS hard drives. Which is fair play in the business world, however, this can make things difficult.

Advantages of NTFS

  • NTFS works simply and easily with Windows 2000 and later.
  • There is practically no drive size limit to which you can format with NTFS, it’s so large that we will probably never need anything bigger within our lifetime.
  • The single file size limit on NTFS is also practically unlimited at 16TB per file on most systems and 256TB per file on Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012. So for the everyday home user, I very much doubt you will ever need any more than 16TB per file within 30-40 years.

Limitations of NTFS

  • As stated above NTFS was formed by Microsoft for Windows so this is where the problems begin when using multiple operating systems. Newer releases of the Mac OS X can read NTFS drives by default but they can’t write to them without the addition of software packages such as PARAGON which is not always practical. Linux also has the same problem, most distributions can read NTFS but they struggle to write to them. Again you can get around this by installing additional software but this can all prove to be very tricky.
  • NTFS is a large and complex file system which is why it can handle so much data however this uses memory and processing power and it has been known that NTFS is inefficient and slow.

exFAT – Advantages and Limitations

So we move onto our final contender exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table), as you can probably figure from the name exFAT is the younger brother of FAT32 where it’s limitations have drastically been improved. Again however exFAT was created by Microsoft so support on other OS’s can be tricky but is easier than NTFS.

Advantages of exFAT

  • exFAT has default support on Windows Vista and later, it will also run perfectly well on XP with a simple update from Microsoft which can be found here.
  • exFAT also has full support on Mac OS X with Snow Leopard 10.6.5 or later.
  • The drive size limit is practically unlimited as exFAT is capable of formatting a drive to 64 zettabytes, that’s 64 billion terabytes.
  • The single file size limit on exFAT is also practically unlimited standing at 16 exabytes which is 16 million terabytes. File sizes of this size do not currently exist and will probably not exist for some time.
  • exFAT was only designed for use on flash drives as it’s quick simple and efficient, however, there is no reason why it isn’t suitable for hard drives. It can certainly handle large data sizes as explained above and it’s simple structure makes it much more of convenient format than NTFS.

Limitations of exFAT

  • exFAT does not have many limitations but the biggest would be the compatibility with Linux. Linux does not support exFAT by default, but as with NTFS, you can install additional software which will allow you to read and write exFAT drives. Even though this can be tricky it is often thought to be simpler than running NTFS on Linux as it’s simplistic structure causes fewer problems.
  • exFAT may seem like the best solution by now however there have been some reports of poor reliability as the data table can easily become corrupt, causing data loss and frustration to the users. This has only been touched upon slightly and the probability of this happening is low.

So in conclusions, there isn’t a simple format you can choose to use across multiple operating systems for your external hard drive but there are options that will work, it all depends on what operating systems and data you plan to use. If you only have a small drive and don’t wish to store large flies then FAT32 will probably be suitable for all your operating systems. If you just use Windows and Linux from time to time then NTFS may be best for you but if you use Windows and Mac machines then exFAT will be the best for you. Then again if you decide that none of this is for you and you don’t want the hassle and complications then maybe it’s time for cloud computing which you can read about on my other post here.

Best Drive Format For Multiple Operating Systems


Leave a Reply