Microsoft introduced the new exFAT file system with Vista SP1. Extended File Allocation Table (exFAT) is the successor to the old FAT32 file system. What are the advanatages and disadvantages to this new file system? What are the differences between exFAT and FAT32? When is exFAT preferred over NTFS?

Microsoft released the exFAT file system with Vista SP1. The file system that had been rumored to be released with the original Vista was finally available to the public on a wide scale. This article will explain the issues that exist with FAT32 that exFAT has been designed to fix. Surprisingly to many people, exFAT even may be better than the much loved NTFS in some circumstances.

FAT32 is the file system with which most windows users are most familiar. Windows first supported FAT32 with Windows 95 OSR2 and increased support for it through XP.

FAT32 issues and problems -

      By default windows systems can only format a drive up to 32 GB. Additional software works around this issue. When formatted at these bigger sizes, FAT32 becomes increasingly inefficient.
      The maximum file size on a FAT32 formatted drive is around 4 GB. With DVD and high resolution DVD formats now available, this limit is commonly reached.
      Dealing with fragmentation and free disk space calculations can become painfully resource intensive in large FAT32 systems.
      A FAT32 directory can have 65,536 directory entries. Each file or subdirectory can take up multiple entries; therefore, FAT32 directories are limited with how many files it can hold.

exFAT Advantages

      File size limit is now 16 exabytes.
      Format size limits and files per directory limits are practically eliminated.
      Like HPFS, exFAT uses free space bitmaps to reduce fragmentation and free space allocation/detection issues.
      Like HTFS, permission systems should be able to be attached through an access control list (ACL). It is unclear if or when Vista will include this feature, however.

exFAT was first released with CE 6.0 but finally hit the mainstream with Vista SP1. Obviously, exFAT has several strengths over FAT32. Then why In the past have most power-users of Microsoft systems have opted to format/convert to a NTFS file system instead?

Interestingly enough, exFAT is not used and was not designed for formatting hard drives. It is only recommended in flash memory storage and other external devices only. This is why it is currently not considered a huge competitor to NTFS on hard drives.

However, exFAT should be a true competitor to NTFS on flash-based systems with limited processing power and memory. NTFS on flash memory has been known to be inefficient for quite some time. exFAT’s smaller footprint/overhead makes it ideal for this purpose. Of course, only if your definition of “ideal” allows software to be proprietary and not open source.

Vista will happily read FAT, exFAT, and NTFS from flash. ReadyBoost will not work with exFAT formatted flash drives in Vista, however. Windows 7 will read all three formats and can ReadyBoost exFat flash drives. Modern versions of OS X after Snow Leopard (10.6.5) added exFat read and write capabilities.

In conclusion, FAT32 is a simple system. The simplicity of FAT32 causes it to lose efficiency at large sizes but allows it to run with less resources. The complexity of NTFS increases features but requires more memory and processing power. exFAT is an improved and more complex system than FAT but is designed for flash drives only.


Yes there is a drawback to this and a rather large one.

When you have your USB stick set up in this mode, you absolutely must use the “Safely Remove Hardware” method before disconnecting the stick from the computer and you absolutely CANNOT forget to do this. If you do, the data is sure to get corrupted in short order.

If you can deal with that “Safely remove” stuff, go ahead with an NTFS file system on a USB stick larger than 4GB so you can write bigger-than-4GB files to it.

And remember, there’s no need to do this unless you specifically intend to push 4GB+ files on a USB stick.


How do I format a USB Flash Drive to NTFS file system?

To enable NTFS on your USB Flash Drive drive (USB Flash Memory):

  1. Right click My Computer and select Manage.
  2. Open the Device Manager and find your USB drive under the Disk Drives heading.
  3. Right click the drive and select Properties.
  4. Choose Policies tab and select the “Optimize for performance” option.

5 .Click OK.

  1. Open My Computer
  2. Select Format on the flash drive.

format-ntfs8. Choose NTFS in the File System dropdown box.

  1. Device Formatting is completed.


ntfs Important: To remove a device safely without data loss use a “safely remove hardware” procedure or Eject function from Windows Explorer.



NTFS vs FAT vs exFAT


Criteria NTFS5 NTFS exFAT FAT32 FAT16 FAT12
Operating System Windows 2000
Windows XP
Windows 2003 Server
Windows 2008
Windows Vista
Windows 7
Windows NT
Windows 2000
Windows XP
Windows 2003 Server
Windows 2008Windows Vista
Windows 7
Windows CE 6.0
Windows Vista SP1
Windows 7
DOS v7 and higher
Windows 98
Windows ME
Windows 2000
Windows XP
Windows 2003 Server
Windows Vista
Windows 7
DOS All versions of Microsoft Windows DOS All versions of Microsoft Windows
Max Volume Size 264 clusters minus 1 cluster 232 clusters minus 1 cluster 128PB 32GB for all OS. 2TB for some OS 2GB for all OS. 4GB for some OS 16MB
Max Files on Volume 4,294,967,295
Nearly Unlimited 4194304 65536
Max File Size 264 bytes
(16 ExaBytes) minus 1KB
244 bytes
(16 TeraBytes) minus 64KB
16EB 4GB minus 2 Bytes 2GB (Limit Only by Volume Size) 16MB (Limit Only by Volume Size)
Max Clusters Number 264 clusters minus 1 cluster 232 clusters minus 1 cluster 4294967295 4177918 65520 4080
Max File Name Length Up to 255 Up to 255 Up to 255 Up to 255 Standard – 8.3
Extended – up to 255
Up to 254
File System Features
Unicode File Names Unicode Character Set Unicode Character Set Unicode Character Set System Character Set System Character Set System Character Set
System Records Mirror MFT Mirror File MFT Mirror File No Second Copy of FAT Second Copy of FAT Second Copy of FAT
Boot Sector Location First and Last Sectors First and Last Sectors Sectors 0 to 11 Copy in 12 to 23 First Sector and Copy in Sector #6 First Sector First Sector
File Attributes Standard and Custom Standard and Custom Standard Set Standard Set Standard Set Standard Set
Alternate Streams Yes Yes No No No No
Compression Yes Yes No No No No
Encryption Yes No No No No No
Object Permissions Yes Yes Yes No No No
Disk Quotas Yes No No No No No
Sparse Files Yes No No No No No
Reparse Points Yes No No No No No
Volume Mount Points Yes No No No No No
Overall Performance
Built-In Security Yes Yes Yes minimal ACL only No No No
Recoverability Yes Yes Yes if TFAT activated No No No
Performance Low on small volumes High on Large Low on small volumes High on Large High High on small volumes Low on large Highest on small volumes Low on large High
Disk Space Economy Max Max Max Average Minimal on large volumes Max
Fault Tolerance Max Max Yes if TFAT activated Minimal Average Average