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FAT32 and Windows XP - Formatting Problem
Thursday, Aug. 16, 2007

(The following was tested with Windows XP. Details may be different for other versions)

Caution: Partitioning and/or formatting your disk means that all files on that disk will be erased forever. Do not attempt these steps unless you are quite sure there is nothing of value on the disk.

FAT, FAT32 and NTFS (see Ref. 1) are the three most common file systems used on PC's running MS Windows systems. Contrary to what you might think, FAT is not the anti-diet file system, but is short for "File Allocation Table", a file system devised for use with DOS (see Ref. 2). It has a rather serious limitation that the largest disk can only be 2 GB, so it was later extended to FAT32, a 32-bit variant, supported by Windows 95 OSR2 and later, capable of disks upto 2000 GB in size.

At the same time, between the late 1980's and early 1990's, Microsoft was working on an operating system to replace DOS and the 16-bit versions of Windows, and this system was dubbed Windows NT (for New Technology). This OS also had a completely new file system, called NTFS (NT File System), with several improvements for storage efficiency, security, support for large disks, etc. (see Ref. 3).

The plan was to slowly phase out FAT and FAT32 in favor of NTFS, but due to widespread use and user demand, MS decided to support FAT and FAT32 with newer systems as well, starting with Windows 2000 and extending to the current Windows Vista. With the exception of Windows NT, all NT based systems (2000, XP, 2003 and Vista) can read and write FAT32 file system disks.

And they can also format new disk partitions as FAT32 - or so I thought.

The Problem

I have an external USB hard drive (100 GB) which I use for moving files between computers. The other day a user wanted to move some large folders from his older-model computer to another one, so I offered the use of the external drive. When we plugged in into the PC, it seemed to detect the device, but there was no additional hard drive in WIndows Explorer. I noticed his PC was running Windows ME, which is based on Win/9x, and does not recognize NTFS disks. I confirmed this by plugging the USB drive into an XP system, and checking that its file system was indeed NTFS.

This did not seem a big problem, as XP could work with both NTFS and FAT32. So I used Disk Management in XP to delete the existing NTFS partition, and (still within Disk Management) attempted to create a new FAT32 partition in the same space.

I right-clicked on the now un-partitoned disk and selected "New Partition" (see Fig. 1)

Fig. 1 - Creating a new partition

Figure 1 - Creating a new partition

On the next dialog I asked the new partition to use all available space (100 GB) of the drive. This is also the default.

Then I attempted to select FAT32 as the "File System", but ran into a problem, The only available option seemed to be NTFS (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 - NTFS is the only choice

Figure 2 - NTFS is the only choice.

I took the drive over to my new Vista system and tried creating a partition there, but got the same choice - of NTFS alone (Fig. 3)

Fig. 3 - NTFS is the only choice in Vista also

Figure 3 - NTFS is the only choice in Vista also.

What now? A web search suggested that formatting FAT32 might be possible by booting from the Win 98/ME install CD, but that seemed quite inconvenient, and it was very likely that booting from CD would mean the external USB disk would not even be "visible". I ran across an article from Microsoft (Ref. 4), which explained that what I was attempting was impossible, i.e. the max size of a partition that could be formatted FAT32 on an XP system is only 32 GB. Apparently this limitation is the same in Windows 2000, and as our tests have shown, also in Vista. To quote:

  You cannot format a volume larger than 32 gigabytes (GB) 
  in size using the FAT32 file system during the Windows XP 
  installation process. Windows XP can mount and support 
  FAT32 volumes larger than 32 GB (subject to the other 
  limits), but you cannot create a FAT32 volume larger 
  than 32 GB by using the Format tool during Setup.
  If you need to format a volume that is larger than 32 GB, 
  use the NTFS file system to format it. Another option is 
  to start from a Microsoft Windows 98 or Microsoft Windows 
  Millennium Edition (Me) Startup disk and use the Format 
  tool included on the disk. 
      
To confirm this, I reduced the size of the partition to 32 MB (Fig. 4 below), about one-third the size of the disk.

Fig. 4 - Reduce partition size to 32000 MB

Figure 4 - Reduce partition size to 32000 MB.

And sure enough, this time FAT32 appeared as one of the choices for file system (Fig. 5 below)

Fig. 5 - Can now use FAT32

Figure 5 - Can now use FAT32.

A quick check confirmed that this is case on Vista as well. Other than a cryptic "This behavior is by design", there is no explanation for this disappointing limitation.

