The FAT32 file system is the third version of the File Allocation Table or FAT file system developed by Microsoft to overcome the limitations of FAT16. The original FAT was introduced in 1977. The third version was introduced in 1996. It became the most popular file system used by Disk Operating System and Windows computers until around the early 2000s when Microsoft promoted the New Technology File System or NTFS for the Windows XP operating system. However, because of some of its notable advantages, FAT32 remains a considerably popular file system for formatting internal and external storage hardware.
Pros: Advantages of FAT32 File System
Overcomes the Volume Limitation of FAT16
Remember that the reason introduced FAT32 was to replace FAT16 or the second version of the FAT file system. FAT16 supports a maximum file size of 2GB or 4GB and maximum volume size of 2GB to 16GB depending on the specific cluster and sector size. These numbers proved to be limiting with the introduction of larger files and software applications.
The third version of the FAT file system supports a maximum file size of 4GB and volume size of 32GB on Windows format, 2TB on other operating systems, and 16TB on certain theoretical applications. These limits were suitable for MS-DOS 7.1 and Windows 5 OSR2.
Other advantages of FAT32 over FAT16 include support for disk partitions as large as 2TB. Note that FAT16 supports partitions up to only 2GB. It also allocates disk space more efficiently on large partitions because it uses small clusters. The minimum cluster size is 4GB for partitions under 8GB. When compared to FAT16, this file system can create tens to hundreds of megabytes of additional free space on large volumes.
Wide Operating System Compatibility
Another advantage of FAT32 is its compatibility across popular operating systems to include Windows, macOS, and Linux distributions such as Debian and Ubuntu. It is also compatible with Android, video game consoles, and media players. A storage hardware formatted based on this file system can be read and written by these operating systems.
Note that the NTFS system is readable outside Windows. macOS and older Linux distributions can read storage devices formatted based on this file system. However, these operating systems cannot write on these devices, thus making file transfer impossible. The Apple File System or APFS launched by Apple is only limited to macOS and optimized for solid-state drives.
The wide compatibility of this file system comes from its simple design. Nevertheless, due to this key advantage, it has become an ideal format for removable and portable storage devices such as USB flash drives, external SSDs, MultiMediaCards, smaller Secure Digital or SD cards, and other flash-based memory cards.
Cons: Disadvantages of FAT32 File System
Advantages of Other File Systems and Formats
FAT32 has notable drawbacks or disadvantages compared to other file systems. For starters, it does not have a journaling file system. Journaling tracks changes that have not transpired in the main part of the file system by recording them in a data structure known as a journal. This is useful in the event of power failure or system crash because it lessens the likelihood of data corruption.
The NTFS and the Extended FileSystem, including ext3 and ext4, file systems have journaling capabilities. They have built-in capabilities for allocating a special area or journal to record changes ahead of time. The absence of this capability in the File Allocation Table file systems makes them prone to corruption and data losses due to interruption.
It is also worth mentioning that none of the FAT file systems provide compression. Most files on these systems are usually larger when compared to similar files on NTFS. It also does not have the ability to protect and encrypt files. Note that built-in read-only and encryption capabilities are standard features in Windows operating system.
Only Suitable for Lower-Capacity Storage
Limitations in the maximum file size and volume size collectively represent another disadvantage of FAT32. As mentioned, it only supports a maximum file size of 4GB, as well as a volume size of 32GB on Windows format, 2TB on other operating systems, and 16TB on certain theoretical applications.
While the numbers mentioned above proved to be advantageous when compared to FAT16, they have become limiting with the prevalent utilization of larger files to include multimedia contents, as well as software applications to include office productivity software, photo and video editing applications, and high-end video game titles.
The NTFS format remains ideal for Windows, while Apple has promoted the use of its Apple File System. The exFAT format is ideal for compatibility across different operating systems or platforms, especially for higher-capacity storage media.
While the third version of the FAT file system remains popular, it is only suitable for lower-capacity storage used for files or applications with a file size of less than 4GB. Exporting a video content or decompressing a file larger than 4GB is impossible in an external storage medium formatted based on this file system.
Nutshell: The Pros and Cons of FAT32
FAT32 remains an ideal format due to its cross-platform compatibility. Storage mediums formatted based on this file system can be read and written by different operating systems such as Windows, macOS, Linux distributions, and Android, as well as the proprietary operating systems of several video gaming consoles and media players.
However, due to the drawbacks and limitations mentioned above, which include volume limitation and lack of built-in capabilities such as journaling and encryption, it is undeniably an inferior file system, especially when compared to newer ones such as the NTFS and exFAT.