What is FAT32, and Why Use It?

What is FAT32?

FAT32 (File Allocation Table 32) is one of many file systems that was created for use with the Microsoft Windows operating system.

The FAT32 file system is an older yet still supported file system in Windows 11, Vista, XP, and older versions.

The FAT32 file format dates back to Windows 95 OEM Service Release 2 (OSR2). It has some limitations, including a maximum file size of 4GB and a maximum volume size of 2TB.

The FAT32 File System

It’s very easy to jump into a discussion about FAT32 and get lost quickly. What I’m going to do here is break down each topic so that you can understand what exactly FAT32 is, how it works, and why it exists in the first place.

FAT32 is a file system used by Windows, macOS, and Linux operating systems to store files on storage devices such as hard drives or USB flash drives.


Udacity

The file allocation table is used for storing information about the location of data on the drive. For example, suppose a file is stored at sector 3, and another stored at sector 12434.

In that case, the FAT will contain an entry for each of these sectors, which informs the OS of which sectors are used by files so that other programs do not try to use these same areas on the disk.

How Is It Different From exFAT?

In contrast, exFAT is a newer file system for flash drives and SD cards. Microsoft developed it in 2006 and serves as an updated version of FAT32 with various enhancements and improvements.

For example, exFAT supports partitions of up to 128 petabytes (1 million terabytes) in size, which is about 256 times larger than the maximum 32GB for FAT32. Unlike FAT32, exFAT also allows files larger than 4GB to be stored on your device.

The main advantage of using the exFAT file system over FAT32 is that it supports larger files than FAT32 does.

If you’re planning on storing videos or large programs on your flash drive or SD card, exFAT may be better suited to your needs since it can support files larger than 4GB.

How is It Different From NTFS?

The FAT32 file system does not support files larger than 4 GiB, whereas NTFS can support files up to 16 EiB in size. Additionally, FAT32 has a cluster size limit of 32 MB, whereas NTFS has a cluster size limit of 2 TiB (tebibyte).

Where is FAT32 used?

FAT32 is used in a variety of devices, including:

  • Flash drives
  • Recovery partitions (where data is stored if you need to reset your PC)
  • Removable devices like external hard drives
  • Older operating systems, including Windows XP and Windows 2000
  • Older or non-PC devices such as digital cameras, portable media players, game consoles, car navigation systems, and more

How To Format a Hard Drive To FAT or FAT32 in Windows 11, Vista, and XP

  • Connect the hard drive to your computer.
  • Go to My Computer and locate the external hard drive.
  • Right-click on it and select Format.
  • Choose FAT32 as the file system, select Quick Format and click Start.

You can also use this method to convert an internal hard drive from a different file system such as NTFS or exFAT over to FAT32.

However, you should be aware of the 4GB file size limit that applies when using FAT32 in Windows 10, Vista, XP, or earlier versions of Windows like 2000 or 98.

Conclusion

You just learned what FAT32 is. Now you can use it to your advantage.

FAT32 is a legacy file system still in use for SD cards, flash drives, and other external media.

It’s also the default file system for the Windows 98 operating system. Its limitations prevent it from being used on modern PCs and laptops.

Still, it will continue to be used for older systems and portable devices for years to come.