Which format to use for sharing USB flash thumb drives and USB HDD

I have found that EXFAT is the most convenient format for sharing files between Mac/Linux/Windows/Android. If your operating system is at least as new as in the table below, EXFAT is supported on your OS.

Windows Mac Linux Android
XP OSX 10.6.3 CentOS 5, Ubuntu 10.04, etc. 4

Exceptions: use FAT32 instead of EXFAT

  • Test equipment (e.g. Agilent)
  • some older USB drive accepting printers (print direct from USB stick)

Other file systems

These file systems are commonly, but not universally supported across OS’s.

NTFS

is not writeable on Mac OS X by default, in Mavericks I have read that one must either go into Terminal and use Homebrew or edit your /etc/fstab and make some manual changes. I.e. something not easy to do at a conference or casual meeting quickly. NTFS is NOT supported on Android.

FAT32

is readable by Windows/Mac/Linux/Android, but is limited to 4 GB file size. Sometimes I share large raw/compressed data files that are larger than this, especially if using a USB HDD. With many USB HDDs over 2 TB, you would have to break up your HDD into multiple partitions for FAT32 – quite inconvenient. You could use FAT32 for a small USB flash drive. Note, I have found that when using a USB flash thumb drive to plug into a printer to “USB Direct Print” that single partition FAT32 is supported, but not EXFAT. So I keep a small USB drive formatted to FAT32 for this purpose.

Summary

In my opinion, EXFAT is the best choice for universal support on USB HDD. For USB flash thumb drives, I format most to EXFAT–keeping a small flash drive formatted to FAT32 in case I need to quickly use the USB port on a USB direct print printer (Dell, Brother, etc.)

Important note: There are a variety of devices such as in-car entertainment, printers, Agilent test equipment, etc. that require only a single FAT32 partition. Since USB drives are so small and inexpensive, I keep an old USB flash drive formatted to FAT32 for these special cases.

Also, for SD cards, many devices expect still expect FAT32, so you may need to use FAT32 for SD cards just for compatibility reasons.

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