File systems (FAT, FAT8, FAT16, FAT32 and NTFS) explained

The precise manner in which data is organised on a hard disk drive is determined by the file system used. File systems are generally operating system dependent. However, since it is the most widely used PC operating system, most other operating systems’ file systems are at least read-compatible with Microsoft Windows.

The FAT file system was first introduced in the days of MS-DOS way back in 1981. The purpose of the File Allocation Table is to provide the mapping between clusters – the basic unit of logical storage on a disk at the operating system level – and the physical location of data in terms of cylinders, tracks and sectors – the form of addressing used by the drive’s hardware controller.

The FAT contains an entry for every file stored on the volume that contains the address of the file’s starting cluster. Each cluster contains a pointer to the next cluster in the file, or an end-of-file indicator at (0xFFFF), which indicates that this cluster is the end of the file. The diagram shows three files: File1.txt uses three clusters, File2.txt is a fragmented file that requires three clusters and File3.txt fits in one cluster. In each case, the file allocation table entry points to the first cluster of the file.


The first incarnation of FAT was known as FAT12, which supported a maximum partition size of 8MB. This was superseded in 1984 by FAT16, which increased the maximum partition size to 2GB. FAT16 has undergone a number of minor modifications over the years, for example, enabling it to handle file names longer than the original limitation of 8.3 characters. FAT16’s principal limitation is that it imposes a fixed maximum number of clusters per partition, meaning that the bigger the hard disk, the bigger the cluster size and the more unusable space on the drive. The biggest advantage of FAT16 is that it is compatible across a wide variety of operating systems, including Windows 95/98/Me, OS/2, Linux and some versions of UNIX.

Dating from the Windows 95 OEM Service Release 2 (OSR2), Windows has supported both FAT16 and FAT32. The latter is little more than an extension of the original FAT16 file system that provides for a much larger number of clusters per partition. As such, it offers greatly improved disk utilisation over FAT16. However, FAT32 shares all of the other limitations of FAT16 plus the additional one that many non-Windows operating systems that are FAT16-compatible will not work with FAT32. This makes FAT32 inappropriate for dual-boot environments, although while other operating systems such as Windows NT can’t directly read a FAT32 partition, they can read it across the network. It’s no problem, therefore, to share information stored on a FAT32 partition with other computers on a network that are running older versions of Windows.

With the advent of Windows XP in October 2001, support was extended to include the NTFS. NTFS is a completely different file system from FAT that was introduced with first version of Windows NT in 1993. Designed to address many of FAT’s deficiencies, it provides for greatly increased privacy and security. The Home edition of Windows XP allows users to keep their information private to themselves, while the Professional version supports access control and encryption of individual files and folders. The file system is inherently more resilient than FAT, being less likely to suffer damage in the event of a system crash and it being more likely that any damage is recoverable via the chkdsk.exe utility. NTFS also journalises all file changes, so as to allow the system to be rolled back to an earlier, working state in the event of some catastrophic problem rendering the system inoperable.

FAT16, FAT32 and NTFS each use different cluster sizes depending on the size of the volume, and each file system has a maximum number of clusters it can support. The smaller the cluster size, the more efficiently a disk stores information because unused space within a cluster cannot be used by other files; the more clusters supported, the larger the volumes or partitions that can be created.

The table below provides a comparison of volume and default cluster sizes for the different Windows file systems still commonly in use:

Volume Size FAT16

Cluster Size


Cluster Size


Cluster Size

7MB – 16MB 2KB Not supported 512 bytes
17MB – 32MB 512 bytes Not supported 512 bytes
33MB – 64MB 1KB 512 bytes 512 bytes
65MB – 128MB 2KB 1KB 512 bytes
129MB – 256MB 4KB 2KB 512 bytes
257MB – 512MB 8KB 4KB 512 bytes
513MB – 1GB 16KB 4KB 1KB
1GB – 2GB 32KB 4KB 2KB
2GB – 4GB 64KB 4KB 4KB
4GB – 8GB Not supported 4KB 4KB
8GB – 16GB Not supported 8KB 4KB
16GB – 32GB Not supported 16KB 4KB
32GB – 2TB Not supported Not supported 4KB