exFAT vs. NTFS

When to choose one file system over the other

Operating systems take care of many low-level system details so you can get along with your daily work, but it's always a good idea to understand what's happening inside your machine. And file system formats are a great example. NTFS is a format you've probably encountered with recent versions of Windows, but exFAT is also good to know if you work with other OSs.

exFAT vs NTFS: Overall Findings

  • Security features such as roles/permissions.

  • Journaling helps recover data in the event of a crash.

  • Optional encryption for NTFS volumes.

  • Can manage more files per directory.

  • Standard Windows format since Windows XP.

  • More widely supported by operating systems.

  • Less capacity restrictions than its precedessor, FAT.

  • Supports larger file sizes.

  • Full format specification released by Microsoft.

  • No built-in security.

  • Potentially susceptible to system crashes.

The most important consideration when deciding between these two file systems is the systems to which you will attach the drive. For example, you may connect removable storage like USB sticks to systems running Windows, macOS, Linux, or even Android. In this case, the wider overall support of the exFAT filesystem will make your cross-platform work a lot easier.

On the other hand, if you're confident the drive will be used exclusively in Windows (as your computer's internal SSD would likely be), go NTFS. The built-in security and resiliency features you get automatically make this a no-brainer. This can include media like external hard drives as well. But be careful if you try to use them with other systems, as all features (even as basic as write access) may not be supported.

Support: exFAT Is Supported Across More Systems

  • Widely supported on a variety of OSes.

  • Best choice for older OS versions.

  • Solid read/write support across platforms.

  • Out-of-the-box default on Windows.

  • Write access experimental on some platforms.

  • Non-Windows systems may need manual driver installation.

Microsoft created the NT file system, or NTFS, for its enterprise operating system Windows NT. It did so in order to address some of the existing limitations and restrictions of the FAT-based format used in consumer operating systems. These included support for larger file and directory sizes, improved security, and resilience features. Windows XP inherited this as its default filesystem format, and it has been very well integrated into versions of Windows ever since.

On the other hand, Microsoft saw a need for another filesystem format that would resolve some of the major shortcomings of FAT (namely file size limits) for external media such as USB drives. So it created the Extensible File Allocation Table format, or exFAT, to fill this middle ground. The specification for exFAT is much more widely supported than NTFS, and in fact Microsoft even released the entire spec for it. This allows any hardware or software vendor to use it in their releases. As a result, exFAT is supported by all major desktop OSs, as well as many others on the desktop or mobile.

Storage Limit: exFAT Has More, But NTFS Still Provides Plenty

  • Theoretically infinite upper limit on storage.

  • Supports extremely large files as well.

  • Limit on maximum number of directories per volume.

  • Hard upper limit on storage.

  • Two PB limit is more than most users would ever need.

  • Supports a higher number of directories.

NTFS originally did away with one of the main limitations of Windows file systems for business: a 4 GB limit on file size. Drives (or volumes) with NTFS be can as large as 2 petabytes (PB), although certain limits within the Windows OS will only work with drives up to 16 TB in size. And since NTFS is for use primarily with Windows systems, this becomes an effective limit on the size of the drives you can use. exFAT, on the other hand, can support drives up to 128 PB in size, and (in theory at least) can store files up to 16 exabytes (EB).

When it comes to managing files, however, NTFS has the edge. You can store over 4 billion files per directory in an NTFS drive, while exFAT can only handle 2.8 million.

Journaling: NTFS Has It out of the Box

  • Journaling requires manual add-on installation.

  • Lack of journaling makes it incompatible with some backup applications.

  • Single allocation table makes data loss more likely.

  • Built-in journaling aids in disaster recovery.

  • After a crash, any pending writes can be replayed.

  • Lowers the chance of needing to repair disk.

NTFS uses a feature called journaling that records changes to data that haven't been actually written to the disk yet. This helps in the event of a system crash, as the journal can be 'replayed' to get the drive back to a workable state. The preferred file systems for most recent versions of popular OSs use journaling, as helps keep users from ending up with a corrupted system after a crash.

exFAT doesn't support this feature out-of-the-box, although some add-ons can make it available (at the cost of compatibility). In fact, compared to its predecessor FAT, exFAT only uses a single table to record where the bits representing your data are stored. FAT used redundant tables, which at least gave you some additional hope to recover your data if something happens while the system is writing data to the drive.

Security Features: NTFS Has Many, but Only on Windows

  • No built-in permissions framework.

  • Executable rights are a security risk.

  • Encryption must be handled manually.

  • Works together with Windows roles/permissions.

  • However, these permissions may not carry over to other OSs.

  • Encrypted by default.

As mentioned previously, NTFS includes a security scheme that aligns with the one in recent versions of Windows. Specifically, the ability to define who can use particular data, and what they can use it for (i.e. just read it, read or write it, or do both plus execute it) is built into NTFS. It also has the option to encrypt data automatically.

Compare this to exFAT, which has no mechanism to track these permissions. This means drives formatted as exFAT will (depending on the operating system) either be restricted to only reading and writing data, or else the files they contain can be executed without restriction, which is a potential security risk.

NTFS or exFAT: The Final Verdict

When you have a new bit of storage you're looking to set up, it may not be very clear on which of these formats you should use. Thankfully, there are a couple of ground rules you can follow to make your decision:

  • Use NTFS for internal drives: If this is an internal drive for a Windows machine, you should use NTFS. This is especially true if you're planning on installing programs to it, as the security/permissions features of NTFS will help to protect your system against some malicious software.
  • Use NTFS for external storage on Windows: If it's external media (such as a portable hard drive or microSD card), and you're planning on using that media only with Windows, you can again opt for NTFS. Reliability features such as journaling help to protect your data in case of a crash, and you may be able to take advantage of its built-in file compression to make the most of your space.
  • Use exFAT for external storage on other OSs: If you're planning to use your (presumably external) storage with other operating systems, you should opt for exFAT. It's better supported much more widely across OSs like macOS, Linux, and Android. For example, macOS will read from NTFS file systems, but it will offer full read-write access to those with exFAT.
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