How to format large disks in FAT32 - Lindows style


Updated: December 22, 2010

Here's a simple scenario. You bought an external disk, preformatted in NTFS. You want to use this disk for your media storage and plug it directly into your DVD player or a similar would-be streaming device. Unfortunately, the DVD player only recognizes FAT devices. All right, you head into Windows and try to format the external disk with a non-NTFS filesystem only to discover that Windows won't let you do that. What now?

At this point, you should start googling like mad, looking for a solution. There will be quite a few hits, I promise. Instead, you can read Dedoimedo, cause you're bound to find what you need. Furthermore, I will use this short tutorial as an opportunity to promote Linux, as the right platform to do Windows tasks. Sounds crazy? Almost a paradox. In a way it is. But we will use Linux to format a large external device in FAT32, something Windows refuses to do without some fight. Go figure.

All right, so let's do this. In this short tutorial, I will show you how you can use a Linux live CD distribution to manage your disks and partitions in a smart manner, including choosing formatting options that are unavailable in stock Windows, all this without altering your installations in any way.

Teaser

Try the task in Windows - and fail

Our test hardware is a Western Digital Essentials 1TB 2-inch external USB disk. Bought it just a few months ago in a Best Buy store for 119 dollars. Seems like a decent price, plus the device comes barebone, without the SmartWare crap included with Passport models, the removal of which I've shown you in a separate tutorial.

The disk is preformatted with NTFS. I tried changing that, but Windows won't let me do that, it seems. The only available option is NTFS. End of the world, it seemeth. P.S. Windows can manage the task using command line, but that's too geeky.

Options

NTFS only

Okay then, we won't do it in Windows, it seems. Let's boot Linux! Now, Linux sounds terrifying for most people, but it's very simple, friendly and innocent. Let me show you.

Boot Linux and do the same thing - successfully

Warning: Fiddling with disks, partitions and formatting can be risky if you do not know what you're doing. Please make sure your personal data is safely backed up before proceeding to reduce the risk of damage.

The good part about it is that Linux distributions run from live CD, pretty much all of them. This means you can run Linux without altering your local setup. Your machine will remain untouched. All of the disk formatting can be done entirely in the live session.

Once you're done with it, just reboot and go back to working as usual. For example, the latest Ubuntu edition called Maverick Meerkat does the job easily. It has several tools available, all of which can serve the purpose at hand.

You can use the built-in Disk Utility; just right-click on your device and use format:

Format

Or use GParted, an extremely versatile disk management program:

GParted

Options

For more details, please READ the tutorial. This will help you understand how to handle disk notation, which differs in Windows and Linux, manage your devices in a safe and smart manner, and format partitions any which way you need.

Back to Windows

And here we go, all set:

Done

Limitations

FAT32 is limited to 4GB filesize, therefore, if you intend to use large files, this solution may not work for you. However, it should work well with pretty much any device, including older hardware that only supports FAT32.

Other resources

Let's be fair and link to some other help resources:

How to format extneral hard drive to FAT32 in Windows

Large external USB Hard Drive FAT32 Format Utility

Conclusion

I am definitely oversimplifying with my conclusion here, but it seems that sometimes you need non-Windows operating systems to do Windows tasks. I can understand the inherent limitation of filesystems, but it seems funny that Linux does a so-Microsoft task so much better. Furthermore, the FAT32-formatted disk works fabulously in Windows ever since it has been pimped in the Linux workshop, so it makes me wonder why all the extra work, if it could have worked in the first place?

Anyhow, this tutorial shows you two thing. Using Linux is easy and good for you; having a Linux distribution as a live CD is very handy, for all kinds of purposes, including system rescue and maintanance. More importantly, you have learned how to format large-size disks with FAT32, so you can use them for all kinds of purposes, including media storage. Mission accomplished.

Yes, you can do that in Windows, too, I know. That's not the point. The whole idea was to avoid command line or go hunting for third-party software all over the Web. Food for thought, lads, plus some hands-on tips. Can't get better than that.

Cheers.

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