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Data Storage Operating Systems Software Windows

USB Flash Drive Comparison Part 2 — FAT32 Vs. NTFS 198

Posted by timothy
from the get-your-data-past-the-border-guards dept.
Dampeal writes "Ok, a little while back I ran a somewhat large USB Flash Drive Comparison with 21 drives compared, today I got part two of that comparison. I've taken the 8gig and 4 gig drives, nine in total, and formatted them FAT32, NTFS and ExFAT and ran all of the tests over again for a comparison of how the file systems work on the drives." Good news — after some exhaustively graphed testing scenarios, the author comes to a nice conclusion for lazy people, writing "[I]n my opinion the all around best choice is FAT32, or the default for most all USB drives out there today, it seems to give us the best average performance overall."
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USB Flash Drive Comparison Part 2 — FAT32 Vs. NTFS

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  • Great (Score:4, Informative)

    by Chih (1284150) on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @11:55AM (#26624341)
    I'm lazy, so it's good to know that the default setting is the best.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I'm too lazy to even care.

    • Re:Great (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Z00L00K (682162) on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @12:08PM (#26624555) Homepage

      What about ext2 and other filesystems then?

      • by tepples (727027) <tepples@[ ]il.com ['gma' in gap]> on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @12:56PM (#26625509) Homepage Journal

        What about ext2 and other filesystems then?

        Ninety percent of desktop PCs run Windows, and for interchange among the public, file systems that most PCs running Windows cannot read aren't worth testing. If you format your USB drive as ext2 and carry it to someone else's PC, you'll need to 1. carry a CD or a second USB drive with the ext2 driver [fs-driver.org] and 2. get admin rights in order to install it on someone else's PC. It'd be like the Windows 9x days, when you needed to carry a floppy disk with the USB mass storage class driver whenever you used someone else's computer.

        • by Rix (54095) on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @12:59PM (#26625597)
          So you could just have a small partition holding the ext2 driver. Not really worth the effort for that, but it makes sense for things like truecrypt.
        • by emj (15659)

          Don't bother with vfat, use what is best for your computer. And as an extension of what is stated bellow you can always install drivers for ext2 + a bootable Linux on the flash drive. A whopping 50MB would be needed.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          I use USB-pens to securly transfere my data from A -> B, gpg keys, documents, etc. Just because you use your USB-pens to spread viruses between windows pcs doesn't mean everybody does! I'd be quite interested to see ext2 vs reiserfs vs jfs vs fat.

      • by AmiMoJo (196126)

        Unfortunately FAT32 is the only universally supported file system. You can be sure pretty much any machine you put your USB flash drive in will read and write it. Most embedded systems only support FAT/FAT32 as well (e.g. TVs, cameras, car head units etc.)

        The reason it's unfortunate is that FAT32 is not journalled, so not exactly ideal for a removal storage device.

        NTFS probably comes second, since obviously Windows 2000/XP/Vista fully support it and you can at least read, if not write it on Linux/Mac.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by afidel (530433)
          If you don't need to write to the drive from XP then UDF is a possibility, it's about 3x faster than even FAT16 under Vista for small files and is supported by almost all current OS's (OSX 10.5, Linux 2.6.10+, Vista/Win7, AIX, etc) so eventually it shouldn't be a problem unless you need to use it with an embedded type device. If MS asks too much for exFAT I can see embedded players supporting UDF for large filesystems.
          • by AmiMoJo (196126)

            Is there a simple way to format a USB drive as UDF in Windows? Normally you only get FAT, FAT32, NTFS and if on Vista exFAT.

            • by afidel (530433)
              FORMAT X: /FS:UDF from Vista.
              • by AmiMoJo (196126)

                Ah, okay, it does not seem to be supported under XP or XP x64 (2003 kernel).

                • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

                  by Hucko (998827)

                  Thus Microsoft has the perfect way to EOF XP... Support UDF, Microsoft! It will force people to upgrade! s/force/encourage

      • by Trogre (513942)

        No data points here, but when I formatted my 8GB flash disk as EXT3 (was FAT32), I saw an almost ten-fold increase in transfer speed.

