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So, basically I always format my removable mass storage devices as NTFS by default, but someone told me I was better off using exFAT. Now I've been looking around google, but can't find any good reasons why I should.

Is there anything that exFAT does (better) which NTFS doesn't which is useful when using it for (>4GB) removable mass storage?

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  • @Karan Whichever one my father has.
    – Ian Boyd
    Jan 15 '13 at 2:47
  • 5
    This might help you further for comparison between NTFS5,NTFS,exFAT,FAT12,FAT16,FAT32.
    – Siddharth
    Feb 9 '13 at 14:50
  • Performance comparisons showing NTFS over exFAT in certain cases: flexense.com/fat32_exfat_ntfs_usb3_performance_comparison.html
    – Jon
    May 22 '16 at 13:50
  • The reason you may have gotten this advice is that usually removable storage is flash memory. Flash memory only has a limited read/write operation. In this case NTFS's journaling reduces your drive's life. Mar 7 '19 at 22:18
87

exFAT basically takes the FAT file system to the next level, adding a large amount of long awaited features that the FAT32 system was sorely lacking. One of the key features for people doing video editing is the support for >4GiB files and much larger partition sizes than FAT32 typically supported, making it much easier to work with modern multi-terabyte drives..

exFAT is available for Windows Vista, 7, and I believe I may have even seen a Microsoft release to make XP work with exFAT. There are some people working on Linux exFAT support, but I can't tell how far along they are, and as always, there is a risk of corrupting your data just like with NTFS...

From Wikipedia (my comments in bold):

  • Scalability to large disk sizes: 64 ZiB theoretical max, 512 TiB recommended max, raised from the 16 TiB limit of FAT32 partitions. Note that the built-in Windows 2000/XP/Vista/7 can mount and support FAT32 volumes larger than 32 GB, but cannot create a FAT32 volume larger than 32 GB.
  • Cluster size up to 32 MiB (allowing for larger partitions at the cost of more file slack)
  • File size limit of 16 EiB (Limited by volume size), raised from close to 4 GiB in FAT32 (Better support for video editing and large archives)
  • Free space allocation and delete performance improved due to introduction of a free space bitmap (much better performance than FAT32)
  • Support for access control lists (so you can control file access if you want but I suspect the main use would be for USB devices where you just want people to access it go figure...)
  • Provision for OEM-definable parameters to customize the file system for specific device characteristics (for use in embedded devices with specific needs)

What Microsoft developers have basically done is update the FAT32 file system to exFAT, moving from 32-bit addressing to 64-bit addressing, to offer an improved speed alternative over moving to NTFS at the same time making it possible to create, store or transfer huge files, files greater than 4GiB. In theory, exFAT does not have as much of the operational overhead of NTFS as it lacks many features that add complexity (and therefore processing time and disk latency) to the filesystems.

Some of the missing (and effectively useless or a waste for removable media) features include:

The only drawbacks to exFAT are that Microsoft has not released it into the public, requiring that companies licence it for use on their devices. This is likely more aimed at digital video recorder type devices, home users get a licence to use it with Windows.

From exFAT Versus FAT32 Versus NTFS

However, exFAT should be a true competitor to NTFS on systems with limited processing power and memory. NTFS on flash memory has been known to be inefficient for quite some time. exFAT’s smaller footprint/overhead makes it ideal for this purpose. Of course, only if your definition of “ideal” allows software to be proprietary and not open source.

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  • 96
    I feel like this answer is mostly addressing exFAT versus FAT32. Where's the comparison to NTFS?
    – JoeCool
    Dec 21 '12 at 17:04
  • 11
    Another point for exFAT, against NTFS on removable media: exFAT doesn't support file ownership and permissions, so you won't experience any limitation caused by these features of NTFS when moving files from one system to another.
    – gerlos
    Jan 2 '16 at 17:26
  • @gerlos actually yes, exFAT does have a minimal ACL support
    – phuclv
    Sep 19 '18 at 1:08
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    @phuclv thanks for the link, I didn't knew of this feature of exFAT. It seems unused most of the time - wikipedia says it's supported on Windows CE only. Anyways, the point is that a file system that doesn't apply file ownership and permissions (at least, not by default) is a perfect candidate for removable storage media, since you can't predict which users will run on the systems you plug it in.
    – gerlos
    Sep 19 '18 at 9:39
  • But what does exFAT do better than NTFS?
    – Zimano
    Jun 21 at 18:27
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One very important difference comes about if you use the EFS "Encrypted" attribute (EFS stands for Encrypting File System, which is not actually a file system, but rather a feature of NTFS).

Most of the time, EFS is transparent. You don't see it. Files are encrypted on the disk, but are automatically decrypted when you access them.

When you copy an encrypted file to another NTFS volume, it stays encrypted using the same key(s) the original was. This can be great, and this can also be incredibly annoying, depending on your use case.

Basically, if you want to take your files to another computer that has all the same decryption certificates installed, choose NTFS on the removable drive. Then your files stay encrypted in transit, yet are transparently accessible on all authorized computers. Neat-o!

However, if you usually take files to machines that don't have the decryption certificates, there is no way to tell Windows to automatically decrypt a file when it's copied to an external disk. If you forget to manually decrypt it, you won't be able to access it on the other machine. If you do this often, choose exFAT on the removable drive. Any files you copy to it will then get decrypted automatically, on the fly. Edit see comment, apparently this isn't true in Win10.