The Solution

More web searching yielded a hint that Partition Magic may be able to format FAT32 partitions greater than 32 GB, but that is a commercial program I don't have. Then I ran across a free downloadable program named Fat32Format from Ridgecrop Consultants (Ref. 5) which completely solved the problem.

I started by downloading the fat32format.zip file (from Ref. 5), and unzipping the contents into its own folder on the hard drive. There is nothing to install, the fat32format.exe program can be run directly from the extracted executable.

But, before running fat32format, a partiton had to be created. I launched Disk Management, and right-clicked on the 100 GB unallocated space on my external USB drive, and selected "New Partition" (Fig. 6 below).

Fig. 6 - Creating a new 100 GB partiton

Figure 6 - Creating a new 100 GB partition.

In the next dialog I asked it to be assigned the drive letter F: (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7 - Assign it drive letter F:

Figure 7 - Assign it drive letter F

Next, I told it to not format the partition at this time (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8 - Do not format the new partition

Figure 8 - Do not format new partition.

When done, I was left with a healthy 93.16 GB partition, not yet formatted (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9 - Partition not yet formatted

Figure 9 - Partition not yet formatted.

I closed Disk Management, opened a command window, and started the fat32format program (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10 - Starting fat32format

Figure 10 - Starting fat32format.

Note that I specified the drive letter (F:) on the command line. I typed "Y" for the first warning, to continue. The formatting started at this point (Fig. 11)

Fig. 11 - FAT32 format in progress

Figure 11 - Fat32 format in progress.

Less than a minute later, it was done (Fig. 12)

Fig. 12 - FAT32 format done

Figure 12 - Fat32 format done.

Checking disk properties for drive F: in Windows Explorer shows the formatting worked correctly. (Fig. 13)

Fig. 13 - FAT32 format with 100 GB space

Figure 13 - Fat32 format with 100 GB space.

Discussion

While fat32format solves the problem, a few questions remain, mainly, why is there a 32 GB limit on FAT32 partitions in Windows XP?

Is it there to encourage people to switch to the more efficient and newer NTFS file system? Is it due to poor programming or design? Is it because FAT32 partitions become slow at large sizes?

If you know the answer please let me know.

FAT32 is probably here to stay for a while because it is widely used in external devices such as USB disks and flash memories. The main reason for this is that many modern devices (cameras, music players etc.) can read/write FAT32 disks but not NTFS.

Update Apr. 2012: I tried the above method (i.e. using fat32format) on Windows 7 and it works fine there also.

References

  1. Choosing between NTFS, FAT, and FAT32 - http://www.microsoft.com/.../choosing_between_ntfs_fat_and_fat32.mspx
  2. FAT - File Allocation Table - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File_Allocation_Table
  3. NTFS - New Technology File System - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ntfs
  4. Limitations of the FAT32 File System in Windows XP - http://support.microsoft.com/kb/314463/
  5. Ridgecrop Consultants fat32format - http://www.ridgecrop.demon.co.uk/index.htm?fat32format.htm

Comments
(in order from older to newest)

"Yes, I did the same but scan the disk with partition magic - evaluation version even and you'll see the so called FAT32 drive is a actually corrupt. My hdd still doesn't function as a network hdd with the reformat.

Any other solutions?"

Sep. 1, 2007, 11:44 AM by david.

"Thank you so much, I have been struggling with using a NTFS disk back into a FAT 32 win98 machine all weekend. I also have partition magic which will not deal with the NTFS either. You article has helped me immensely!! Thanks!"

Jan. 1, 2008, 7:41 PM by Clyde H.

"...This is exactly what I needed. A great wee tool. 49k and completes the job in 3 sec! That's what I like to see."

Feb. 7, 2008, 9:31 AM by JK.

"I'm having a bit of a problem following the above sequence in windows vista. I got as far as opening the fat32 exe file from ridgecorp in the command window. here ridgecorp gives a couple of options and I went for the -c4 option (4 sectors per cluster, max. 549GB). I typed in C:\fat32format -c4 S (S is the name of the drive) Then I get to the yes/no command

I type Y

Then it tells me that the access has been denied, that I should close any files and check whether I have got the admin rights. It also asks me whether I am sure I'm formatting the right drive. Can you give me some advise what I have to do? I have checked online but no one goes into as much detail as you guys."