  • No JFFS2? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by garbletext (669861) on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @12:02PM (#26624435)
    Since interoperability is key in this context, anything besides FAT32 is hopelessly esoteric. So why not test the OSS solution as well?
    • by rvw (755107)

      Since interoperability is key in this context, anything besides FAT32 is hopelessly esoteric. So why not test the OSS solution as well?

      And I want to know how RAID 9 performs when I plugin my 27 USB sticks. How about that? Why doesn't anybody think about these useful situations?!

    • First: The drives are likely optimized for FAT32. I would not be surprised if they contained very specific optimizations based on knowledge of the internal FAT datastructures.

      Second: JFFS2 requires that you actually be able to access the flash device, not some mass storage layer on top of it. And isn't there something newer anyway?

  • by gEvil (beta) (945888) on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @12:03PM (#26624477)
    The question about filesystems has come up a few times over on the Dell Mini forums. Basically the question is which is better to use on machines with SSDs? If you're not dealing with >4GB files, several people have suggested that you're better off formatting the drive as FAT32. I'll need to take a better look at this article when I get a chance, but it seems to be suggesting the same thing.
    • by js_sebastian (946118) on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @12:16PM (#26624741)

      The question about filesystems has come up a few times over on the Dell Mini forums. Basically the question is which is better to use on machines with SSDs? If you're not dealing with >4GB files, several people have suggested that you're better off formatting the drive as FAT32. I'll need to take a better look at this article when I get a chance, but it seems to be suggesting the same thing.

      FAT32 is fine for a USB stick, but you shouldn't install an OS on it. The problem is that FAT32 has no concept of file ownership. So your operating system will be unable to restrict access to files based on the user, which is one of the building blocks of security on any modern OS. This way, any (malicious) process running on the system can overwrite critical system files to do arbitrary damage.

      Even if you run windows XP as adminstrator, not all processes on your system run as administrator so you will still be (slightly) decreasing security by having it on a FAT32 filesystem.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Permissions on XP are screwed and hurt more than they help. Being unable to delete/move some files even as Administrator in single user mode is bullshit.

        • by Khyber (864651)

          You might want to scan your computer for SecuROM, then, considering one of it's first priority tasks is to usurp your Administrative privileges.

          • by Anpheus (908711)

            Agreed, I had two files left over from installing Bioshock that couldn't be moved if I used a sledgehammer, for all I know. Nothing I did worked and I ended up giving up trying to move or remove them.

            • by repvik (96666) on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @02:03PM (#26626853)

              Google "unlocker". Very useful tool.

              • unlocker (if you use Vista, make sure to set it to run as administrator by default in its properties tab) is great for -unlocking- files that are in use... e.g. some program or service has a file handle open on it.

                it does crap all for permissions issues.. so do the actually permissions tools in Windows if the permissions table itself is corrupt (had to remove two folders recently because vista wouldn't even let me change the owner.. teehee)

                a boot CD (UBCD / UBCD4WIN) can be *very* useful for these types of

                • by Anpheus (908711)

                  Boot CDs can corrupt the volume shadow copies because they don't correctly deal with them.

                  This means you can lose your system restore functionality in one fell swoop.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Pentium100 (1240090)

          This.

          While all my computers are part of a domain (so my user name works on all of them and has full rights), I sometimes have problems with hard drives that I connect from other (people brought me to reinstall Windows). Now, ideally I would connect the drive to my PC, if the drive has enough free space left (>3GB), I would just move all current directories to a new one, say c:\__old, then install Windows. The owner of that PC would save what files are important to him and delete the rest of __old. Howeve

          • sometimes I have problems moving or deleting the Windows directory because I do not have enough permissions and taking ownership does not work.

