[Techtalk] USB thumb drives -- VFAT vs Ext3 format

Miriam English mim at miriam-english.org
Thu Jul 10 10:03:24 UTC 2008

Hi Akkana,

Akkana Peck wrote:
> ...you can't use ext3 to transfer files to a Windows box at
> all. (Well, I guess in a way that helps, since if you hadn't been
> able to transfer files, the corruption wouldn't have happened. :-)

I rarely need to have contact with Windows anymore, but I have corrupted 
my thumb drive on Linux by forgetting to unmount it before removing it.

> The original query included this:
>> It annoys me that we must be oh-so-careful about unmounting a thumb 
>> drive when finished reading/writing it lest the data be mangled, 
>> wrecking the filesystem on the drive and requiring it to be
>> reformatted. 
> ext2 doesn't help the problem of needing to unmount before
> unplugging the drive -- you can still get corruption that way.
> That's why most Linux systems run fsck every time you mount
> ext2-formatted partitions (ext3, being "journalled", is less
> prone to that corruption, so typically they don't run fsck every
> time, just every now and then).

Ah, yes. This what I had half understood and hoped; that Linux's 
filesystems might be a little less prone to corruption this way.

It grates with me that we force users to think like machines rather than 
making machines help us be more human. Even when we *could* make the 
machines more helpful we tend not to, considering it somehow "weak" to 
be human. This is a major reason newbies approach computers with such 
trepidation. They have a very good reason for feeling computers are 
designed to be hostile to human fallibility.

> You also mentioned this:
>> One of the things I've noticed with VFAT is that its blindness to 
>> upper/lower case can cause subtle problems so I'd be glad to be rid of 
>> it on that count alone.
> DOS (FAT) has that problem, but VFAT doesn't. If you're seeing things
> come through in all caps or with short filenames, it either means you
> formatted as DOS and not VFAT, or that you're mounting a VFAT
> filesystem as DOS. Sometimes that happens if you mount it as "auto"
> in /etc/fstab ... and I've seen it happen in a few other odd cases,
> like one just recently when I was plugging a USB2 MP3 player in via
> a hub and the hub's power plug had come loose (that can also cause
> USB2 devices to use the much slower USB1).

VFAT can seem to use upper and lower case, and in a way it does, but to 
show that it is actually blind to case try writing "test.txt" and 
"Test.txt" to a VFAT drive. One will overwrite the other. This can cause 
weird bugs, particularly if you write a file called "TEST.TXT" when it 
will spontaneously alter the name to "test.txt" (try it).

> Not to discourage you from using ext2 -- it's a perfectly good
> filesystem if you're only ever going to talk to Linux machines and
> never need to use the USB drive with Windows or Mac.

I'll keep an old, small thumb drive for the odd occasions I need to 
connect to those machines, but I find I'm becoming more and more 
impatient with wasting time fiddling with people's Windows machines.

Thanks for the comments and thoughts Akkana.

	- Miriam

My time wasn't completely wasted last year.
I went on a 940 million kilometer journey.
Website: http://miriam-english.org
Blog: http://miriam_e.livejournal.com

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