How to Format a USB Drive and Why You Would Need To

Formatting a USB drive is no different than formatting any other drive. But how often have you actually formatted a drive and did you ever wonder what the various options mean?

How to Format a New Internal Hard Drive or Solid State Drive How to Format a New Internal Hard Drive or Solid State DriveIf you have a new HDD or SSD, you should format it. Through formatting, you can wipe old data, malware, bloatware, and you can change the file system. Follow our step-by-step process.READ MOREMost of us go with the default settings without second-guessing their logic. Naturally, optimal settings depend on the type of hardware to be formatted and what you are planning to do with it.

This article will help you make the best choice. It explains what each option does and which one is best suited for your drive and expected use.

How to Format a USB Drive in Windows

Whether you’re running Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows 8.1, or Windows 10, the steps are essentially the same. You might want to review our Windows 10 flash drive introduction if you’re new to this.

How to Use a Flash Drive on Windows 10 How to Use a Flash Drive on Windows 10Got a new USB flash drive but not sure how to use it? Here’s everything you need to know about how to use a flash drive.READ MORE

  1. Plug in the USB drive.
  2. Open Windows File Explorer and go to This PC (aka Computer or My Computer).
  3. Right-click the drive, and select Format…

How to Format a USB Drive and Why You Would Need To Format USB Drive 670x253

The formatting options you can customize are File systemAllocation unit sizeVolume label, and Format options. You can also Restore device defaults in case your custom settings aren’t working.

How to Format a USB Drive and Why You Would Need To Format Options

To format your drive, you simply make your selection, click Start, followed by OK to confirm that you really want to erase all data and the drive will be formatted.

How to Format a USB Drive and Why You Would Need To Format USB Drive Warning

However, before you proceed with formatting, you will want to understand what each of these options actually means. So let’s go through them one by one.

Which File System to Choose?

In Windows 10, you will see a maximum of four different file systems: NTFS, FAT, FAT32, and exFAT. You will actually not see FAT and FAT32 if your drive is larger than 32 GB. So what is the difference between those file systems and which one should you choose? Let’s look at the benefits of each.

FAT32 vs. exFAT: What’s the Difference and Which One Is Better? FAT32 vs. exFAT: What’s the Difference and Which One Is Better?A file system is the tool that lets an operating system read data on any hard drive. Many systems use FAT32, but is that the right one, and is there a better option?

NTFS Compared to FAT & FAT32:

  • read/write files larger than 4 GB and up to maximum partition size
  • create partitions larger than 32 GB
  • compress files and save disk space
  • better space management = less fragmentation
  • allows more clusters on larger drives = less wasted space
  • add user permissions to individual files and folders (Windows Professional)
  • on-the-fly file encryption using EFS (Encrypting File System; Windows Professional)

FAT & FAT32 Compared to NTFS:

  • compatible with virtually all operating systems
  • takes up less space on USB drive
  • less disk writing operations = faster and less memory usage

exFAT Compared to FAT & FAT32:

  • read/write files larger than 4 GB
  • create drive partitions larger than 32 GB
  • better space management = less fragmentation

Due to its nature, FAT or better yet FAT32 are suitable for drives smaller than 32 GB and in an environment where you never need to store files larger than 2 or 4 GB, respectively. In other words, any regular sized hard drive (60 GB +) should be formatted with NTFS.

However, due to the way NTFS works it is not recommended for flash drives, even when they are bigger than 32 GB. This is where exFAT comes in. It unites the essential advantages of FAT (small, fast) and NTFS (large file size supported) in a way that is optimal for flash drives.

Keep in mind though that FAT and FAT32 are the only file systems that are cross-platform compatible. NTFS is supported by Linux, but it requires a hack or third party application to work on the Mac. exFAT, on the other hand, is supported as of OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard), but you need drivers to read it on Linux.

If for compatibility or speed reasons you want to go with FAT or FAT32, always go with FAT32, unless you are dealing with a device of 2 GB or smaller.

Which Allocation Unit Size Works Best?

Hard drives are organized in clusters and the allocation unit size describes the size of a single cluster. The file system records the state of each cluster, i.e. free or occupied. Once a file or a portion of a file is written to a cluster, the cluster is occupied, regardless of whether or not there is still space.

Hence, larger clusters can lead to more wasted or slack space. With smaller clusters, however, the drive becomes slower as each file is broken up into smaller pieces and it takes much longer to draw them all together when the file is accessed.

How to Recover Lost Space on a USB Drive How to Recover Lost Space on a USB DriveIf your USB drive ever shrinks in capacity, there’s a very simple solution you can use to restore all of that lost space.READ MOREThus the optimal allocation unit size depends on what you want to do with your USB drive. If you want to store large files on that drive, a large cluster size is better as the drive will be faster. If, however, you want to store small files or run programs off your flash drive, a smaller cluster size will help preserve space.

Rule of thumb: large drive and/or large files = large allocation unit size

For a 500 MB USB flash drive, rather select 512 bytes (FAT32) or 32 kilobytes (FAT). On a 1 TB external hard drive select 64 kilobytes (NTFS).

What Is a Volume Label?

The volume label simply is the name of the drive. It’s optional and you can basically name your drive anything you want. However, there are a few rules to follow, depending on the file system you’re going to format with.

NTFS:

  • maximum of 32 characters
  • no tabs
  • will be displayed with uppercase and lowercase, as entered

FAT:

  • maximum of 11 characters
  • none of the following characters: * ? . , ; : / \ | + = < > [ ]
  • no tabs
  • will be displayed as all uppercase

You can use spaces, regardless of the file system.

The question now is, how are you going to fill that freshly formatted USB drive? You should definitely own a USB repair toolkit! Don’t have enough sticks for all those ideas? These are the fastest USB flash drives money can buy.

5 of the Fastest and Best USB 3.0 Flash Drives 5 of the Fastest and Best USB 3.0 Flash DrivesWhich are the fastest USB 3.0 flash drives you can buy? Here are five of the best, ranging from $20 to $200.READ MORE

Which Format Options Do We Recommend?

During a normal format, files are removed from the drive and the drive is scanned for bad sectors. During the Quick Format, only the files are removed and no scan is performed. Hence go with that option if you don’t have time and are dealing with a healthy or new drive.

If you found this article helpful, you might also want to know how to fix write protection errors, how to reformat an external hard drive without losing data, or how to format a write-protected USB drive.

How to Fix the Disk is Write Protected USB Error How to Fix the Disk is Write Protected USB ErrorIs your USB drive throwing up a disk write protection error? In this article, we explain what that is and how you can fix it.

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