Format your External Harddisk to FAT32

April 22, 2010

Some time ago I bought a new harddisk, and I wanted to be able to use it on my Mac, on my Linux box and on my brother’s Windows computer. So I started looking for the right filesystem to format the drive to. Default Max OSX HD formatting is HFS+ with journaling enabled, but that doesn’t work on Windows. Default Windows formatting is NTFS, but on a mac, you don’t have write access to the disk. The default on linux is ext3 or ext4 which are both not easy to access on Windows or Mac OSX. After some thinking, I found that USB sticks work flawlessly on these three operating systems. So I decided to format my external HD the same way a USB stick is formatted, being the old FAT32. The problem is that if you’re on a Mac or on a Windows computer, there is no way to make that happen for large drives, so i had to move to my Ubuntu box.

For this action there is a perfect gnome tool available, called GParted. Install it using your favourite software manager. Then connect your external HD to your computer. (make sure you have a backup available if there are files on it)
1 – Open GParted (System > Administration > GParted/Partition Editor).

2 – In GParted you can now select your device (GParted > Devices > yourdevice). You then get a graphical representation of the formatting of that device.

3 – Create a partition table (Device > Create Partition Table) and delete the partitions you don’t need anymore.

4 – Create a new partition, make it as big as your harddisk, choose fat32/vfat as filesystem, and give it a label.

5 – Now check if everything looks ok, and press the ok button to apply changes.

6 – Done! You can now mount your new partition.

Saved by the mighty Ubuntu GNU/Linux once more!


PS: note that there’s a 4GB limitation on file size when using FAT32.
PS2: the labels on your partitions will be uppercase. If you want mixed-case labels, like ‘LaCie’ or something, you can use this command instead of step 4:
sudo mkfs.msdos -n LaCie /dev/sdb1
in which you substitute ‘LaCie’ with the label you want, and ‘sdb1’ with the right partition name.


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