Best file system for your USB external drive

USB driveIt’s not unusual these days to have computers, consoles and tablets in the house, all running different operating systems. If you want your external drive to be interoperable between them, you’ll need to think carefully about your choice of file system. I’ve broken down some popular options here so you can make the best choice for your drive. (Note – many Android phones support USB On The Go, which means you can plug USB drives right in via an adapter.)

Windows Mac Linux Android Chrome OS iPad Xbox 360 PS3
FAT32 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Sort of [1] Yes Yes
exFAT Yes [2] Yes No [3] Yes No No No No
ext3 Sort of [4] Sort of [5] Yes No [6] Yes No No No
NTFS Yes Sort of [7] Yes Sort of [8] Yes No No [9] No
HFS+ No [10] Yes Sort of [11] Sort of [8] Sort of [12] Sort of [1] No No

  1. iPads (not iPhones) can read FAT and HFS drives via the Camera Connection Kit, but only photos and some videos. If you’re looking to access an MP3 or a Word document, you’re out of luck.
  2. exFAT works on Vista / Windows 7 / Windows 8, but XP needs this update first.
  3. Not by default, but you can add FUSE and read and write as usual.
  4. Windows can read ext2 / ext3 / ext4 drives, but only using 3rd party software like explore2fs, Ext2Fsd or Ext2IFS.
  5. Not by default, but you can enable read/write using OSXFUSE with fuse-ext2, or buying Paragon.
  6. Not on a stock Galaxy S3, but some custom ROMs do support this.
  7. Macs can read NTFS drives by default. You can enable writing to NTFS using OSXFUSE with NTFS-3G, or buying software like Paragon or Tuxera.
  8. On Android, the Paragon app will enable access to NTFS and HFS.
  9. This might seem odd, but it’s true – NTFS is not supported on the Xbox 360.
  10. Not by default, but you can buy extra software to enable it.
  11. Works for every flavour except journaled HFS+, which is read only. (Unfortunately, journaled HFS+ is the default for drives formatted with a Mac.)
  12. Works, but read only for journaled HFS+.

FAT32

If you buy a smaller drive or USB stick, it’s probably formatted by default as FAT32 because it is the most compatible – pop a FAT32 disk into pretty much anything, and it will just work, including devices not listed here like TVs or cars. However, there are some important limitations which mean that it’s not always the best answer.

  • The volume has to be smaller than 2TB. If your drive is larger, e.g. 3TB, it will need to be split into two volumes before the full size can be accessed.
  • Files on the drive can only be 2GB or smaller. (Hence, large video files or databases are a problem.)
  • It is the least fault tolerant of these file systems, so not a great option for storing important data over a longer term.
  • FAT32 is not open source (if that matters to you).

exFAT

exFAT is made for external drives, just like FAT32. It’s a newer standard, so it’s not as widely compatible, and it’s also Microsoft proprietary. However, it can deal with volumes bigger than 4GB and files sizes larger than 2GB.

ext2, ext3 and ext4

These three file systems are closely related and native to Linux and the open source world. If you’re an Ubuntu or Chrome OS user, these are the best options for you – Ubuntu formats drives by default in ext4.

NTFS

NTFS has been the default file system on Windows machines for many years, and Linux based systems can work very well with them – however, it’s still tough to use on a Mac.

HFS and HFS+

Journaled HFS+ is the default format for drives on OS X, but it’s hard to use on other systems.

What is the best solution?

Most people will still use FAT32. If you buy a smaller USB data key, that’s probably what it’s formatted as by default, simply because it works with so many systems. However, it’s not ideal, and the demands of bigger drives or better security may leave you looking elsewhere.

First, there are two alternatives to using an external drive. One – upload your files to cloud storage like Google Drive / Dropbox / Skydrive, and use their app on Mac / Windows / Xbox or wherever you need. Two – keep your files in the house on a NAS and access this via DLNA, Samba or even a specialised application like Plex.

Given how many different systems many of us use at the same time, choosing a file system should be easy, but it’s surprisingly tricky. It’ll get easier – as our internet connections get faster and more ubiquitous, cloud storage access will become the best solution for more and more of us.

5 thoughts on “Best file system for your USB external drive”

  1. using UDF seems to be the way to go, fwiw — full read/write natively on Windows Vista+, Mac OS X 10.5+, Linux 2.6+ (and read-only elsewhere, generally).

  2. exFAT is working in Chrome OS now … making it the best format I’ve seen if you use Windows, OS X & Chrome OS. (September 2014)

  3. Would like to highlight that ExFAT is not supported on my Android Nexus 5 running KitKat.

    Since it is a Google-endorsed device, I’d reckon Android does not support ExFAT, and you’d need to adjust your chart above.

  4. I’m just noting that FAT32’s max file size is 4GB not 2GB

    I usually use FAT32 when I don’t need big files (Linux ISO’s, etc), but if I do then I switch to NTFS. I hate how each filesystem is relatively incompatible with other OSes, like for example NTFS is read-only on Mac w/o an extension, no executable bit on (all?) Windows filesystems, and the ‘least common denominator’ is FAT32, with its fatal flaw, 4GB size limit

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