All my vacation photos are gone! (Or, ever heard of ExFAT?)

Recently, a client of mine called me because he had just come back from a 3-week vacation during which he had taken many, many pictures with his point-and-shoot camera and could not see, much less download, any of the pictures. Yikes! I arrived with extra cables, extra media readers, and my own Apple laptop (he was using Windows XP).

I verified that the pictures were indeed on the media card by viewing them on the camera. I connected the camera with the appropriate cable to his computer. No good. I tried a different cable. No good. I tried a media reader. No good. So, then I tried connecting his camera to my computer. Success! I tried all variations with my computer and they all worked. Interesting.

A short time later, I discovered that the media card was formatted using the ExFAT file system. Mac OS X (10.6.5 and above) and Windows (Vista Service Pack 1 and above) support it natively. Luckily for him, all we had to do is download the Windows XP ExFAT driver and we were golden.

So, what is a file system? Why did the camera manufacturer format the media card as ExFAT and not something else?

A file system is a system for formatting disks so that data can be saved (written) and retrieved (read). Essentially, a file system tells a blank disk how/where to put files on the disk and how to find them later on.

The most common file systems these days are FAT (from the old DOS days), NTFS (standard on Windows since XP), and HFS+ (standard on Mac OS X).

Natively, Mac OS X can read files from Windows NTFS disks, Windows cannot read Mac HFS disks, but both operating systems can both read and write FAT disks. This is why USB flash drives are often (always?) formatted using the FAT file system – both Windows and Mac OS X can user them. But, there’s a problem. It can only support files up to a certain size. If you take a video on a camera with a media card, it might stop all by itself not because it runs out of space, but because the video file can only be so big.

ExFAT solves this problem. The maximum file size is much, much, MUCH bigger than with FAT, and both Windows and Mac can fully use the disks.



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About zonkeringeneva

An American with a German son living in Geneva with a new Boxer-Labrador puppy name Xoë. I can be found on Facebook (kicking and screaming!), Google Plus (crickets), (I'm Zonker), and Ask me anything IT related. I'm sure I'll have something useful to say.

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