What Is A Computer Filesystem?

Even if you don't know it, your computing device has something called a file system. What is that, you may ask? It really has to do with the way the operating system - Windows, Mac, Linux and so on -  sets up the hard drive or SSD, typically during the installation process. The process of formatting the disk drive sets up the file system on the disk device so that the operating system can use it and store data upon it. 

Non-techie computer users may be surprised to learn there are actually a number of different file systems in use today, and the capabilities can differ substantially between them. A particular file system may offer something called journaling for example, which can help protect data in the event of system power being interrupted unexpectedly.

Windows, Mac and Linux use different (and sometimes incompatible) file systems, and while a disk drive formatted for Mac (say) would not be directly readable by a Windows computer, you can still copy individual files such as photos from one operating system to another - the operating systems handle that transaction for you. Think of a bowl of water and a bowl of vegetable oil; they are both quite different in structure (like different file systems) and yet you can float a toy boat (a piece of data) on both.

Windows uses predominantly either the FAT32 or NTFS filesystem - a couple of considerations are that NTFS allows storage of very large individual files over 4GB in size, and also allows business users to control access to files and folders in a more sophisticated way than FAT 32.

Apples' Mac OS X uses the HFS+ filesystem, which can read and write to a FAT 32 file system  - meaning that a USB drive formatted on a Windows PC would be directly accessible to a Mac.

Linux typically uses ext4 these days, and again this can read and write directly to FAT 32-formatted drives,  similar to Mac OS X.

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