            Taking ownership alone may not be sufficient, because the ACL for a file can specify "deny write" for the owner as well (just like it can on any Unix system). So you need to take ownership, and then to give yourself full rights for the file (which is something that you can only do as an owner), and only then you will definitely be able to delete it. Some Vista syste

      • by AmiMoJo (196126)

        Another issue for a lot of people is that FAT32 does not support Unicode for file names. In other words, if your Windows system is English you can't save files with Japanese names on a FAT32 drive.

        NTFS and ext2 fully support Unicode. I usually use Unicode on my flash drives, and despite what the article suggests it does not seem to affect performance noticeably.

      • by BenoitRen (998927)

        Why does this have to be ingrained into the file system? Why can't it just be as simple as not allowing non-system processes to write to system directories like C:\Windows?

    • by Tisha_AH (600987)

      The differences between filesystems is not that surprising and you can see a common trend across all of the USB flash drives. This is a good heads-up comparison of the filesystems.

      I have a great interest in the differences between manufacturers and models of the flash-drives. You can clearly see who is using faster chips and who is using the dregs out of a bucket full of memory chips. The filesystem comparisons are dwarfed by the hardware speed.

      Once a USB flash-drive is put in a convenient plastic case no-o

  • not so fast (Score:5, Informative)

    by uberjoe (726765) on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @12:05PM (#26624505)
    FAT32 is great, unless you want to exceed the 4gb filesize limit. In which case you will need an alternative.
    • by neokushan (932374)

      You mean like exFAT? Which, as far as I'm aware, is basically just FAT64. I.e. it's got all the "benefits" of FAT32 without the filesize limit, probably at the cost of a bit of performance.

    • Ah but I have 4 million 1K files do I still use FAT? FAT32 is quite crap really but in the situation of USB flash drive it may not encounter some of it's issues.
  • NTFS patten? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jgtg32a (1173373) on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @12:06PM (#26624525)
    I thought NTFS had a patten on it which is why they used FAT32 instead.
  • Question (Score:4, Funny)

    by oldspewey (1303305) on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @12:07PM (#26624537)
    If I format one of these with ReiserFS, am I still okay to take it through airport security?
  • Did he run tests with 16GB files?

    • Re:Size matters (Score:5, Informative)

      by pla (258480) on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @12:23PM (#26624857) Journal
      Did he run tests with 16GB files?

      FTA: "I've taken the 8gig and 4 gig drives, nine in total"


      FTA: "I used a 350MB .AVI Video file for all testing.".


      More importantly, he couldn't use a 16GB file, since FAT32 doesn't support single files over 4GB.
      • by coolsnowmen (695297) on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @01:10PM (#26625807)

        Did he run tests with 16GB files?

        ...
        More importantly, he couldn't use a 16GB file, since
        FAT32 doesn't support single files over 4GB.

        And because 4GB drives don't support files over 4GB.

        • by Rich0 (548339)

          Actually, with an appropriate filesystem they might - sort-of. I believe that newer filesystems can record the presence of zero-filled blocks without allocating the blocks. So, you could have a 1TB file full of zeros that takes just one inode or something along those lines.

          • by jabuzz (182671)

            Sparse files have existing since forever.

          • I understand, but then you are using the fs to do transparent compression. That argument fails in this case because filesize=size_on_disc. Otherwise you could argue that a 3mb mp3 is really a 30MB .wav file...but it's not, it is a compressed file.

      • by Fred_A (10934)

        Did he run tests with 16GB files?

        FTA: "I've taken the 8gig and 4 gig drives, nine in total"

        FTA: "I used a 350MB .AVI Video file for all testing.".

        More importantly, he couldn't use a 16GB file, since
        FAT32 doesn't support single files over 4GB.

        Which is a real shame since I was really looking forward to seeing his technique for fitting those 16GB files on 8 or 4GB drives. Curse you Microsoft !

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by TemporalBeing (803363)

        FAT32 doesn't support single files over 4GB.

