Flash Technology is Everywhere
In an earlier “Business Insider Tech Tip”, Is it Time to Migrate to SSDs (Solid State Drives)?, we discussed the pros and cons of flash NAND technology-based Solid State Drives (SSDs). The same technology is used in USB flash drives (portable “thumb” drives), which is also the same technology found inside Compact Flash (CF) and Secure Digital (SD) cards used in digital cameras.
Your Desktop in Your Pocket
These USB, CF and SD flash memory drives and cards are highly portable, convenient and durable, given that they have no moving parts. And with the price tag for storage volumes up to as much as 64GBs becoming increasingly affordable (below $100), it’s easier than ever to carry around all your data in your pocket and simply plug the flash drive into the USB port on whatever computer is available wherever you are working.
Every Drive Needs to be Formatted Before It Can Be Used
USB flash drives and CF and SD cards typically come already formatted and ready to receive data, usually in the FAT32 file system as it can be used in both Windows and Mac environments. But just like with conventional Hard Disk Drives (HDDs), you can also format flash drives yourself, say for instance if you wanted to delete all the data on it.
When using the Windows operating system, you are presented with several format options: FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS. Which should you pick?
Let’s look at each of them in turn.
FAT32 (FAT stands for File Allocation Table) has been around since Windows 95 OSR2, and as mentioned can be both read from and written to by both Windows and Mac computers. One of its limitations, though, is you cannot put files on it any bigger than 4GBs. Another issue is that you might lose or corrupt data on the drive if you pull it out of the USB port without first using the “Safely Eject Media” command, or shutting down the PC.
NTFS (or NT File System) is a newer file system format that emerged with Windows NT and Windows 2000 and works with Windows only (however Macs can read NTFS). It’s still the standard file system to this day up to and including Windows 7.
NTFS is a journaling file system – system activity is logged in a journal on the drive as it occurs, so if a process is interrupted it can resume where it left off. This is great for flash drives because you can pull them out of the USB port without first using the “Safely Eject Media” command or shutting down the machine with no worry of data loss or corruption. But to do this, NTFS is constantly reading and writing to the flash drive which reduces its life span. And data transfer is much, much slower – up to eight times slower than FAT32 (only 4 MB/sec compared to up to 30MB/sec with FAT32). But NTFS formatted flash drives can also hold larger file sizes – up to 16 Terabytes. And they can also be compressed and encrypted.
exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table) is a patent-pending proprietary file system developed by Microsoft designed especially for flash drives. It can hold file sizes up to 16ExaBytes (16-million GBs), but it has current or potential compatibility issues with other operating systems. And unlike NTFS, it does not allow file compression nor encryption (FAT32 also does not support compression or encryption).
A useful chart listing the attributes of each of these file system formats can be found at http://www.ntfs.com/ntfs_vs_fat.htm .
Don’t Lose Your Data
If you choose FAT32, one final cautionary thought. Just because your application appears to have completed saving, there might still be caching going on and data input/output could still be in progress with the drive. Interrupting that could corrupt or destroy your data. When removing the USB flash drive from the PC, to be certain there is no input/output going on, and that the device is “unhooked”, always use the “Safely Eject Media” command. In Windows XP, Vista and 7, you can also go to your computer icon and then right click on the flash drive and select “Eject”. The only safe alternative is to shut down the PC entirely (NOT Hibernate – Hibernate stores the system state as if the machine was still running).
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