If you don't use EFS (like almost everybody, ever) then obviously this doesn't apply. I think this is the second biggest difference after "compatibility with other OSes".

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  • 1
    That's actually incorrect information. Because exFAT supports file encryption at least when used with Windows 10. You can copy encrypted files to exFAT volume like USB stick and those do remain encrypted. Just as you mentioned it can be very annoying or just great. Mar 6 '19 at 16:02
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As an addendum to the above answers, exFAT is also supported by OS X Snow Leopard in 10.6.5 and later (although not mentioned in the release notes).

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NTFS has journaling which helps ensure the file system can recover from corruption, whereas exFAT does not. So if you use the drive only from Windows PCs and reliability and data integrity are important, such as for archival or backup purposes, NTFS should be used over exFAT.

Source (then are many other sources with the same kind of information)

In our opinion, there’s only one real “not so positive” thing about exFAT, and that’s the lack of support for journaling. Journaling is a feature that allows the file system to keep records of changes made to files stored on it. That’s useful when data corruption occurs because journals can be used to recover broken data. exFAT doesn’t have this feature, and that means that data can be corrupted more easily when unexpected shutdowns occur or when the removable drive formatted this way is not safely ejected.

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  • This is especially useful information for me, and upvoted. I came to this question googling "which filesystem is better from a recovery point of view". Also, In my subsequent experience with recovering data from corrupt drives… in NTFS recovery chances are better and file integrity remains intact considerably. Data recovery is a very important aspect in choosing file systems, at least to me. Thanks.
    – spcsLrg
    Jul 11 at 21:41
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Interoperability of the file system is important. exFAT is also natively, read/write supported by OS X Snow Leopard in 10.6.5 and later (although not mentioned in the release notes). This can be verified by checking Disk Utility, where exFAT is an option for formatting.

On OS X, NTFS is still considered Read only, unless you modify the fstab on a per drive basis and are willing to deal with non-native mounting. As such, it's not a reliable option for most users.

While using your drive on a Mac or Linux or other system might not be your main concern, it is something to consider.

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  • Should also be noted that support on linux is more limited and flawed, even with the fuse filesystem, due to legal problems, lack of interest, and bugs in the exfat fuse implementation. I experienced this today when trying to mount a PSVita memory card (Vita2SD) for a friend. So I would definitely not say that portability is much better than ntfs.
    – Wyatt Ward
    Aug 12 '19 at 4:37
  • There ares Paragon NTFS ($), macFuse (free, but hate some issues -> github.com/osxfuse/osxfuse/issues) which make it writable. I use paragon without problems for years. I used fuse but I found some issue years ago and preferred to avoid using it to move data to my backup HDs. Mar 4 at 8:26
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NTFS has security attributes that get tied to the local computer by default - so for media that needs to move around, FAT is usually more handy.

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    So does exFAT. It also has DACLs Jul 25 '14 at 6:54
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One practical advantage that NTFS still has over exFat though is that the max length of volume label in exFat is still only 11 bytes (like in FAT) but its 32 bytes in NTFS.

This can be helpful when you have multiple USBs of same brands and you want to create different names to identify each.

As an example, my typical volume names for say a verbatim drive that is 256 GB is verbatim256. Now if I have a second drive of the same type, I can't even add 1 or 2 to the name because it has already reached max limit.

This is actually deciding factor for me to stick to NTFS as they both otherwise work near universally.

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  • 1
    this is not correct. The volume label in exFAT is 15 UTF-16 code units
    – phuclv
    Sep 18 '18 at 15:45
  • @phuclv I looked up on it too but its confusing. The exFat drive I have only allows 11 so my response was based on that.
    – zar
    Sep 18 '18 at 17:22
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Google's many results seem to suggest it's much better for many reasons (it's newer, the same old reasons like smaller, faster, more efficient) but also less compatible, Vista and 7 only.

This is the best I found, chart explains a lot.

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  • I don't think "Less Compatible" is a fair statement seeing as exFAT is better supported by OS X than is NTFS.
    – Simon East
    Jan 3 '16 at 8:23
  • Broken link. .. Aug 12 '17 at 4:17
  • @SimonEast definitely less compatible, usually not shipped on linux due to license. And you cannot just make a device with exfat support without dealing with legal stuff.
    – jangorecki
    Apr 27 '19 at 12:36
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From a Recovery point of view NTFS appears to be better suited. (This answer is an expansion to my comment on this answer which talks about Journaling in NTFS.)

This article (I have nothing to do with the author or the site/org) which compares the recovery prospects (emphasis mine).

NTFS

Recovery: the information about the deleted file (name, size, location) remains in the MFT. If the MFT record remains unchanged and the disk data is not overwritten, the recovery chances of this file are 100%. Yet, if this record is deleted, it is still possible to find the file by its content with the help of the raw recovery method. The recovery procedure is then performed by disk contents bypassing the file system structure.

EXFAT

Recovery: as links to files continuation may be lost, the recovery result for files with the size of several blocks can be incomplete. The chances for successful recovery of a file in case of a directory damage can be low as well. At the same time, recovery of files by their contents (the raw recovery method) may give highly positive results due to low file fragmentation.

In my subsequent experience with real life scenarios dealing with drives of various fragmentation and abuse, and with recovering data from corrupt drives… I've found that in NTFS recovery chances are indeed better and file integrity remains intact considerably. Data recovery is a very important aspect in choosing file systems, at least to me.

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