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Should Flash Drives be formatted NTFS? What are the Pros & Cons of doing so?

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related question: serverfault.com/questions/3868/… –  Mark Robinson Jul 20 '09 at 13:50

9 Answers 9

  • Portability: the drive will be unreadable by computers running Windows 95, 98 or Me, (some)Linux, or any other non-Windows device.
  • Longevity: NTFS will shorten the life of the drive. It is a journalling file system, which means that it logs changes, not just the end result, causing more writes to the drive. It also logs last access times for files, so even a read causes a write access. Flash memory has a lifespan of only about 100,000 writes.
  • Ease of access: NTFS records the owner of a file, so you are likely to see “Access denied” messages if you try to access the file on another computer. This could be regarded as a benefit, but it's actually just an inconvenience, as the data is not encrypted. If you want to secure the data on your USB memory sticks from prying eyes you should use encryption.
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Well, the main advantages of NTFS over FAT32 (the usual choice for flash drives are):

  1. better for very large partitions (bigger clusters, files >2GB possible)
  2. filesystem permissions
  3. journaled, thus better crash recovery

1 & 2 only matter for very big flash drives (several GB), so not usually an issue. 3 is relevant if you frequently "forget" to do a "safe removal".

On the other hand, FAT32 is much more widely supported than NTFS. So I'd say:

  • if you have a very large flash drive, or often forget the safe removal, use NTFS
  • if you might ever have to use the drive on someon else's computer, use FAT32
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3  
Forgetting to do a safe removal is only an issue if write caching is enabled. If you frequently forget then I would suggest changing the caching policy, not the file system. –  pipTheGeek Jul 16 '09 at 16:55
    
Well, if you unplug the drive while it's writing, the FS will be corrupted even without write caching. But then you'll definitely lose data, so I guess it doesn't matter much either way. –  sleske Jul 16 '09 at 17:03
    
Isn't out there something like FAT64 [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ExFAT] ? –  Steve Schnepp Jul 17 '09 at 10:56

Assuming you mean pros and cons of formatting NTFS vs formatting FAT/FAT32

Pros

  • files larger than 4Gb can be stored
  • NTFS is a journaling file system, so it should be more robust than FAT/FAT32
  • more efficient use of storage (less wasted slack space when storing lots of small files)
  • better performance in general
  • support for ACLs and filesystem permissions
  • built in compression if desired.

Cons of formatting Flash drive as NTFS

  • extra write activity wears out the flash memory faster
  • must explicitly dismount drive before removing from system
  • can't optimize for quick removal
  • under some circumstances may be forced to shut down system to remove
  • may need extra drivers to access drive from non-windows platforms
  • not compatible with older versions of Windows
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must explicitly dismount drive this is the killer reason to not use NTFS IMHO. –  Motti Apr 18 '13 at 11:05

The classic answer is: It depends

For compatibility, FAT32 is the winner only because it’s the most compatible with almost everything or every other OS out there.

NTFS (obviously) isn’t compatible with everything.

ExFat is supposidly only compatible with Vista but I know of some folks who have made it work with XP.

As far as copying files to the USB drive, FAT32 will be a little faster than NTFS.

Reading or copying FROM the USB drives will be about the same speed. NTFS takes SLIGHTLY longer.

In my opinion, the best choice is FAT32.

Now, that being said... there are obviously some advantages to using NTFS such as the ability to support larger file sizes, etc.

If you know you're only going to be using the USB drives on systems that support NTFS and you want the added security, permissions, large file sizes, etc go with NTFS.

Like I said... the correct answer is: It depends

Hope this helps! :-)

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You can format a flash drive with NTFS, but you should either change the caching policy (on the "Policy" tab in the properties for the drive in "Device Manager") to "Optimize for quick removal" or, even better, always "eject" the device using "Safely Remove Hardware" before removing the drive from the machine.

  • Some people claim that NTFS is slower than FAT/FAT32 on flash drives. I don't have any benchmarks to back that up personally.

  • You can't use an NTFS-formatted flash drive on operating systems that don't support the NTFS filesystem, obviously.

  • You do get NTFS ACLs and compression. The ACLs are of dubious value if you move the drive to another computer since only permissions that name "well known" accounts (like "Administrators", "Everyone", "Authenticated Users", etc) will "work" on other computers (other users / groups will appear to other computers as unknown SIDs-- long numbers with dashes in them). NTFS compression can give you more "space" on the drive by compressing files as they're written / read. Whether that will actually gain you anything depends on the type and compressibility of the files you're storing.

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If you concern the compatibility the most of the time, go for FAT32.

If you concern about the size of the file you transfer, especially the files bigger than 4G, go for NTFS. FAT32 can only handle the files that are smaller 4G.

Hope it helps.

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I've had so much trouble with FAT32 in the past that I'd be reluctant to recommend it for anything except where there is absolutely no choice whatsoever (I'd even prefer FAT16 over FAT32 where possible). Obviously if compatibility is a concern then there is no choice whatsoever, but if it's not going to be an issue then the matter of compatibility is completely irrelevant to your decision.

The extra wear and tear overhead of NTFS is an odd one - I'd be very interested to see some hard figures that give a clear indication of what this would constitute in terms of average flash drive life expectancy. Even so, the things are so cheap these days that I think it's a reasonably fair trade for the benefits of a much more robust filesystem, even leaving aside ACLs/encryption/compression as an extra advantage.

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Yes, but turn off indexing ("index this drive for faster searching") for that drive which will be persistent accross computers.

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You have to use NTFS if your USB drive is larger than 32GB or a single file that you want to copy on it is larger than 2GB. Another recent alternative is exFAT, which is designed to maximize flash memory life. But it is not supported widely yet, so your exFAT USB drive might be unrecognized on some devices like TV, DVD player, speakers with USB etc.

There is also an annoying bug with NTFS formatted USB drives on windows (not sure if it is all windows or certain Windows 7 systems). When you copy a file on NTFS formatted USB drive in Windows 7, after finishing copy (progress bar is full), it will just freeze for a few minutes.

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