External hard drives are a convenient solution for those who need to store files and documents, but they will never be as functional as a USB flash drive: practical, small and fast. In many cases, however, one feels the need to format it because several file system errors come up. But how to format a USB flash drive? In the next few lines we will answer this question.
Formatting USB flash drive: why do it?
When one buys a USB storage stick one hardly thinks about the fact that it can be formatted, most people do not realize how such a device can malfunction.
There are several reasons that may cause users to format the USB flash drive, let’s try to understand which ones are the most relevant.
Every USB flash drive has read and write defaults; these can change over time, inducing storage memory to become particularly annoyingly slow. Formatting the USB flash drive will restore it to factory settings.
In some cases, files or folders within the flash drive are not accessible, a condition that inevitably requires formatting. Although there are also alternative solutions for recovering damaged files, a format will restore the thumb drive in the best way possible.
Non-compliant file size
Not all USB flash drives can hold very large files, as we will see in the following lines, only some formats allow more than 4GB of space. Those who need to insert very large documents will necessarily have to format the USB flash drive.
Compatibility with Linux and Mac as well
By purchasing a standard USB flash drive, except in special cases, it will only be compatible with Windows operating systems; this is due to the file system format. Performing a specific formatting operation will also allow the pendrive to be used on Linux, UBUNTU and macOS.
Accumulating so many folders and files on the USB flash drive over time certainly does not facilitate the manual deletion phase. To speed up document removal, you can opt for quick formatting.
Live USB for installations
One of the most important reasons for formatting a USB flash drive lies in the need to have to create a Live Boot device, that is, one that is capable of starting the installation of a new operating system or simply updating the motherboard BIOS.
Formatting USB flash drive: the types of formatting
A USB flash drive, just like a traditional hard drive or microSD, can be formatted in different formats, each with different specifications. In computer science, the different types are named after the file system. Let’s see what formats are possible for formatting the USB flash drive.
This file system format is the oldest, but still the most widely used. In fact, most flash drives of this type can boot from all devices, whether mobile or fixed.
Its versatility, however, comes up against technical limitations, the latter given by conditions related to non-file grand storage devices. The FAT32 file system does not allow individual files larger than 4GB to be handled.
The Microsoft Windows operating system has this file system by default. The strength of this technology lies in its ability to be able to read and write even single files larger than 4GB in size.
All the most modern electronic devices can read this format, while older systems and those from Apple’s own house cannot be displayed by the operating system.
As can be deduced from the name of the file system, this format is a clear evolution of the more dated FAT32. Although it is an obvious improvement, it does not have the same extent of compatibility; in fact, some operating systems fail to recognize it.
Its evolution consists mainly of reading and writing single files larger than 4GB in size.
APFS and HFS/HFS
By formatting a USB flash drive with this file system you are clearly opting for a solution on a macOS operating system. From a technical point of view, the APFS format is the latest one, which provides superior performance, especially on SSD storage systems.
As you can easily imagine, formatting a USB flash drive with this file system is equivalent to not being able to use it on Windows.
When you format a USB flash drive in this format, the only way to take advantage of it is to insert it into a Linux system. The famous open source operating system requires a dedicated file system, much like other distributions of the same type.
Format USB flash drive: quick or complete
Having assessed the possibility of formatting one’s USB flash drive and chosen the file system to focus on, one will find oneself choosing two different types of formatting: quick and full.
In computer science, when you do a quick format, you initiate a process capable of deleting only the table of files and folders on the flash drive, not physically deleting them. The duration of the process is very short and allows the memory to be viewed as if it were empty.
This type of formatting, on the other hand, physically deletes every file inside the flash drive. This process is much longer but allows for better cleaning. Performing a complete format will make it almost impossible to recover the files inside with data recovery programs.
Format USB flash drive: on Windows
Now that we have all the useful information about formatting, it is time to take a look at how we can actually do it. On a Windows operating system the methods for formatting a USB flash drive are different, but we will focus attention on the two fastest and most effective.
Windows 10/11 integrates a feature that allows you to format your USB flash drive without wasting too much time.
To access it, simply plug the USB flash drive into a USB port, best to opt for the fastest one, and launch File Explorer by clicking on the folder icon in the taskbar at the bottom.