        True, but it will happily install (at least using the Linux Kernel's driver for it) on any size drive. I did that a few years ago for a backup drive that had to be accessible from Linux as well as Windows. Windows would only allow the FS to format to 32GB; while the Linux driver let it take up the whole drive (120GB? can't quite remember). The real funny thing was that Windows was happy to work with the drive afterwards and didn't complain whatsoever about the l

  • incomplete tests (Score:4, Interesting)

    by PatentMagus (1083289) on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @12:12PM (#26624659)
    I wish there were tests covering "typical user mishaps". Things like inopportune powerdowns and flash drive yanking. My anecdotal evidence is that I've never had issues with FAT32 but have had entire NTFS partitions become unreadable. It's just anecdote though. Now throw a truecrypt file into the mix ...
    • by corsec67 (627446)

      I have seen a couple of problems with FAT based flash drives.
      What happened in both cases was that the files got "locked", and couldn't be deleted on OSX and Linux, but a fsck fixed the issue.

    • by Nimey (114278)

      I've been around a while. Let me tell you, there are many ways to screw up a FAT-formatted volume, most especially the computer powering off in the middle of a write. I've had far fewer problems in that regard with NTFS, probably because NTFS is journaled.

      • I don't trust NTFS journaling yet. It wasn't all that when they slapped it into NTFS v3.0. Perhaps they don't (didn't) journal the master file table? That's where my drive got corrupted. Decent journaling would have dealt with that. It has been many years since I lost that NTFS partition and my FAT32 formated flash drives have been robust. I haven't experimented with NTFS formatting since the mishap.

        Over all, I'm a little embarrassed to be talking about which is better: NTFS or FAT32. ext3 is bett
    • I wish there were tests covering "typical user mishaps". Things like inopportune powerdowns and flash drive yanking. My anecdotal evidence is that I've never had issues with FAT32 but have had entire NTFS partitions become unreadable. It's just anecdote though. Now throw a truecrypt file into the mix ...

      Ugh... FAT32 is so much more likely to lose data compared to NTFS (which is journaled). (My only data loss due to a screwed up FS is due to FAT32 going crazy.)

      (Either way, I always setup my flash drive
  • Would one of the UFS variations be suitable for flash drives? And also better portability (almost all OS's support UFS by now). Would performance be better?

  • Read vs Write (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Hyppy (74366) on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @12:16PM (#26624739)
    It seems like the write time is the most variable out of all these. FAT32/NTFS/ExFAT scores for reading are all within a few % of each other.

    I wonder what makes NTFS so slow for writes? The journaling alone reduces it that far?
    • Writing files in NTFS is apparently somewhat complex. I don't know *that* much about it, except the it uses B+ trees to store some of it's information (which are a little difficult to write), and that it took a *long* time before Linux had NTFS write capability. They were stuck on read-only for a long while.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Hal_Porter (817932)

      I'd guess it's because NTFS sucks on a removable device. On Windows, by default, hot pluggable devices are mounted with write through caching. NTFS supports this but not very efficiently.

      FAT32 and exFAT are simple enough that you can do safe access to a disk even without much write caching. FAT (and probably exFAT) actually defines a way to mark the volume as dirty in the first FAT entry at the start of each transaction where the FAT will be modified.

      If someone pulls the drive right in the middle of writing

  • Important for me (Score:5, Interesting)

    by david.given (6740) <dg@cRASPowlark.com minus berry> on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @12:22PM (#26624841) Homepage Journal

    I'm currently on site at a customer's office. I have one of their PCs and one of ours; legal restrictions mean I can't copy our source onto their machines or their source onto ours.

    The solution to this is to put a copy of our source onto a USB stick and plug it into their machine, and then use a NTFS junction point (aka a symlink) to let their Windows-based build system see our source. This works very nicely, and I can just unplug the USB stick whenever I leave and the lawyers are happy.

    However:

    - I have to use NTFS. This is because the two machines are set to use different time zones, and frickin' FAT stores timestamps in the local time, which means that if I were to touch a file on one machine and the move the USB stick, the build system will go horribly wrong.

