Choosing the right file system for your storage device is an important decision that can impact performance, compatibility, and reliability. The two most common file systems for external drives and USB flash drives are exFAT and NTFS.
What is exFAT?
exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table) is a file system optimized for flash memory such as USB flash drives and SD cards. It was introduced in 2006 and is supported natively in Windows 10, 8.1, 7 and Vista. exFAT can also be used with Mac OS X and Linux through third party software.
Here are some key characteristics of exFAT:
- Supports large file sizes – can handle files larger than 4GB
- Fast formatting times and optimized for quick writes
- Wide compatibility – works across Windows and Mac OS X without additional software
- Limited file size and volume size (max 128 PiB)
- No built-in data recovery tools
exFAT is a good option for external drives that are frequently connected to different operating systems. The drawbacks are limited tools for recovery and no built-in encryption.
What is NTFS?
NTFS (New Technology File System) is the primary file system for recent versions of Windows. It was first introduced with Windows NT in 1993.
Here are some key features of NTFS:
- Supports large volumes and file sizes – file sizes up to 16 TiB
- Built-in file compression, encryption, permissions
- Recovery tools like volume shadow copy for backups
- Advanced data integrity checks
- Complex structure leading to slower performance
- Limited compatibility – read only access on Mac OS X
NTFS is ideal for internal Windows drives due to its advanced features. But the complexity means it may be slower and has limited compatibility with other operating systems. Some third party tools can add NTFS write support on Mac OS X.
Comparing exFAT vs NTFS
Here is a detailed feature comparison between exFAT and NTFS:
|Maximum file size||128 PiB||16 TiB|
|Maximum volume size||128 PiB||256 TiB|
|Backup/recovery tools||No||Volume Shadow Copy|
|Mac OS X support||Read & Write||Read Only|
* Linux requires additional software for exFAT and read-write NTFS support
When to use exFAT
Here are situations where exFAT is a good choice:
- External USB drives that will be connected to Windows and Mac computers – exFAT works seamlessly out of the box on both operating systems without any extra software.
- Boot drives with UEFI – exFAT works for UEFI bootable drives where NTFS does not.
- USB flash drives – the optimized write performance makes exFAT a good choice for flash memory drives.
- SDXC and SDHC memory cards – newer high capacity cards are often formatted with exFAT.
In summary, exFAT is a good cross-platform choice for removable flash storage. The flexibility of plugging into different operating systems outweighs the lack of advanced NTFS features like file compression and encryption.
When to use NTFS
NTFS is preferred in these cases:
- Internal Windows hard drives – NTFS is the best choice for internal disks on a Windows PC due to its advanced features.
- File and disk encryption – NTFS supports native encryption through BitLocker and EFS (Encrypted File System).
- Large video and image files – with support for huge file and volume sizes, NTFS can better handle large media files.
- Advanced data integrity – features like disk quotas, mount point folders, repair logs improve data reliability.
Overall, NTFS is ideal for internal Windows drives that need advanced security and data management abilities. For simple external USB drives, the extra features are less relevant.
In terms of performance, NTFS vs exFAT results can vary substantially based on the precise scenario.
For flash drives, exFAT generally has faster write times than NTFS. This is because it uses a simpler structure optimized for flash memory. In one test, a 1GB file took 109.1 seconds to write to an exFAT USB drive compared to 408.7 seconds for NTFS.1
However, for internal SATA hard drives, performance is very comparable overall.2 In general operations like opening files, copying, moving files, etc. you are unlikely to notice a substantial performance difference on an internal drive.
One scenario where NTFS is slower is deleting a very large number of small files. This is because NTFS indexes files for faster searching, which has some overhead.
So for external flash media, exFAT will generally have better outright performance. But for internal disks, it’s unlikely you can detect a performance difference for everyday file operations.
For removable media like USB drives and SD cards, exFAT is the best choice in general. It works seamlessly across Windows, Mac, and Linux with no extra software required. The simple structure means it’s optimized for quick writes to flash memory.
For internal drives, NTFS is ideal to take advantage of its advanced data management capabilities like compression, permissions, encryption, and file integrity. The extra complexity has minimal impact for typical workloads on a SATA III SSD or hard drive.
- Use exFAT for removable flash drives
- Use NTFS for internal Windows drives
Choosing the right file system comes down to your specific needs and usage. Think about whether you need cross-platform portability or advanced Windows only features. For general external memory cards and USB drives, exFAT hits the sweet spot of compatibility and performance.