What is exFAT?

The exFAT file system is a relatively new format that was developed with flash storage media like USB sticks and SD cards in mind. But the format is also used on SSD drives. Rather than a completely new technology, the system is simply a specialized version of FAT32 that has been optimized for use on modern and new flash media like USB sticks and SSDs.

exFAT in a nutshell

exFAT is the abbreviation of the “Extended File Allocation Table.” The maximum cluster size of exFAT is 32 mebibytes. The maximum number of files that can be stored in a folder is 2,796,202. Private users will likely never approach this limit in the millions, while users of professional applications in research, industry, and media now finally have sufficient “headroom” for the number of files they can store. With FAT32 – the predecessor of exFAT – the upper limit was restricted to 65,534 files. The further development is, therefore, helpful for certain data-intensive applications and was long overdue.

As of version number 10.6.5, the exFAT standard has been fully supported by Apple. This increases the compatibility between Mac and PC devices and simplifies data transmissions. Support for Linux operating systems has been less than optimal for a long time. However, this problem was fixed in the meantime thanks to driver solutions from companies like Samsung. With the Linux distribution Ubuntu, exFAT has been included in the official packet sources as of version 12.04.

From a less technical perspective, exFAT can be seen as a hybrid between NTFS and FAT32. It is a modern file system like NTFS, but just as compatible as the classic FAT32.

Where is exFAT used?

exFAT is now used by many manufacturers and hence also by many users, both on USB sticks and on SSD drives. Although there are no technical limitations regarding the file size – as outlined above – exFAT has quickly been shown to work most efficiently when the total size of the data storage is not too big.

Here are some recommendations for optimally using the exFAT format: Large hard drives that are only used on Windows computers should always be NTFS-formatted. This also applies to data that has to be accessed quickly – such as for an application in real-time. When file compression is necessary, NTFS has to be used, since exFAT does not support compression. In all other application cases, exFAT should be preferred – and for small quantities of data, FAT32 as well.

When it comes to fast data exchanges between Apple and PC devices, as is becoming increasingly more important nowadays, exFAT is able to play to its full strengths. The data exchange no longer takes place from computer to computer, but via the cloud – and without the need for a mobile storage device with an exFAT file system.

Collaboration between PC and Mac devices is a notorious problem, since Mac systems are not able to handle the NTFS standard. The disadvantage of FAT32 is that you can not save any data larger than around 4 gigabytes. The solution is exFAT; it can store large files (e.g. movies) on a single storage medium. Multiple devices with a wide range of operating systems can then work with this storage medium. Users and experts often say that exFAT is highly flexible.

Thus, the exFAT file system is used wherever NTFS does not offer a practical solution, for example, because of the data structure. All FAT formats – especially exFAT – are suitable for embedded systems, because the file system has a lean structure. Due to the low storage and power requirements, exFAT is also frequently used in firmware. Directly compared to its predecessor FAT32, exFAT is technically better as it offers higher maximum file and partition sizes.

What are the advantages of exFAT?

exFAT is useful when working with different operating systems, since the format works with Mac, Windows, and Linux and all storage media are supported – from hard drives to USB sticks and SD cards. exFAT solves the problems outlined earlier in storing huge files across different platforms. For this reason, it is often referred to as a “better FAT.” After all, it simply has many advantages over the older FAT32 standard.

Multimedia hardware – like cameras, car radios, media players, or TV sets – does not typically work properly with the NTFS file system. Consequently, audio or video files are not displayed or played back. Sometimes, the folder is not recognized. Instead, the hardware would appear as an empty USB stick, empty SD card, or empty hard drive, even though all the data were successfully copied and previously shown and played back correctly on the computer. The exFAT standard is generally more compatible than NTFS and enables playback and display on almost all common multimedia devices – no matter whether they are new or old.

What are the disadvantages of exFAT?

When exFAT is to be used on a computer with an old Windows XP operating system, an update will need to be installed. Otherwise, the format will not be supported. Windows Vista may only work with exFAT after installing Service Pack 1 or Service Pack 2.

With intensive applications, exFAT often encounters problems, regardless of the operating system or platform. The hard drive or storage media may not always be detected at first and it can sometimes take several attempts to transfer data properly. Since exFAT does not redundantly store the master data, storage media with the exFAT file system should always be carefully removed. Otherwise, data can be lost and this data may only be retrievable following expensive data recovery under certain circumstances.

The lack of compression support also makes exFAT an unsuitable choice for certain applications. Therefore, if you solely work with Windows and do not consider cross-platform data exchange to be important to your work, NTFS remains the better option – particularly since the older system performs well in terms of speed.

At a glance: the differences between exFAT, FAT32, and NTFS

The exFAT file system is a modern extension of the classic FAT file systems. In other words, exFAT is better than FAT32. The differences primarily concern the extended file and partition size as well as improved compatibility. A comparison to NFTS is rather unsuitable. NTFS is Microsoft’s standard file system.

Being a file system optimized for flash storage media, exFAT is not a direct competitor of NTFS. Instead, it represents a useful addition to transfer files across different platforms, from one operating system or storage media to another – quickly, reliably, and ideally without any errors. However, NTFS is still the faster system.

Despite its technical advantages, the exFAT file system is not as well-known among users as FAT32 or NTFS, yet. But the format is regularly used by manufacturers and is widespread. The fact that Microsoft only published the detailed specifications of exFAT in 2019 has undoubtedly played a role in the format remaining relatively unknown.

Summary

exFAT has surpassed its predecessor FAT32 in many aspects. Compared to NTFS, however, it does have a few disadvantages. These two file systems will likely be used together for the foreseeable future.


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