by David Hakala
When you install Windows or format a disk, you are asked to select a “file system.” The options are FAT16, FAT32, or NTFS. Which file system you choose depends on the size of the disk and what you intend to do with it.
“FAT” stands for File Allocation Table, a hidden database stored on a disk that holds information about a file’s name and where it is stored. Additionally, the NTFS (Windows NT File System) contains information about security settings that can be applied to a file, preventing unauthorized access.
The FAT16 file system originated in 1981. It is the simplest and most limited of file systems. Simple is good because it means faster reading and writing of data. FAT16 is compatible with a wide variety of operating systems, including Windows 95/98/Me, OS/2, Linux, and some versions of UNIX. But FAT16 wastes more disk space as the overall size of a disk grows. FAT16 divides a 2 GB disk into clusters of about 32 KB each; a 1 KB file still consumes 32 KB of space. Also, FAT16 does not support compression, encryption, or security access control. FAT16 is recommended only for small non-sensitive disks, like a USB flash thumb drive used to move data from one device to another.
FAT32 is just an extension of FAT16 that divides a disk into a much greater number of clusters, so each cluster can be smaller and less space is waster. Also, file names can be longer under FAT32. However, FAT32 is not compatible with Windows NT, Linux, or UNIX.
NTFS is a completely different kind of file system first introduced with Windows NT 1.0. It provides for greatly increased security, file–by–file compression, quotas, and even encryption. NTFS is the default file system for new installations of Windows. If you install Windows on a disk that has been formatted in FAT16 or FAT32, you will be asked if you want to convert the file system to NTFS. It’s best to answer “yes.”
Generally, a disk that will be used only by Windows should be formatted with NTFS. If the programs or data on a disk will be accessed by different operating systems, format the disk with FAT16 or FAT32.
David Hakala has perpetrated technology tutorials since 1988 in addition to committing tech journalism, documentation, Web sites, marketing collateral, and profitable prose in general. His complete rap sheet can be seen at http://www.linkedin.com/in/dhakala