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Flash drive formatting

Hi experts,

Every flash drive I purchase comes in FAT32 by default. I have, on most, reformatted in NTFS. I can't recall the one things I can never do unless it is in NTFS.

I do know that hard drives have been in NTFS for quite some time allowing more storage, I think, but permissions.

My question is should I leave the flash drive in the native, default FAT32, or should I format it to NTFS? Or, is the difference so small, it doesn't matter? Again, I wish I could remember what process I needed to do that required the drive to be NTFS.

By the way, is Thumb drive or Flash drive or another name the most correct? I, personally, dislike the name thumb drive.
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6 Solutions
I reformat mine to ntfs as i copy many files that are over 4gb in size so fat32 wont work for what i do.
☠ MASQ ☠Commented:
Depends on the size of the drive, if it's  4GB or less FAT32 as you've no issues with storage of individual files that are 1byte less than 4GB (The FAT32 storage limit) that's the only real advantage unless the drives are huge when you start to see efficiencies in storage because of the reduced cluster size.  Theoretically NTFS offers better data integrity than FAT32 but in practice not sure there's that much of an issue with current hardware.

Is this what you wanted about reformatting?

It's better referred to as a "flash" drive as (although there are no moving parts) the memory chips are flash memory.
There are pros and cons to either filesystem. FAT/FAT32 are simpler, legacy filesystems which comes with some benefits and some drawbacks.

It looks like FAT32 is a more appropriate filesystem for your USB flash drive, mainly due to it's simplicity and wider compatibility. That's probably why manufacturers format their drives with FAT or FAT32 out of the box.

You really should only bother putting NTFS on the drive if you NEED it for some reason. The difference in performance should be minimal but it looks like there are some drawbacks to using NTFS, however minor they are.

There's a lot of opinions, but the general wisdom seems to be as follows:

1) FAT/FAT32 is "faster"

This is supposedly because FAT/FAT32 is a simpler filesystem and thus has less overhead, which results in more efficient use of the small amount of space on the flash drive as well as faster transfer speeds.

I imagine this claim is arguable. I haven't personally tested it, but it was likely more applicable when flash drives had very slow write speeds - the added overhead of things like ACLs, journalling etc in NTFS would mean more write operations, and a slower perceived performance.

It probably is a lot less of an issue these days with modern USB 3.0 flash drives.

2) FAT/FAT32 uses the disk space more efficiently

NTFS has more internal overhead - more space is used for filesystem metadata, ACLs, logging/journaling etc. and that means less space is available for actual real storage.

.... but I think we're talking on the order of 60-100mb of "wasted" space. You could imagine this was a big deal when flash drives were typically less than a gig in size, but nowadays when flash drives are easily 32GB+ it's probably not a big deal.

3) FAT/FAT32 only supports files up to 4GB in size

This is true. If you want larger files on the filesystem you have to use NTFS.

4) FAT/FAT32 is more compatible with more devices

Indeed FAT/FAT32 is a simpler, legacy filesystem which has been around a lot longer so more devices support it.

It works in DOS, Windows, Mac, Linux and most embedded systems (e.g. when you're trying to flash a new BIOS onto a motherboard, put photos on an SD card for use in a digital picture frame, play MP3s on an MP3 player etc)

Older Mac and Linux OS used to have trouble with supporting NTFS - sometimes it wasn't supported at all, other times it was read-only access.

HOWEVER - NTFS has been around for quite some time as well, and nowadays I'm pretty sure NTFS is supported fully on all major computer OS. Linux certainly supports it, and I'd have a hard time believing that the latest Mac OSX Lion doesn't as well.

5) NTFS doesn't support quick-removal, it requires safely-ejecting prior to removal

I have heard from several sources that NTFS is not designed for quick removal and it seems to be true - NTFS uses write caching and other performance optimizations to make things go faster. It demands that the device be safely dismounted prior to removal otherwise the filesystem is marked as "dirty" and the journaling kicks in to roll back any corruption.

This isn't necessarily ideal on a flash drive which gets removed more often than regular disks. The risk of filesystem corruption is higher.

Actually, Windows 7 doesn't support formatting a USB key as NTFS at all unless Write Caching is enabled (Optimize for performance is enabled on the device)


That seems to support that NTFS indeed REQUIRES safe removal.

That also should answer your question as to how to format a flash drive using NTFS

6) NTFS uses ACLs and permissions, FAT32 does not.

