The FAT32 file system is the third version of the File Allocation Table or FAT file system. It was developed by Microsoft to overcome the limitations of the earlier FAT16. The original FAT was introduced in 1977. The third version was introduced in 1996. It later became the most popular file system in 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. However, because of some of its notable advantages, FAT32 remains a considerably popular file system for formatting internal and external storage devices.
Pros: Notable Advantages of FAT32 File System
1. Overcomes the Volume Limitation of FAT16
Remember that FAT32 was introduced as an improved iteration of the FAT16 file system. FAT16 supports a maximum file size of 2GB or 4GB and a maximum volume size of between 2GB and 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. It also enables long filenames of up to 255 characters and has better error checking.
Other advantages of FAT32 include support for disk partitions as large as 2TB. 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. It can also create tens to hundreds of megabytes of additional free space on large volumes.
The aforesaid characteristics come from the fact that this file system uses a minimum cluster size of 4 KB. It can use clusters as small as 512 bytes. This makes it more efficient at storing data. FAT16 is relatively inefficient because it uses a maximum cluster size of 64 KB, which means that every file, no matter how small, takes up at least 64 KB of disk space.
2. Wide Operating System Compatibility
Another advantage of FAT32 is that it is compatible across popular operating systems such as Windows, macOS, and Linux distributions such as Ubuntu and Debian. 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.
The compatibility of this file system comes from a first-mover advantage. It has a longer history than more recent file systems. It is also one of the oldest and most mature file systems still in use today that has undergone extensive refinements to be as stable as possible. This resulted in widespread adoption across various operating systems and devices
Note that the NTFS system is readable outside Windows such as macOS and Linux. The problem is that these operating systems cannot write on storage services formatted on this file system. This makes file transfer inconvenient. The Apple File System or APFS launched by Apple is only limited to macOS and optimized for solid-state drives.
Remember that the wide compatibility of this file system comes from its tenure. Nevertheless, due to this key advantage, it has also become an ideal format for removable and portable storage devices such as USB flash drives, external SSDs, MultiMediaCards and eMMC, smaller Secure Digital or SD cards, and other flash-based memory cards.
Cons: Key Disadvantages of FAT32 File System
1. Advantages of Other File Systems and Formats
FAT32 has notable drawbacks or disadvantages compared to other file systems. It does not have a journaling 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 lessens the likelihood of data corruption or data due to a power failure or system crash.
Take note that this File Allocation Table file system was intended to be as simple and efficient as possible. Journaling adds complexity and overhead to a file system. It was also designed to be compatible with operating systems and devices that do not support journaling. FAT32 was also intended for storing and transferring data via removable storage devices.
NTFS and the Extended File System file systems have a journaling system. They specifically have built-in capabilities for allocating a special area or journal to record changes ahead of time. The absence of this capability in the variants of the File Allocation Table file systems makes them prone to data corruption and data losses due to interruption.
It is also worth mentioning that none of the FAT file systems provide compression. Files on these systems are usually larger when compared to similar files on NTFS. It also does not have a native feature for protecting and encrypting files. Note that built-in read-only and encryption capabilities are standard features in the Windows operating system.
2. Only Suitable for Lower-Capacity Storage
Limitations in the maximum file size and volume size represent another disadvantage of FAT32. It is important to reiterate the fact that it only 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. This also translates to limited applications.
It is still better than FAT16, but it is not suitable in certain use cases that involve large-sized files. The limited file size and volume size make it unideal for multimedia content, modern software applications such as office productivity apps, photo and video editing apps, and high-end video game titles. These use cases are common in modern personal computing.
The NTFS format remains ideal for Windows. Apple has banked on its proprietary Apple File System which was designed to work well with the macOS and its overall hardware-software optimization considerations. The exFAT format is ideal for compatibility across different operating systems or platforms and higher-capacity storage media.
FAT32 remains popular. However, because of its drawbacks, it is more suitable for use cases that involve the storage or transfer of medium-sized files that are less than 4GB. It is still important to reiterate the fact that exporting a video file 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
The aforementioned pros and cons or advantages and disadvantages of FAT32 make it 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, among others. However, due to the drawbacks and limitations mentioned above, which include volume limitation and the absence of native capabilities or features such as journaling and encryption, it is undeniably an inferior file system, especially when compared to newer ones such as the NTFS and exFAT.