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What is the Best File System for a Backup Drive?

Without a file system, your drive wouldn’t be able to distinguish between all your files. It’d just be one long mess. A file system is necessary so that all the information stored and received by the drive can be controlled and processed properly.
One thing you might need to consider when setting up your backup drive is what file system you’re going to use. For the purposes of this article, we’ll just be assuming that you’re choosing between Windows file systems. A lot of drive manufacturers do this themselves, which is no surprise considering Windows’ large install base. You need to bear in mind that, if choosing a Windows file system, it makes it harder to create compatibility with other operating systems like Mac (although not impossible). The bottom line is no file system is going to be fully compatible with everything.
With Windows, the two contenders for file systems are FAT32 and NTFS. If you’re buying a drive new then it’ll more than likely have a file system preinstalled on it. However, if you’re formatting the drive then you’ll be able to choose between them.
FAT32 stands for File Allocation Table (with the 32 representing Windows 32-bit version) and NTFS stands for New Technology File System. The latter has been in use by Microsoft from Windows NT 3.1 in 1993 and beyond.
FAT32 supports partitions of 2 terabytes maximum and has a 4 GB individual file size limitation. Depending on the type of data you’re going to be storing on your backup drive, this might not be a problem. Large files are going to be things like high definition or lengthy videos, whereas photos and documents will be much smaller.
NTFS has no limitations on file size and can store as much as the drive allows it to. The file system also has the benefit of being much more efficient with storage, allowing for file compression where FAT32 doesn’t. NTFS makes use of small cluster sizes, making the most of the available space as a result.
As NTFS is the more modern file system (and if you’re browsing on a Windows device then it’s likely to be what you’re using right now), it is more stable and reliable. It’s easier to recover data from (should the dreaded occur) and also stores log files, allowing for system repairs. It also employs dynamic cluster remapping on bad sectors to prevent them from being used and causing issues.
However, FAT32 is more universally readable by other operating systems, which you might consider to be an importance. The only problem is that it causes all the listed limitations. Hard drives only continue to drop in price, so it would perhaps be more advisable to get different drives for each operating system you wish to run it on. Or consider using a NAS in order to collect all the data together.
If you’re only going to be using Windows systems, though, NTFS is the way to go. It’s more reliable, efficient and is the all-round superior choice.


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