This is true and in general, permissions and ACLs don't make sense for a flash drive that moves from one computer to another. There's more chance of having unnecessary access problems due to invalid or incorrect ACLs when attempting to access the drive on a different computer under a different user account.
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Norm DickinsonGuruCommented:
They ship them with the FAT32 as it maintains the best compatibility with computers around the world, as well as a variety of other devices, many of which are still using older operating systems that work best with that format. If your purpose does not require it, you will experience no issues formatting the drives as NTFS and may gain some of the standard benefits of the file system in the process.
USB Flash Drive is the proper terminology for these devices, as opposed to SSD for internal SATA connected devices using the same technology. Thumb drive is a nickname.
Regarding terminology.... I think "USB Flash Drive" is most correct since it is a usb device which uses flash memory for storage.

Sometimes I'll call it a USB Stick. Since that seems largely accurate to what it is as well.

But there's lots of terminology that just don't like, because it isn't an accurate description of the product and generally promotes consumer ignorance IMHO:

USB "Key" - it's not a key. It's a storage device. Just because some people put them on their keyrings doesn't change anything
Memory stick - Technically this term is ambiguous, it can also refer to things like SD cards for digital camera
Pen drive - in what way is it in anything like a pen?
Thumb drive - comparing the storage device to your thumb because the size of the device was similar once upon a time seems silly to me, it certainly isn't the case now
☠ MASQ ☠Commented:
<slightly off topic>
USB "Key" - reminded me we lost a USB Sentinel licensing dongle a couple of years back almost certainly because it was taken by someone thinking it was a flash drive.  Hope they enjoyed trying to save data to it.  It cost us around $500 in getting a new license agreement.
</slightly off topic>
"Flash" memory is actually an Intel-owned trademark, but they don't mind it being the generic term customers use... just don't expect manufacturers to use it unless it actually contains Intel "Flash" memory chips.
Bert2005Author Commented:
Thanks everyone. Great answers. I will have to come back in a couple of hours to award the points. It will be kind of hard as they are all good.

But, I learned what I thought. May as well format to NTFS (brings up a whole other topic (reformat vs format -- mainly when wiping out your hard drive), the reason why, and the names people use.

Like Frosty, I really dislike names which don't really describe it, and I particularly dislike "thumb drive." Most on my board call it thumb drive.

On a side note, when we talk about backups and taking them home, the electronic medical record will produce about a 100Mb file of all of the patient data. Many do not encrypt the file, so they are going back and forth with a 2 cm "thumb drive" with five years or more of patient data. I have lost more flash drives than I can remember and, if my server crashed (they refer to a Dell Optiplex with XP Home as their server), I really don't want to hope the 2 cm flash drive is still in the office drawer when I left it, not thrown behind the couch by my four year old or eaten by my cat. The file itself is named with the company name, which one can download the EMR from for free. There are many other ways to protect data from a flood or fire, such as iBackup, Jungle Disk or Rsync; NAS in basements 300 feet away along with multiple other local backups on SBS on Dell 2900, etc. The backup is automatically sent to the company offline servers. And, the HIPAA issues are off the charts. Sorry, I digress.
☠ MASQ ☠Commented:
Feel free to digress!  We have the same HIPAA issues in the UK - having an unencrypted "stick" with patient identifiable data on is pretty much a dismissible offence (& that's before you lose it!).
The only reason to format to NTFS is if you need to store files of 4GB and larger (such as a DVD image)
Otherwise Fat 32 is more versatile, as Mac can read and write to it and if you want to view photos, etc. on your TV or DVD that has a USB port, then only Fat 32 is supported.

The Mac can read FAT32 without a problem. The Mac will read NTFS, but cannot write to it. There is a program called MacFuse, which can read and write to NTFS drives.

USB Flash Drive....are now comonly named after what they look like Many come in the forn of novelty items:
Sushiusb:   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sushiusb.jpg
More at:  http://www.shopwiki.com/l/novelty-Flash-Drive
Bert2005Author Commented:
I know that the experts hate it when the questioner selects almost everyone, but most of the answers were helpful. While jamietoner didn't have nearly the amount of information, he was first and if no one else answered, I would have had my answer.

Thanks to all the experts.
> I know that the experts hate it when the questioner selects almost everyone

I'm not sure where you got that idea, but it's news to me.
Bert2005Author Commented:
Thanks. That's good to know. Maybe I will do a question on it, lol.
Glad my late input helped
(Better late than never)

"but most of the answers were helpful."
Speading points over helpful additional info. is usual.
Only when the fisrt correct solution solves the question completely or satisfies the asker fully, does your other comment become valid "experts hate it when the questioner selects almost everyone"

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