If you have removed the folder from the taskbar in the past, simply click on This PC and access it directly. The screen will present all storage devices: hard drives, optical disks, and thumb drives. Right-click on the flash drive you want to format and select Format.
A small window will appear in which you must choose the type of file system with which to format the USB flash drive. Once chosen, depending on your needs, simply click Start. You will also be able to choose the volume label of your USB flash drive.
Alternative but equally effective solution is to use the function from the command prompt.
To do this you need to connect the pendrive and then click on: Start, Run and type cmd. Click Ok and run the command as Administrator.
Going into File Explorer you should check the letter with which the USB stick is associated, return to CMD and type: format/q/x G.
The letter q identifies quick formatting, x disconnects the device if it is needed, and G is the drive where the flash drive is located.
Format USB flash drive: on Mac
Using a macOS operating system, the formatting operation is as easy as that of Windows. Specifically we will need to take advantage of the built-in function of Disk Utility, let’s see how to do it.
First you need to connect the USB flash drive to your Apple device, then you need to start the Disk Utility software. The program is located within the Other folder of Launchpad, with an attached hard disk icon.
A window will open in which there are, on the left, all the storage disks, including the USB flash drive. In case you do not see the memory disks, it would be advisable to click on Show sidebar and then immediately click on Initialize.
Then simply click on Format to choose the file system type; macOS will highlight HFS+, MS-DOS FAT, ExFAT and APFS formats. Once you have chosen the formatting type and named the disk, you will need to choose the partition type, i.e., MBR or GUID, the latter being the default in macOS.
Finally, clicking on Initialize will start the process of formatting the flash drive.
Format USB flash drive: for both operating systems.
From the preceding lines, it is evident how formatting a USB flash drive depends greatly on the reference operating system on which it will be used. For a pendrive to be compatible on both Windows and macOS operating systems, a specific formatting must be done: FAT32 or exFAT.
The FAT32 file system and the evolved version are displayed without any problem by both systems, making the flash drive universal. The formatting process we explained earlier is the same, but we need to emphasize how this action limits the USB stick to single files not exceeding 4GB with standard allocation.
Format USB flash drive: on UBUNTU
In recent years more and more people like to use UBUNTU, a Linux distribution that is particularly interesting for its graphical elements and ease of use. Several systems can be applied to format the USB flash drive on this operating system. Let’s look at the fastest one: Disk Utility.
Insert the USB flash drive and search for the Disks application, found in the sidebar. At this point you need to search for the hard disk or pendrive you intend to format and select it. Right-clicking on the gear icon will open several options, select Format.
Now you will be able to choose the type of formatting, that is, whether slow or fast, as well as partitioning. In the latter case there are two options: MBR/DOS and GPT; the former compatible with all operating systems, the latter suitable only for the most modern ones.
Simply choose the file system and then the name, clicking on Format to finish.
Formatting USB flash drive: dedicated software for FAT32
As much as the built-in functions in Windows and macOS are more than sufficient to format your USB flash drive, in some cases you may run into unexpected errors.
So that they can be kept to a minimum, it is advisable to veer to dedicated formatting software. You will hardly run into errors when formatting the NTFS file system, but in the FAT32 file system the problems increase exponentially. Let’s see what software to rely on to perform a perfect formatting for this specific file system.
Diskutil – macOS
One of the most widely used software for formatting disks, whether external or internal, is Diskutil. This software is integrated already in macOS and can be started directly from Terminal.
Starting the Terminal command dashboard, simply type diskutil list and verify that the flash drive is visible as an external device. Select the disk number, for example, disk1, and to format to FAT32, type diskutil eraseDisk FAT32 (disk name) disk1. Pressing Enter will start the formatting process.
GParted Live – macOS, Linux and Windows
One of the most popular software for formatting is GParted Live, which is compatible with virtually all operating systems. In this case, however, you will need to download the executable file from the official website and install the program.
Starting the software will simply select the disk, in this case the USB flash drive, and start formatting in the desired format.
Rufus – macOS and Windows
A great many computer enthusiasts will know Rufus as the perfect software in creating a USB flash drive to install the operating system. In addition to this function it also allows you to format disks, just download it from the official website and start the dedicated function.
MBR, GPT or the lesser-known Super Floppy disk partitions can be created.