    - I have 'optimise for performance' turned on; the non-Windows world calls this write caching. This boosts performance on NTFS *hugely*. I see no mention of this in the review. I now have to remember to unmount the stick on the Windows machine before pulling it, but it's worth it.

    - You have to use the command line format.exe to format a removable drive as NTFS, because frickin' Windows doesn't let you do it from the GUI.

    - If you turn NTFS compression on, you get a tiny bit more speed boost. But while Linux will read compressed NTFS files, it won't write them.

    - You need to do something obscure with NTFS file permissions if you're going to move the stick between two Windows machines, because otherwise you'll be creating files on one machine you won't be allowed to edit on the other. Linux, of course, just ignores NTFS ACLs.

    I have investigated the Windows ext2 driver, but while it does work reasonably well, it's still pretty clunky, and ext2 isn't much better than NTFS. What I'd really like is a decent Windows JFS or XFS driver --- NTFS is *so* last century.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @01:04PM (#26625689)

      Select the usb drive right click/hardware/policies select optimize for performance and the GUI formatter will now have NTFS as an option.

      After formatting you can reset the policy as needed.

      I personally turn optimize for performance off on USB drives as many times explorer or some other program will lock the drive preventing a safe removal.

    • You have to use the command line format.exe to format a removable drive as NTFS, because frickin' Windows doesn't let you do it from the GUI.

      How do you figure? Run diskmgmt.msc, right click on drive in question, "Format..." etc. Defaults to NTFS for me.
  • Since the article is /.ed and I can't RTFA anyway, a question: I'm about to have a user start backing her files up to a 32GB USB stick. Probably no huge movie files. Should I format the stick as NTFS or exFAT (she's running Vista SP1)?

    • by Falstius (963333)

      According to the benchmarks, exFAT. If you trust it not to die a horrible death and to be readable anywhere else.

  • I've always been under the impression that NTFS is inherently slower (though I do not know exactly "how much") because of the processing of ACLs/Audit events that do not take place under FAT32, and that other than for these "features" NTFS and FAT32 are very similar.
  • by Bromskloss (750445) <auxiliary.addres ... acy@gmail . c om> on Tuesday January 27, 2009 @01:38PM (#26626333)

    I don't care for compatibility with Windows. I use exclusively free *nixes and so does all my friends (otherwise they wouldn't be real friends, would they?). So having this richer buffet of file systems than just the two in the article, what should I choose? I have heard someone say that ext2 means less wear on the drive than ext3 (something with journaling?).

  • FAT32 and MS Backup (Score:2, Informative)

    by Dreben (220413)

    Since many folks use their usb devices as backup media, it should be noted since fat32 has a file size limitation of about 4gb, fat32 is not an option if you wish to use MS Backup utility to create backup images larger than that.

  • (1) Does it have a cap I am likely to lose?

    (2) Can I attach it to my keyring? (no silly lanyard clips please)

    Both far more important to me in daily use than a 20% speed difference between one drive and another.
    It's not like I'm running terabyte database sorts on these little guys.......
    • There's a third important thing: If it has a keyring attachment point and a cap, is that point on the cap? This can cause you to lose the drive instead of just the useless cap.
  • I'm sure i cant be the only person who noticed this, but in many of the graphs TWO of the bars were coloured white with the other being red/green or whatever, not just that but they colouring seemed to be switched at random.

    That's a huge usability failure!

  • Why not VFAT? Or are these only windows formated filesystem types?

    • by Nimey (114278)

      VFAT is FAT16 with long file names. FAT16 is limited to 2GB partitions and I'm sure the max filesize is much less than that.

      So unless you're sticking with really small USB sticks, that's right out.

  • Different grades of flash memory are available, visible to the consumer as the "Class" rating on SDHC cards (SD above 2 GB capacity). You can buy unrated, Class 2, 4, 6 and sometimes 8 MB/s nominal serial block write speed. These rating are very important for digital camera performance.

    Did you try any of the Classed SD cards in a fast USB adapter (not all are fast) to establish some watermarks for what class flash chips the labels are hiding?

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