How to Format a USB Drive

Formatting a USB drive is almost like formatting another drive. You can either go with the default settings or you can find out what the various options mean and use the ones that best suit your use case. We’ll help you with the latter, so when you format your USB drive you can choose the optimal settings.

How to format a usb drive in windows

Whether you are running Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows 8.1 or Windows 10, the steps are essentially the same.

Plug in a USB drive.

Open Windows File Explorer and go to this PC (aka Computer or My Computer).
Right-click the drive, and choose Format …

The formatting options you can customize are the file system, allocation unit size, volume label, and format options. If your custom settings are not working, you can also restore device defaults.

This screen capture format shows the tool options menu, which includes Capacity, File System Type, Allocation Unit Size, and Volume Label.

To format your drive, you just make your selection, click Start, then properly confirm that you really want to erase all the data and the drive will be formatted.

This menu warns the user that formatting will erase all data on the drive.

However, before proceeding with formatting, you will want to understand what each of these options actually mean. So let’s learn about 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. If your drive is larger than 32 GB, you will not see FAT and FAT32. So what is the difference between those file systems and which one should you choose? Let’s look at the benefits of each.

USB universal

FAT32 vs XFAT: what’s the difference and which is better?

A file system is a device that allows the operating system to read data on any hard drive. Many systems use FAT32, but is this correct, and is there a better option?

FAT and FAT32 compared to NTFS:

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 = less wasted space on larger drives
Add user permissions for personal files and folders (Windows Professional)
File-in-fly file encryption using EFS (Encrypting File System; Windows Professional)
Compared to FAT and FAT32 NTFS:
Compatible with almost all operating systems
Takes less space on USB drive
Less disk writing tasks = faster and less memory usage
XFAT compared to FAT and FAT32:
Read / write files larger than 4 GB
Create a drive partition 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 environments where you do not need to store files larger than 2 or 4 GB respectively. In other words, any regular sized hard drive (60 GB +) must be formatted with NTFS.

However, due to the way NTFS works, it is not recommended for flash drives, even if they are larger than 32 GB. This is where XFat comes in. It combines the benefits of FAT (smaller, faster) and NTFS (larger file sizes supported) in a way that is perfect for flash drives.

However keep in mind that FAT and FAT32 are the only file systems that are cross-platform compatible. NTFS is supported in Linux, but it requires a hack or third-party application to work on a Mac. On the other hand, XFat is supported as 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 working with a device of 2 GB or smaller.

Which allocation unit size works best?

Hard drives are organized into clusters and the size of the allocation unit indicates the size of a single cluster. The filesystem records the status 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, even if there is space left.

Therefore, larger clusters may lead to more wasted or dull space. With smaller clusters, however, the drive slows down because each file is broken into smaller pieces, and it takes longer to pull them all together when the file is accessed.

Therefore, 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 larger cluster size is better because the drive will be faster. If, however, you want to store small files or run programs from your flash drive, a smaller cluster size will help preserve space.


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