External USB Drive FAT32 Format Tool

By Tom Lutzenberger

The ability to format an external USB hard drive provides a key function in restoring the default free space on the item. This in turn provides a method to erase a portable drive for reuse without any worries that remaining remnants of data will be left behind. However, using certain formatting methods causes complications. The Windows FAT32 choice is one such challenge.


A USB external drive today includes both flash drives and external, portable hard drives. These devices are the latest evolutionary step in portable storage that began years ago with floppy disk drives and continued with compact disks. Both drive types power off of the connection made when inserted into a USB slot in a running computer. Designed with maximum portability, external drives can be used interchangeably between PC systems and Apple Mac computers when formatted appropriately. Further, all sorts of files can be saved on them from video data to images to text.

FAT32 Benefits

Using a FAT32 format for your external USB drive provides significant benefits. First, the approach allows access of your drive on any PC that has a Windows operating system, regardless of how old the software is.Second, FAT32 allows interoperability across multiple operating system platforms. This means you can use the same external drive in a PC, MAC or even a LINUX operating computer without problems. If instead the drive was formatted with NTFS format, this would not be possible. NTFS causes permission glitches, which will stop the affected external drive from functioning on non-Windows platforms.


The FAT32 formatting approach does not work well with large capacity flash drives, usually produced today with sizes of 40 gigabytes in flash drives and terrabytes on portable disk drives. This problem first became known in Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, which capped the maximum single drive formatting at 32 gigabytes, clearly being less than 40 gigabytes and a lot less than a terrabyte. If not addressed with a workaround, Windows basically tries to put multiple smaller drive partitions in place of a large size when formatting a large external drive tool. This in turn makes the external USB drive harder to use for large data projects since the multiple partitions reduce the maximum capacity of the external drive in general. Designers, artists, engineers and coders of large programs tend to be the most frustrated with this limitation, given the average large data size of their projects.


One approach includes using software other than Windows to help with the flash drive formatting. By using some of these independent programs, an external USB drive owner can obtain the single large FAT32 drive desired and still be able to use it within different operating systems (i.e., PC, MAC, LINUX, etc.).A second approach is to use the old DOS platform still available in Windows and try to format the external USB drive via DOS instructions. Technically, DOS can format the drive with a size higher than 32 gigabytes, but it's not reliable. Many times DOS will kick back an error saying the drive size is too big to format.


Flash drives are particularly finicky with FAT32. Not every flash drive can be formatted in the higher method. You are best served by researching your given flash drive first before formatting it as some brands will basically break down when loaded with a FAT32 formatting. Flash drives come preloaded already with formatting when first bought, so it helps to know what version was used prior to formatting again. The standard typically tends to be FAT16.In addition, just because you format an external USB drive in FAT32 doesn't mean the data files you load on it can be used interchangeably among PC, MAC and other formats. Some data files may simply not open, regardless of using the same software program in a different platform (for example, Word PC versus Word MAC).