What is NTFS (New Technology File System)?

The abbreviation “NTFS” stands for “New Technology File System.” Thanks to the dominance of Microsoft, NTFS is a widespread file system for organizing data on hard drives and other data media. As of the release of Windows XP in 2001, the file system has been the uncontested standard for Windows operating systems. Read on and find out how it works, what benefits it offers, and how it differs from other systems like FAT.

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NTFS: characteristics and functions

The maximum size of a partition for the NTFS file system is around 2 terabytes. However, there are no size restrictions for an individual file. So it’s theoretically possible to store one file of almost 2 terabytes in size on a data storage medium formatted with NTFS. Compared to classic file systems like FAT32, the “cluster size” in NTFS has been expanded considerably and now approaches 16x10^18. For the FAT32 file system, the cluster size is “only” 4,294,987,296. A file name may be at most 255 characters long according to the NTFS standard.


NTFS is not an entirely new development, but is largely based on the HPFS file system from IBM which was used in the Microsoft operating system OS/2. The abbreviation “HPFS” stands for High Performance File System. HPFS was introduced in 1989 and was initially an installable file system – or IFS. Previously, file systems (like FAT16) were usually directly integrated into the system kernel.

NTFS follows the principle: “Everything is in a file.” By contrast, other file systems – such as Unix operating systems – work according to the principle: “Everything is a file.” In the case of NTFS, all information on all saved files is stored in the MFT (master file table). Among other things, this index contains information about which blocks in the storage media belong to which file and which access authorizations and attributes are assigned to a certain file. With the NTFS file system, the master file table stores attributes like file type, file size, the date of creation and most recent changes, for example. The MFT accordingly enjoys a special position on NTFS-formatted data storage devices. This integral component typically occupies 12.5% of the partition size and can’t be filled with other files. The fragmentation of the data medium starts as soon as the MFT is completely filled with data.

The development of NTFS: an overview of all versions

In the last three decades, Microsoft has revised its proprietary file system standard on a regular basis. However, most of the released NTFS versions are no longer relevant due to the outdated operating systems they are assigned to. The following table summarizes the basic information about the individual versions:

NTFS version number Release Operating system Special characteristic
1.0 1993 Windows NT 3.1 First version, incompatible with successor versions
1.1 1995 Windows NT 3.51 First-time support of file compression and access control (individual access rights to files)
1.2 1996 Windows NT 4.0 Introduction of safety descriptions for important system files, also known as NTFS 4.0
3.0 2000 Windows 2000 Introduction of various features such as contingent management and file system-based encryption; also referred to as NTFS 5.0
3.1 2001 Windows XP Expansion of entries in the master field table (MFT) due to redundant entry numbers for easier recovery of damaged entries, also known as NTFS 5.1

When is NTFS used?

As of Windows XP, NTFS has been predominantly used in Microsoft systems. NTFS formatting on the hard drive that contains the operating system has even been obligatory as of Windows Vista. This makes sense because NTFS offers a number of substantial advantages over FAT predecessors like FAT32 or FAT16.

In general, the NTFS file system is particularly well-suited to use in networks. This is where it can fully utilize its well-organized structure including practical access controls for user read and write rights. Compared to the previous standard FAT32, which is still in use for certain purposes nowadays, NTFS offers further advantages: The maximum size of a partition is far larger and now amounts to around 16 terabytes. This represents a storage size that is still (as of 2020) only reached by few hard drives available on the market – regardless of whether they’re classic mechanical HDD drives or modern SSD flash storage media. To illustrate the importance of the file system more effectively, below you will find a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of NTFS for private and business users.

What are the advantages of NTFS?

NTFS is able to write smaller files much faster than a file system like FAT32. Moreover, the file size is not limited. By intelligently selecting the sectors to be written, the file system reduces the problem of fragmentation and minimizes the need for constant defragmentation. Data is lost less frequently with NTFS, because the file system recognizes damaged sectors faster and removes the files stored there.

Thanks to NTFS, additional information besides the file name can also be stored – with a size of 64 kibibytes (KiB).


The kibibyte is the mathematically correct binary unit used by experts, instead of the more “common” kilobyte. A kibibyte amounts to 1,024 bytes, while a kilobyte is only 1,000 bytes.

The metadata stored in this way clearly shows which programs can be used to open a file, for example. What’s more, the metadata has the positive side effect that specifying the file ending is no longer required in NTFS. A “journal” is maintained for all metadata. Here, planned action is first entered in the journal before the actual write access is performed and the journal is then updated. This allows inconsistencies to be avoided to a large extent. Even in the event of a crash or power outage, only the journal needs to be correct.

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

NTFS has been the obligatory file system for Windows systems since Windows Vista. However, the file system plays no role in mobile storage media like external HDDs or SDDs, USB sticks, or memory cards. These data media belong to the domain of file systems with the classic File Allocation Table (FAT) like FAT32 and its successor exFAT.

The question “What is NTFS?” is not often raised for Apple computer users, since the proprietary Microsoft standard is not compatible with the competitor’s technology. Data exchange between Macs and PCs, therefore, occurs via data media that are formatted with compatible file systems like FAT32 or exFAT. Multimedia end devices such as game consoles or players also require FAT data media in order to detect, display, and play back the data.

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