Feb. 24, 2008, 2:24 PM by FSP

"Great blog, helped me out a huge amount with a drive for my car stereo! :)"

Feb. 26, 2008, 6:02 PM by MP

"Wow this worked! I've looked on so many forums and so many other places and came up on this page. TOTALLY SOLVED MY PROBLEM. I have Maxtor OneTouch 4 Mini 120GB and contacted Maxtor asking if I can use it on both windows(secondary)/osx(primary). Told them did not care about all the security software and other stuff, just wanted the space on it. They replied back to me that there would be no way of doing it with this particular drive. DUDE/DUDET thanks alot!!!! I will be posting links to this in some of them other forums that folks said would not be possible with a 120+ drive. I only paid attention to that size as thats what I have. Only thing I see is when I try to bring up on my pc, it takes about 20 secs, but hell it works fine other than that!!! Thanks again!!!"

Mar. 24, 2008, 2:25 AM by Hellion aka Joe

"...Just plug it back into windows ME and format the drive from there. Windows ME can format fat32 to about a terabyte, or you could just load a NTFS driver for Windows ME. Oh yea, and Windows NT was named NT because it was made to work with the NT processor. It was only later that someone said it stands for New Technology, it was more of a joke."

"With Windows ME, you will need to use fidsk, gdisk, or something like it, you can run fdisk right from with in Windows ME. There are also a number of downloadable tools for the job, I use Windows ME to format all my usb mass storage devices. Partition magic is ok, but has not been updated in years."

Apr. 6, 2008, 10:13 PM by anonymous

"Thanks very much for the positive feedback and other info. I think the last poster has missed the point somewhat. This article is meant specifically for cases where you don't have a Windows ME or 98 system handy to format a FAT32 drive."

"Yes, it is believed that NT came about because the original system was targeted to run on the Intel N10 (N-Ten, or NT for short) processor. This is documented at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_NT (scroll down to the section titled "NT designation" on that page). However, this had been changed to "New Technology" by the time the first version of the new OS was released to the public in July 1993, as Version 3.1"

Apr. 9, 2008, 11:50 PM by rk

"My PC has a Promise card installed which runs two 120gb drives. Drives C & D are connected directly to the motherboard. I use PartitionMagic v6.

All drives were subject to fdisk and format and FAT32 was selected and everything is just tickety boo. Then W98se was installed and then WXPpro was installed and the 32Gb limitation simply didn't happen."

June 2, 2008, 3:18 PM by Anthony R.

"Hello, this guide is quite helpful. Thanks! I had the same problem creating a 500GB USB drive to move recorded TV MPEG2 files between media center (PS3) and Win XP SP2 where I have TV tuner.

When ever I try to copy files to the FAT32 drive, during selecting of view of files in explorer, windows explorer crashes and need to start over again. The disk works fine in PS3.

Have any of you find solution to this issue?"

June 4, 2008, 12:48 PM by kk.

"kk - Probably you will find that some or all of your MPEG2 files are bigger than 4 gigabytes. FAT32 cannot deal with these. That is why it is usual to split such files into 1 gig chunks, like DVDs do.

I have a 320 gig disk in the laptop with which I am writing this. It has Windows Server 2003 SP2 and is formatted as FAT32. I use Acronis Disk Director, which I found contained on Hiren's Boot CD, which you can easily find by googling."

July 14, 2008, 7:14 AM by freddyzdead.

"Clear, consise and it works a treat. If I could email you a beer I would. Well done that man!"

July 1, 2008, 8:40 PM by Scurv.

"Thank you so much for posting this. This has saved me a lot time and frustration. It is exactly what I needed to solve this fat32 problem."

July 11, 2008, 3:06 PM by GHall.

"Just use Partition Magic software then format for FAT32..

The max size would be only 196gb++, for 500gb hardisk u have to seperate them into 3 partitions (196gb + 196gb + the balance) then just merge those partition together."

Aug. 26, 2008, 12:28 AM by TK.

"FAT 32 with a size of 93 Gis will create a partition with larger cluster size, it will cause lots of space to wasted. For e.g. 128 sector block can hold 64KB of data, saving a file 0f 32 KB will acquire one block, rest 32 KB is wasted because a new file will be saved on a new cluster from beginning with first sector..."

Sep. 24, 2008, 5:26 AM by best data recovery software.

"Great program! many thanks!"

Sep. 29, 2008, 10:37 AM by Walter J.

"Yuo, worked fine for me (I have one PC with WinMe and one with XP so need Fat32 to move between the two) on a 500GB drive."

Oct. 1, 2008, 1:54 PM by CWH

"This is normally necessary for new computer devices (cameras, mp3 or video players). You can also use knoppix."

Jan. 19, 2009, 5:41 AM by jtk

"A commonly speculated reason for the 32Gb limit is to tie people harder to Windows.

FAT32 is well known, and it can be read and written by other operating systems as well. NTFS cannot."

Dec. 2, 2009, 12:41 PM by Werner

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