Should I format to NTFS or exFAT?

When setting up a new hard drive or external storage device, an important decision is which file system to use. The two most common options for Windows are NTFS and exFAT. But which one should you choose? In this comprehensive guide, we’ll compare NTFS vs exFAT to help you decide which file system is right for your needs.

What is NTFS?

NTFS (NT File System) is the primary file system for recent versions of Windows and Windows Server. Here are some key facts about NTFS:

  • Developed by Microsoft originally for Windows NT operating system in 1993.
  • Supported by all modern versions of Windows.
  • Offers advanced performance, security, reliability features.
  • Supports file and folder compression.
  • Allows individual files and folders encryption.
  • Permissions can be set for access control.
  • No realistic file size or partition size limits.

In summary, NTFS is the preferred file system for Windows system drives and internal hard drives. It’s packed with helpful features for power users.

What is exFAT?

exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table) is another file system developed by Microsoft. Here are the key characteristics of exFAT:

  • Introduced in 2006 to bridge gap between FAT32 and NTFS.
  • Supported by recent Windows versions and modern operating systems.
  • Limited performance and security features compared to NTFS.
  • No built-in compression or encryption support.
  • Minimal access control functionality.
  • Capable of handling very large file and partition sizes.

In summary, exFAT is designed for use cases like external storage and flash drives where NTFS is not optimal. It has wider cross-platform compatibility compared to NTFS.

Comparing NTFS vs exFAT

Here is a detailed comparison between NTFS and exFAT file systems:

Feature NTFS exFAT
Date introduced 1993 2006
Max file size 16 TB 16 EB
Max volume size 256 TB 16 EB
Max file path length 32,768 characters 260 characters
Windows support All versions since Windows NT Windows Vista and later
Compression Yes No
Encryption Yes No
Permissions Extensive access control lists Read/write permissions only
Cross-platform Very limited Good

As you can see, NTFS has a clear advantage in features whereas exFAT is designed for simple read/write operations.

When to Use NTFS

Here are the main use cases where NTFS is recommended as the file system:

  • Windows system drive (usually C:) – NTFS supports all core OS functionality like permissions, compression, encryption, etc. Required for boot drives.
  • Internal hard drives – All modern Windows PCs use NTFS for the main internal drives. Reliable and high-performance.
  • External USB hard drives for backup, storage – External hard drives that stay connected to Windows computers should use NTFS.
  • Hard drive partitions – Any partitions on a drive intended for active use should be NTFS.
  • Media servers, NAS – Network Attached Storage devices and media servers benefit from NTFS features.

In summary, if the drive is for regular use with a Windows PC, NTFS is typically the best choice.

When to Use exFAT Instead

Here are the main situations where exFAT is preferable over NTFS:

  • External portable USB drives – Flash drives and external hard disks that are frequently connected to different OSes (like Windows, Mac, Linux) are better off with exFAT.
  • SD cards, other removable media – Use exFAT for SD cards to transfer files between cameras, phones, drones, etc. More compatible than NTFS.
  • USB drives for ready file transfer – exFAT USB drives make it easy to directly transfer large files >4GB between devices.
  • Video recording drives – Digital cameras and camcorders often need exFAT SD cards to save large HD video files.
  • Shared drives between Windows and Mac – Use exFAT when you need to dual boot or share external drive between Windows and macOS.

In summary, use exFAT when you need maximum compatibility with different operating systems and devices.

Formatting Considerations

When formatting a drive, keep these tips in mind:

  • You can only format a partition as NTFS in Windows. For Mac or Linux, special software is required.
  • exFAT formatting works perfectly in both Windows and macOS. Good for creating cross-platform drives.
  • For SD cards, USB drives, etc, exFAT is the best choice to ensure future compatibility.
  • For Windows system drives, always stick to NTFS formatting.
  • NTFS has built-in security protections against accidental deletes and file corruption.
  • exFAT lacks NTFS journaling which makes it more prone to data loss from unexpected events.

So factor in how you intend to use the drive when choosing the file system.

Converting Between NTFS and exFAT

It is possible to convert a drive between NTFS and exFAT formats if needed. Here’s an overview:

  • To go from NTFS to exFAT, simply reformat the partition or drive after backing up data.
  • Switching from exFAT to NTFS requires a full format, not a quick format option.
  • Converting partitions requires deleting all data first before reformatting.
  • On Windows, use Disk Management or third-party tools like Partition Wizard.
  • On Mac, use Disk Utility to erase and reformat the drive.
  • Make sure to backup all data first before attempting any conversions!

So while it’s possible to convert between NTFS and exFAT, it’s best to choose correctly the first time if possible.

Performance Comparison

In terms of performance between NTFS vs exFAT:

  • NTFS is faster at reading and writing lots of small files due to advanced indexing and caching.
  • exFAT has faster read/write times for very large files like videos and ISO disk images.
  • Both are comparable in overall throughput for basic file operations.
  • exFAT lacks the journaling capability of NTFS which can impact performance reliability.
  • NTFS scales better for high performance scenarios like enterprise servers and workstations.
  • exFAT is perfectly fine for general external storage usage in Windows and Mac.

Unless you have specialized performance needs, either one will work well in most cases.

Reliability and Security

NTFS is more robust and secure compared to exFAT:

  • NTFS provides built-in resilience to power failures and system crashes.
  • File recovery tools work better for recovering data from NTFS volumes.
  • NTFS has advanced security features like access permissions and encryption.
  • NTFS helps prevent accidental file deletion and data corruption.
  • exFAT lacks journaling and other protections, relying more on the host OS.
  • Both are equally susceptible to corruption from unsafe device removal.
  • exFAT is more vulnerable to data loss from power outages or improper system shutdowns.

Therefore, NTFS is widely preferred in business environments where data integrity is critical. exFAT may be more prone to data loss in some situations if not handled properly.


In summary, NTFS is ideal for internal drives and systems where advanced Windows features are needed. exFAT is useful for external storage with large file sizes and cross-device compatibility. For most users, NTFS is the standard choice as it provides the best all-round performance, security, and stability. But exFAT has its place too in specific usage scenarios.

When setting up storage in Windows, think about how you intend to use it. If you need security, compression, permissions, or other OS-specific features, NTFS is the way to go. But if you have an external drive for file transfers with Mac and Linux devices, exFAT is probably the better option. Either one will work great – just be sure to pick the right file system upfront to avoid headaches later down the road!