For those who only sometimes work with a data storage mediums, the question of which file system to use for proper formatting will arise fast. Just what is FAT32? Though it has been around since Windows 95, the FAT32 file system is still relevant today.
This is because USB drives and mobile hard drives formatted in this way may be read by a wide variety of devices, including Apple products and gaming consoles.
How Does Fat32 Work?
The release of Windows 95B by Microsoft marked the beginning of the transition from the FAT16 to the FAT32 file system. It was an addition to the original program rather than a replacement.
However, Microsoft’s original development of the File Allocation Table in 1977 is where FAT32’s technical roots may be traced. (in short: FAT). When it comes to file systems, FAT is still the gold standard. Thus, the many FAT formats find use outside the limitations of specific OSes.
Following the releases of FAT12 and FAT16, FAT32 represents the final refinement of the original FAT standard. Later, a FAT offshoot named exFAT was created. Like the previous NTFS file system, exFAT is a Microsoft proprietary format and not an open-source standard.
The number “32” in FAT32’s name comes from the fact that, unlike its predecessor, FAT32 has a data width of 32 bits. The NTFS file system, which is currently the industry standard, uses a 64-bit data width. However, these numbers are just an internal file system standard and have nothing to do with the differences between 32-bit and 64-bit operating systems or CPU architecture.
FAT32 has a maximum of 268,435,456 addressable clusters. In the FAT32 file system, a cluster cannot be larger than 32 KB. IT professionals call it FAT32X instead of FAT32 if data is accessed using the LBA procedure (logical block addressing).
Interestingly, even with the advent of FAT32, partitions less than 512 MiB were still produced as FAT16. In this day and age of greater multimedia data densities, these tiny data storage media are basically useless.
Where is Fat32 Used?
USB flash drives, memory cards, and external hard drives are all examples of portable storage mediums where FAT32 is still useful. It may be necessary in some cases, for example, for data to be transferred between older and newer devices.
However, newer internal Windows hard drives no not support FAT32. Since Windows Vista, the NTFS file system has been required on all Windows PCs, regardless of cost.
As a future cross-platform standard, FAT32 will no longer be the gold standard; its successor, exFAT, provides more flexibility and more storage space. Since the lower partition size of roughly 32 GB has not been a barrier for these storage media, especially for SD cards, until the past several years, FAT32 will “survive” for longer on memory cards and USB sticks.
After all, neither the file sizes nor the amounts of data involved came close to reaching those thresholds for a very long time. FAT32 can be utilized on both traditional mechanical hard drives and newer flash storage media like solid-state drives.
What Are the Disadvantages of Fat32?
FAT32’s compatibility is its strongest suit. Therefore, users still frequently encounter relatively ancient file systems, such as when multimedia devices like digital satellite receivers or PlayStation 3 consoles require FAT32 configuration to interface with external hard drives. FAT32 ensures that small file transfers across incompatible operating systems like Windows and macOS can proceed without a hitch.
FAT32 is also useful since it allows data to be transferred between Windows and non-Windows computers without requiring any conversion. (e.g. Linux distributions or macOS).
As newer and more powerful forms of flash storage become available, however, these uses will dwindle. The replacement format exFAT is currently widely used. When compared to Windows’ default NTFS file system, the FAT32 file system is actually slightly quicker.
What Are the Disadvantages of Fat32?
The system’s built-in restrictions on file and partition size and the substantially weaker data security are FAT32’s two key flaws. Due to the lack of robust security features, FAT32 data media should never be used for archival purposes alone.
The largest files that can be stored in the FAT32 format are only about 4 gigabytes in size. Given the ubiquity of both large video files and optical discs like DVDs and Blu-rays, this is woefully inadequate.
Furthermore, a FAT32 partition can be “only” about 2 terabytes in size. While this may give the impression of plenty of room, cheaper solid-state drives (SSDs) with flash storage and mechanical HDD hard drives can obtain the same or even higher values. The maximum partition size for Windows XP, a legacy OS that some people still use today, was just about 32 GB.
The FAT32+ extension was created as an attempt to solve the issue of insufficient file size. This allowed for files to be up to 256 gibibytes in size, but it was only supported by a small number of computers and hence failed to gain widespread adoption. ExFAT is a more practical FAT32 expansion. Partition sizes up to about 8 terabytes are supported by this file system, making it suitable for modern needs.