How to format USB flash drive and what options to use

Submitted on 04/19/2018

Methods of formatting flash drives differ from HDD or SSD formatting. The guide will help you understand formatting settings. I'll explain what each individual option is responsible for and which one is the best for your usb flash drive.

Contents:

  1. What is formatting?
  2. Selecting a file system for formatting
  3. Cluster size
  4. Volume label of the flash drive
  5. Quick or full format?

What is formatting?

Formatting is the preparation of the disk (a hard disk drive (HDD), SSD, a flash card (usb flash drive), sd-card or other solid state device) / partition to use it by operation system. This process will destroy all the files on the source. 

USB disk format options

How to format sd memory card

The microsd cards have some formatting tricks. We wrote an instruction on [how to format a memory card], where these nuances were indicated. SDFormatter app is specifically designed to format flash drive and sd card on Windows and Mac OS.

It is necessary to bear in mind two facts:

  1. When the usb flash drive is formatted, all the data stored on it is erased. To recover its data you’ll need special recovery tools – but the results will be unpredictable.
  2. During the format of a USB flash drive or HDD, the operation system checks errors on it and, in some cases, fixes them.

As a rule, users ignore all the disk format options provided by formatting utilities. Nevertheless the settings are responsible for the performance of the usb flash drive. The optimal settings depend on the model of the usb flash, which will be formatted. It is important what do you plan to do with the USB flash drive: to run applications, use it as a bootable flash drive, to store all kinds of data, etc.

Selecting a file system for formatting and storing files

In Windows 7, you can choose one of 4 file systems: NTFS, FAT, FAT32 or exFAT. FAT and FAT32 options are unavailable for 32Gb > usb flash drives / sd cards.

SDFormatter tool for Windows

Advantages of the NTFS file system:

  • You can copy and read files larger than 4 gigabytes – up to the maximum allowed partition size.
  • The ability to create large partitions on a usb flash drive (more than 32 GB)
  • NTFS formatting of the USB flash drive is a bit easier than FAT
  • Compression of the information and, accordingly, saving space on the usb flash drive
  • Smart space allocation = no need for partition fragmentation
  • support for encrypting files "on the fly" (thanks to the encrypted EFS file system).

Advantages of FAT and FAT32 file systems:

  • FAT format is compatible with Windows, Linux, Mac OS X
  • files take up less space on the USB drive than in case of NTFS.
  • FAT formatting tools are available in any OS

Pros of the exFAT file system:

  • You can copy large files to the usb-stick (4Gb and more).
  • Partitions size > 32 GB.
  • Smart file storage and optimisation.

So, we draw conclusions. FAT and FAT32 are suitable for usb drives smaller than 32 GB or / and if you do not need to store files larger than 2 and 4 GB.

Due to the peculiarities of the file system, NTFS is not recommended for flash drives, even if their capacity is > 32GB. The compromise solution will be the exFAT file system. It combines the essential advantages of FAT and NTFS (large file sizes are supported). Thus, the exFAT file system is optimal for usb flash drives formatting.

FAT and FAT32 are the only file systems that guarantee cross-platform compatibility. NTFS is not supported in Linux and requires the installation of third-party applications to mount usb storage on Mac. exFAT, on the other hand, is supported in Snow Leopard and later versions of Mac OS while Linux also requires drivers installation.

If you’d like to choose FAT or FAT32, prefer the latter - especially if you have USB flash drive 2GB or less. This trick is useful for compatibility and speed improving.

What is the cluster size to specify in the settings

The "Cluster size" option in the formatting settings sets the appropriate size of the block. The file system records the status of each cluster: free or busy. After the file or part of the file is written to the cluster, it goes into the "busy" state – regardless of whether there is available space on the usb flash.

Therefore, large clusters are inexpedient in terms of using space on a usb flash drive.

With smaller clusters, however, the flash drive slows down, because each file is divided into small parts. Copying files takes much longer.

Fortunately, the situation can be corrected with the help of the flash drive formatting software. In addition, the optimal cluster size depends on the purpose of the USB drive.

The cluster size in NTFS

If you store small files on a USB flash drive, execute programs from a flash drive, a smaller cluster size will help save space. On a 1 TB external hard disk, it is desirable to select a 64-kilobyte cluster.

The size of the cluster for fat32 formatted flash drive

If you store large files on a disk, a large cluster size is preferable: the flash drive will work faster. For flash drives less than 500 MB, select a cluster of 512 bytes (in FAT32) or 32 KB (FAT).

Which volume label should I choose for the name of the flash drive?

A volume label is just a name. It is not necessary, so anything can be used as a label. However, there are several rules that need to be followed, depending on the file system in which you are going to format usb flash drive.

For NTFS

  • 32 characters maximum
  • Will be displayed in CAPITAL and lowercase letters, as you entered.

For FAT

  • Max length is 11 characters
  • The label will be displayed in capital letters

Quick format vs Full format

In typical formatting cases, files are deleted from the usb flash, and the disk is checked for bad sectors. Full formatting will be useful for fixing errors.

In case of quick formatting, all files are deleted, and that's it. Therefore, use the Quick format option if you do not have time to check the errors on the usb flash drive.

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