Fat32format – Windows
In the proceeding lines we pointed out that the FAT32 file system was limiting for files larger than 4GB. As irrefutable as this condition is, it is worth noting how it can be circumvented with software such as Fat32format.
The software allows formatting in FAT32 format, but adds a different individual file allocation size, taking it beyond the canonical 4096 MB.
SD Formatter – macOS and Windows
Solution that is usually used for microSD, but is also great for USB flash drives, is SD Formatter. This software allows you to choose the allocated disk in seconds and format it in the FAT32 format.
Certainly it is among those just listed, the easiest application to use, since the software decides the main formatting parameters.
Format USB flash drive: protected
The pendrive is not always decrypted; in some cases you may end up with a write-protected device. Without a password, therefore, it is not possible to access and write or read files, except when formatting. Let’s see how to do it.
The first method is to check whether there is a physical switch on the USB flash drive, i.e., a reset button or hole to reset the device to factory settings. If it was present simply hold it down for about 10 seconds.
In case there is no reset button, then you will have to use the command prompt and type specific commands.
Starting CMD, as explained earlier, simply type diskpart and press Enter. Immediately after list disk and press Enter. The letters and numbers of the different memories on the PC will appear.
Check which one is the one on the USB flash drive and type: select disk N, where the letter N identifies the number of the flash drive.
Now simply type attributes disk clear readonly and press Enter.
Formatting USB flash drive: mistakes to avoid
When formatting a USB flash drive it is a good idea to check a few parameters, although it may seem like a very simple operation, in reality it can present several technical problems.
The first mistake to avoid is to get the file system type wrong. Each operating system prefers a specific format, which must be taken into account to achieve the desired results. An NTFS format is completely different from an exFAT format.
Before you begin the process of formatting from your Windows, macOS, Linux or other operating system, it is smart to take a look at the size of the file to be transcribed to your device.
A file size larger than 4GB requires NTFS or advanced FAT32 formatting with higher allocation.
Remove the USB flash drive
When you are formatting on the USB flash drive, you should avoid removing it suddenly. Such an operation not only stops the formatting process but can also damage the pendrive irreparably.
As much as forcibly removing the flash drive from the PC, power surges in one’s electrical system can also do great damage.
Formatting a pendrive during a thunderstorm might seem like a trivial task, but in reality if power were to suddenly fail, it could damage the memory. Equipping one’s PC with a UPS could save not only the USB flash drive, but also the components of one’s personal computer.
So many times people carry a USB flash drive with them to quickly copy documents, whether they are for work, study or fun. The haste of such activity could lead to overheating of the flash drive, perhaps because it has been in the pocket or backpack too long.
To prevent the pendrive from getting damaged and not completing the formatting, it is smart to wait a few minutes for it to cool down.
Formatting USB flash drive: which formatting to use?
In the examination made so far on how to format the USB flash drive, we have focused on the types of file systems and methods to complete the formatting on different operating systems, but when to use one format rather than the other?
As obvious as it may seem, some formats are better suited to electronic devices-for example, a TV will prefer a different file system than a PlayStation 5.
Anyone who plugs a USB stick into a Smart TV knows full well how the latter does not digest exactly all formats. In fact, each Smart TV has different compatibility, for example, the Sony brand likes FAT32 and exFAT formats, while Samsung prefers FAT32 and NTFS. In this case it is smart to take a look at the TV’s data sheet.
Those who listen to MP3 music in the car and have such an input will need to format the flash drive in exFAT or FAT32.
Older generation consoles, such as the PS4, like to read pendrives with exFAT and FAT32 format, while they do not support NTFS format.
PS5, on the other hand, being more modern reads any type of format without giving any particular errors.
Those using this type of device will necessarily have to format the USB stick in FAT32 format, since neither NTFS nor exFAT are compatible with the built-in system.
All Pioneer CDJ consoles are compatible only with USB flash drives formatted with exFAT or FAT32 file systems. All other formats are not even recognized at startup.
Formatting a USB flash drive is always very useful, especially when you start to experience slowdowns in reading and writing.
In addition to the need to perform this operation to speed up the flash drive, many people also require formatting to ensure greater compatibility with the relevant operating system.
The exFAT and FAT32 formats are certainly the most versatile, but they have minor limitations, while NTFS although considered the most modern, in many cases is not recognized by dated devices. The choice between one type of formatting and another depends on one’s needs.