Monday, January 11, 2010

Purchased a Christmas gift online at Bloomingdale's on 12/11/09. Spam from Bloomingdale's began on 12/12/09 (efficient, eh?). In the month since, I've received 24 pieces of junk mail from them. Just unsubscribed (although never subscribed to begin with).

Monday, January 4, 2010

FAT vs. NTFS for USB drives

I was going to buy a new USB drive for my keychain the other day. I had a couple of gift cards from Christmas and figured it was time to upgrade my 16GB drive. Just before I was about to click the buy button, I realized that I needed to clarify a couple of things first. For me, it was specifically related to being able to copy files larger than 4GB to the drive. By default, keychain drives are formatted with FAT32 and the maximum file size for a FAT32 formatted drive is 4GB (to be technical, just under 4GB). Like many others, I use my keychain drive as a utility drive - temporarily storing large .ISO files (among other things). And these .ISO files can get larger than 4GB.

I had heard some negative things about using NTFS for USB keychain drives. To see the latest thoughts, I searched Google and read a few of the forums and blogs. And the information is still negative. And many times, wrong. Some of the common things reported about NTFS on USB keychain drive: slower performance, inability to access files on other machines without clunky workarounds, file corruption if you don't properly eject, and the inability to disable write caching on NTFS formatted USB keychain drives. Now if all of these things were true, I'd be stuck using FAT32!

I decided to put some things to the test. Obviously, I am not a scientist and the sampling is incredibly small. But useful nevertheless.

Computer: Dell E4300, P9400, 2.4GHz, 4GB of RAM, Windows 7 Pro (64-bit)
USB keychain drive: Corsair Flash Voyager 16GB (about 2 1/2 years old)

I started by enabling write caching on the Corsair (via Device Manager in Windows). This allowed me to format the Corsair with NTFS. I formatted the Corsair with NTFS and left write caching enabled. I proceeded to copy a 3.31GB .ISO file from my laptop to the Corsair. Then I deleted the file, disabled write caching, and copied the file again. Finally, I formatted the Corsair with FAT32 and copied the file a third time. I performed the same steps for a 1.14GB .ISO file as well. The following table shows the results of the copy operations.

OperationFile SystemElapsed Time
3.31GB file copyNTFS w/ caching6 min. and 18 seconds
3.31GB file copyNTFS w/o caching6 min. and 14 seconds
3.31GB file copyFAT32 w/o caching6 min. and 25 seconds
1.14GB file copyNTFS w/ caching2 min. and 13 seconds
1.14GB file copyNTFS w/o caching2 min. and 12 seconds
1.14GB file copyFAT32 w/o caching2 min. and 15 seconds

First things first, performance is very similar. Certainly not a noticeable difference. In my case, my entire usage of the keychain drive is to copy files to it for temporary storage, then copy them off at some point thereafter. I'm not using it for online editing of files. I'm not using it for ReadyBoost. I'm just using it for temporary, portable file storage. Based on my tests, I have nothing to worry about with NTFS and performance. In fact, I may gain a slight edge (my calculation shows approximately 1.65% better performance under NTFS w/o caching)!

What about the ability to access your files from other machines? That seems to be something people are worried about too. And if you believe what you read, you won't be able to access your files! Access denied! NTFS permissions will get in the way, you'll have to take ownership, assign permissions, etc. What people forgot to look at was the default permissions. The default permissions on a freshly formatted drive? Everyone, Full Control. What does that mean? That means anybody and everybody can access the files, create files, delete files, etc. In other words, the permissions are compatible with any Windows machine! Just to be sure, I took my freshly formatted USB keychain drive (NTFS w/o caching) to a friend's machine, stuck my keychain drive in, and tested. I was able to access everything and copy new files to the drive. I took it back to my original test machine and was able to access everything (including the new files). Worked flawlessly.

OK... so what about file corruption and proper ejections? Don't you have to eject once you format to NTFS? Well, only if you keep write caching enabled. And I'd recommend disabling write caching. You don't want to have to tell anybody you hand your keychain drive about proper ejection. And you'll want to just rip the keychain drive out of the USB slot on demand. So disable write caching. So isn't NTFS a journaling file system? Yes. Which means that sometimes a write isn't really a write. Sometimes, a write stays in memory before being written to disk. Could that cause an issue? Not for my use. I'm going to copy a few .ISO files to the drive and take it out thereafter. In my limited testing, I have been unable to corrupt and files or lose any data.

Tests performed:
Edit text file, click Save, and immediately pull keychain drive out
Edit text file with 88KB of new data, click Save, and immediately pull keychain drive out
Edit text file with 1 line of new data, pull keychain drive out before saving, then put keychain drive back in, click Save

All tests were successful. No complaints from Windows. No loss of data. No corruption. I've heard of some elaborate things that will cause corruption but they aren't real world situations. One example was to hibernate your laptop with your keychain drive in, pull the keychain drive out, insert it to another machine, copy new data to it, then resume your laptop from hibernation and put the keychain drive back in. This created a problem under specific versions of Windows. But for me, that's not very convincing. It isn't real world use and certainly isn't my use.

Finally, I'll address the ability to disable write caching on NTFS formatted USB drives. Yes, you can disable write caching. No issues there. And by doing this, it allows for the quick removal of the drive (just like you can with the default FAT32 formatted drives).

Although limited testing, I think there's enough good here to warrant a serious consideration for NTFS formatted USB keychain drives. And that's STRICTLY for the ability to work with files larger than 4GB. I didn't even get into the other benefits of NTFS (compression, security, encryption, file system recovery, etc.). Some of you may ask, doesn't NTFS wear out the USB keychain drives? Lots of stories on the web about this. Well, much of that information is old. New methods are in use now and components have improved greatly. This question is best answered by quoting Corsair's life span FAQ:

"Will my Corsair USB Flash drive last more than 10 years?
Yes. All Corsair flash drives are built with memory components that can handle AT LEAST 10,000 write cycles; typically they will handle an order of magnitude more than this. So, this means that in order to exhaust the drive in ten years, one would have to write to EVERY BLOCK in the device about 2.7 times per day, every single day. We simply can’t conceive of such a usage scenario; this would mean that on a fairly typical 8 GByte drive, one would need to write over 21 GBytes of data to it every day for ten years! USB flash drives simply are not used in this way.
If one thinks he or she might actually try this, we suggest buying a Corsair Flash Voyager GT or a Corsair Flash Survivor GT USB drive. They are built with components guaranteed for 100,000 write cycles. With these, one can write over 210GBytes of data to the drive each day, for ten years!"

Corsair's Wear Leveling and Life Span

What's next? Start testing yourself and see if you agree!