The filesystem is the invisible mechanism on your hard disk that is responsible for keeping track of all the data stored on the drive. Think of it as a massive table of contents, matching up each filename with its corresponding data stored somewhere on the disk surface. Windows supports several file system types, the top three being:

FAT (File Allocation Table, 16-bit) – FAT is used for all drives under 512 MB, such as flash memory cards and floppy disks. The largest drive supported by the FAT filesystem is 2 GB.

FAT32 (File Allocation Table, 32-bit) – Designed to overcome the 2 GB partition limit with the FAT system, FAT32 is supported by every version of Windows since Windows 95 OSR2. Today, it’s used mostly for flash memory cards larger than 2GB, and on older PCs running Windows 98 and Windows Me.

In addition to the support for larger drives, it also supports smaller file clusters, so it stores information more efficiently than FAT. Read my previous post on how to format an external hard drive in FAT32.

NTFS (NT Filesystem) – NTFS, designed from the ground up to completely replace FAT/FAT32, is the default filesystem on all Windows PCs.

It offers security features like encryption and permissions, compression, and quotas. It’s typically faster and more reliable than FAT/FAT32, and supports drives many terabytes in size. Note that if your computer is not recognizing more than 2 TB on a larger hard disk, it could be because of the type of partition scheme you are using.

If Windows is the only operating system on your computer, you should be using NTFS—no question. The only compelling reason to use another filesystem is if you have a dual-boot setup with a very old version of Windows, in which case you’d need to choose a file system recognized by all operating systems on your computer.

View File System Format in Windows

To find out which file system is currently being used by a particular drive on your PC, just right-click the drive in Windows Explorer and select Properties.

You can also use the Disk Management utility (diskmgmt.msc) to see an overview of all of your drives. Click on Start and type in disk management. The first option, Create and format hard disk partitions, is what you want to click on.

If you’ve upgraded your PC from an earlier version of Windows, there’s a chance you’re still using the FAT32 file system. Assuming you don’t need to keep FAT32 for compatibility with other operating systems, you should convert your drive to NTFS. The process is easy, relatively quick, and won’t harm your data (although you should back up beforehand just to be safe).

Convert from FAT to NFTS

Windows provides the FAT to NTFS Conversion Utility (convert.exe) for this purpose. To convert drive C:, for example, just open a Command Prompt window(cmd.exe) and type:

convert c: /fs:ntfs

Note that “c” is the drive letter so make sure to change it to the drive that you want to convert – otherwise you will be converting your local drive C, which is normally the Windows partition.

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Include the /v option to run in “verbose” mode, which provides more information as the job is processed. Type convert /? for other, more advanced options.

Note that this is a one-way conversion, at least when using the command prompt in Windows. If you need to convert an NTFS drive to FAT32 for some reason, you’ll need a third-party utility. If you need to do the same thing for a USB drive, read my previous post on how to format USB drives with NTFS. If you have any questions, feel free to comment. Enjoy!