Trying to format a large external USB or Firewire hard drive to the FAT32 file system? Can’t do it? Only see an option for formatting the drive using the NTFS file format? Well if you answered yes any of those questions, then you’re at the right place.
I was recently trying to format my 1 TB MyBook external hard drive in Windows XP to FAT32 instead of the overly forced-upon NTFS format. Why? Well because I needed to connect it to a NAS device and the NTFS permissions were causing the NAS not to be able to access the drive. Simple solution is to use FAT32, no security, no problems. Though it’s sometimes useful to format a USB drive in NTFS format.
Also, formatting a drive in FAT or FAT32 will allow it to be read by other operating systems, such as Mac, Linux, and older versions of Windows such as Windows 98.
Unfortunately, Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 will only format a removable drive in FAT32 if it’s less than 32GB! Hmmm…that pretty much cuts out ALL modern external hard drives!
However, Windows can format a drive that is larger than 32GB in FAT32, but you have to use the DOS command prompt. However, if you have a drive that is 1TB or larger, you may still get an error saying “The volume is too big for FAT32”.
In that case, you can use some 3rd party programs that will allow you to format an external hard drive with the larger size. Let’s go through the different methods. In case you are having problems getting your external hard drive to show up in Windows, read my article on how to change the drive letter for an external drive in Windows.
Format in FAT32 using Drive-Specific Tools
Before we get into using the command prompt and other third-party programs, it’s worth mentioning that some of the hard drive manufacturers have created their own tools for converting a drive which is larger than 32 GB to FAT32. Here is a list:
Format External Hard Drive in FAT32 using DOS
Open a command window by going to Start, then Run and typing in CMD.
Now type in the following command at the prompt:
format /FS:FAT32 X:
Replace the letter X with the letter of your external hard drive in Windows. Windows will go ahead and begin formatting the drive in FAT32!
There seems to also be an issue when using the command line besides the size limit problem. Namely, it can take forever to format the hard drive for some users. Not sure why, but I’ve seen it enough times and it can be very frustrating to wait 5 hours and then have the whole format fail. If the format is taking longer than an hour, just cancel it and try one of the methods below first.
Format in FAT32 using Verbatim SmartDisk FAT32 Utility
There is a free utility called Verbatim FAT32 Tool which will allow you to convert your hard drive to FAT32 in seconds. I use to recommend a program called SwissKnife, which I mention below, but it’s no longer free and no one really needs to spend $10 to convert a hard drive from NTFS to FAT32. There are lots of other free tools and this Verbatim one is one of the better ones.
Just download it, unzip it and run the tool. It’s a standalone EXE file, so you don’t even have to install it on your system. Choose the drive you want to format, give it a Volume name and click Format Drive!
It’s a painfully simple program to use and it works really well. If you don’t even want to bother with the command prompt, just download this free tool and use it.
Format in FAT32 using FAT32Format
FAT32Format is another free tool you can use to get the job done. Choose the drive, the allocation unit size, give the volume a label, choose whether you want to do a quick format or not and then click Start.
I would suggest not checking Quick Format so that way the entire drive is completely overwritten and you’re starting from scratch. I’ve tried this program and it was able to convert my 1TB hard drive to FAT32 without any issues. It did take longer than Verbatim, but I didn’t choose Quick Format, which probably would have been faster.
Format in FAT32 using FAT32Formatter
Another option is the FAT32Formatter program from Tokiwa. Using this program, you can see the different partitions on the hard disk and format just one partition to FAT32 instead of the whole drive. It’s probably best not to have a mix of NTFS and FAT32 partitions on one drive, but you can do it if you want or if you need to for some reason. This program will allow you to do that.
Format in FAT32 using SwissKnife
SwissKnife is a nifty little program that used to be free, but not anymore, which you can use to format many types of external drives such as USB, Firewire, PCMIA, SATA and SCSI. The link points to the CNET page, which still has the older free version you can download. You can also use it to create partitions on an external hard drive and it formats faster than Windows.
With SwissKnife, you may run into an issue where after the conversion to FAT32, you are left with only a small percentage of the original disk size. For example, if you format a 1TB drive, you might perform the conversion and end up with only 500 MB of space. This can be fixed by first reformatting the drive in NTFS format by performing a quick format.
Once you format the entire drive using NTFS, make sure to view the available space in Explorer and that it matches the size of the hard drive. Once you do that, go ahead and use SwissKnife to perform the conversion to FAT32.
So next time you want to format a hard drive in FAT32 and Windows only gives you an option for NTFS, make sure to follow one of the methods mentioned above. Enjoy!