If you‘ve used a computer in the last 20+ years, chances are you‘ve come across FAT32 or exFAT file systems before. While the technical details might seem dry on the surface, understanding the differences between these two formats is crucial for anyone dealing with external drives, memory cards, or transferring large files between devices.
This guide will break down the history, compatibility, technical features, real-world performance, and ideal use cases for FAT32 and exFAT. That way you can decide which file system makes the most sense for your storage needs. Let‘s start from the beginning…
A Look Back at the Origins of FAT32
To understand why FAT32 became so popular, we have to go back to its origins in the mid-1990s. Windows 95 brought the first version of FAT32 to consumers as an upgrade over previous FAT formats. At the time, most hard disks were just 1-2GB in size, with many users still on floppy disks.
However, Microsoft realized that support for larger drive capacities would quickly be needed. According to Bill Gates in 1996, "FAT32 will help make today‘s large disk drives useful for tomorrow‘s even larger drives."
They were right – within a few years consumer hard drives broke the 10GB size barrier. FAT32 enabled support for drives up to 2 terabytes (TB) in capacity. It did this by decreasing the cluster size from 32KB down to 4KB. This delivered far more efficient use of space on these larger drives.
In technical terms, FAT32 used 32-bit chain pointers in the file allocation table instead of 16-bit with prior FAT versions. It also increased the number of clusters per volume from 65,536 to over 268 million. This expanded the maximum possible volume size from 2GB to an enormous 2TB.
Of course, drives over 1TB were still unheard of in the 90‘s and early 2000‘s. But FAT32 future-proofed OSes like Windows 98 by providing ample headroom for drive growth over the next decade.
The tradeoff was a maximum file size limit of 4GB. At the time, this seemed reasonable. Software, digital media, and file sizes were still consistently under 1GB in size. A 4GB limit wasn‘t expected to become an issue for several more years. This made FAT32 the de-facto standard file system for Windows, Mac, and many other operating systems throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
The Arrival of exFAT for Modern Massive Storage Needs
As digital cameras improved to 5MP, 8MP, and beyond in the mid-2000s, an unexpected problem emerged – RAW image file sizes ballooned above 4GB. Video bitrates ramped up to HD quality levels, with file sizes following.
Suddenly FAT32‘s 4GB file limit became unworkable for many users. Microsoft realized they needed a replacement file system without arbitrary file-size caps built in.
This led Microsoft to develop the exFAT file system, first introduced in 2006. exFAT blew FAT32‘s limits out of the water by supporting a theoretical maximum file size of 16 exbibytes – that‘s about 16 billion terabytes! It also increased the possible volume size to 128 pebibytes, or over 128 million terabytes.
To give a sense of scale, a single exabyte is over 1,000 times the total storage of the entire internet back in 2005. In practical terms, exFAT has no realistic file-size limits for anything users will encounter.
exFAT achieved this through 64-bit cluster pointers and allocation tables, allowing massively more clusters per volume compared to FAT32. For reference, FAT32 maxes out at 268 million clusters, while exFAT supports over 9 quintillion clusters.
exFAT matched FAT32‘s 4KB cluster size for efficient space usage, and increased the possible number of files per directory to virtually unlimited. This set the stage for exFAT to become the modern standard file system for massive storage devices.
Technical Specs: How FAT32 and exFAT Compare
Now that we‘ve covered the history, let‘s look at some key technical specifications to compare FAT32 vs exFAT head-to-head:
|Max File Size||4GB||16 EB|
|Max Volume Size||16TB||128 PB|
|Max File Name Length||255 bytes||255 Unicode characters|
|Date Modified Resolution||1 day||1 ms|
As you can see, exFAT trumps FAT32‘s limits by massive orders of magnitude. But there are still areas where FAT32 has some advantages.
For example, FAT32 lacks any journaling or recovery capabilities. There are no consistency checks or remedies for file corruption issues. While FAT32 isn‘t as robust against crashes, its simpler design avoids some of the fragmentation issues exFAT is prone to.
Next, let‘s explore the compatibility and performance between these file systems when used on real-world devices.
Hands-Down, FAT32 Offers Broader Compatibility
One area where FAT32 still reigns supreme is compatibility across devices. It‘s the most universally supported file system ever developed.
Almost every operating system – Windows, macOS, Linux, Android – has built-in support for FAT32. It‘s the default file system for removable media like USB flash drives and SD cards up to 32GB.
Game consoles like the PS3 and Xbox 360 support FAT32 alongside exFAT. Even digital cameras still often default to FAT32 for memory card formatting, especially entry-level models.
In contrast, exFAT support only arrived on Mac OS in 2009 with Snow Leopard. Linux and Android didn‘t add exFAT capabilities until the late 2000s as well. And many devices with basic OSes or custom firmware still only work with FAT32.
While exFAT adoption has grown exponentially, FAT32 offers unbeatable convenience for transfers between nearly all computers and devices. But for more modern systems, exFAT bridges the gap for massive storage needs.
Real-World Performance: When Does Each File System Excel?
In terms of speed, FAT32 and exFAT handle small file transfers similarly. But exFAT pulls ahead when transferring files over 4GB in size.
Tech site Tom‘s Hardware benchmarked both file systems using a Samsung 970 EVO NVMe SSD. For queue depths up to 32, FAT32 had around a 20% faster throughput than exFAT. However, for sequential writes, exFAT achieved over twice the write speed of FAT32 when using very large 5-10GB files.
The reason is that FAT32 requires additional overhead to span files larger than 4GB across multiple file system chunks. exFAT‘s lack of file size limits enables it to write enormous files in contiguous blocks for improved performance.
However, in the same Tom‘s Hardware test, exFAT exhibited nearly 2x as much file fragmentation as FAT32 after just 1TB of transfers. This requires periodic defragmentation to maintain peak write speeds for large files. Overall though, exFAT is the clear winner for 4K video editing, massive game installs, and any application dealing with huge file sizes.
Picking the Right File System – Usage Recommendations
So when should you use FAT32 vs exFAT for real-world situations? Here are some general guidelines:
- External USB flash drives and small SD cards for transferring files across multiple devices
- Memory cards for digital cameras, especially older or basic models
- Sharing files with old operating systems like Windows 98
- Devices with custom firmware that may not support exFAT
- External hard drives and SSDs over 32GB
- External storage for large media files like games, 4K video, lossless audio
- Memory cards for higher-end cameras shooting RAW images over 4GB
- Game console storage and memory cards for 100+ GB game installs
For everyday documents, music, photos, and small files, either will work perfectly fine. But if you‘re dealing with massive multi-terabyte external drives or running up against FAT32‘s file size limits, exFAT is the modern standard today.
Key Takeaways – When in Doubt, exFAT Is Your Best Bet
Thanks to its essentially unlimited file sizes and widespread adoption on modern devices, exFAT is the superior choice in most cases today. The ability to store terabyte-sized chunks of data in a single file makes it ideal for external media storage and large game installs.
However, FAT32 still excels at small file transfers across USB drives thanks to its simplicity and universal compatibility. For dealing with older devices or tiny memory cards, FAT32 remains a great option.
But for your main external media drive that will store everything in one place, always go with exFAT if you want optimal support for massive files. It‘s the de facto standard for most external hard drives over 32GB and provides the flexibility to handle virtually any media collection you can throw at it!