FAT facts for partitioners

Question: I have installed the “B” version of Windows 95 at home. When I go to properties in My Computer, my file system shows local FAT. My work computer’s file system says FAT32. Does this tell me that I am not using the FAT32 file system on my own computer, and if so, how can I convert to FAT32? What are the cons to using FAT32? –W.A.

Answer: This question is a like a McDonald’s menu in a foreign country. The terms may look familiar, but most of us have a lot of work to do before it’s Happy Meal time.

The quick answer is at the bottom of this column, but for the rest of the world we have to bust some techno-jargon first.

Since its inception in August of 1995, Microsoft transformed Windows 95 three times. Since version 95, they’ve released versions 95A, 95B, and 95C. The different versions were released to fix a series of problems in the original version. Version A was available to everyone by simply obtaining and installing a patch file from Microsoft. That patch file is sometimes referred to as Service Pack 1. Windows 95 versions B and C are only available by buying Windows 95 preinstalled on a new computer.

Those versions are referred to as Windows 95 OSR2. (To find out what Windows 95 version you have, double-click the System icon in the Control Panel. The version will be listed under the General tab.) OSR2 means OEM Service Release 2 — yep, an acronym within an acronym. OEM means Original Equipment Manufacturer, in other words, a computer maker. So Windows 95 OSR2 really means: a bug-fixed version of Windows 95 provided only to computer makers for distribution on new machines.

OSR2 implemented several new technologies, the most notable of which is FAT32. A FAT (for “File Allocation Table”) is a hidden file that the operating system uses like a roadmap, to track down where data is stored on a hard drive. Seems simple enough, but what if the map is inadequate, because the place it originally mapped has grown?

Think of a map that shows a city. If the city grows, the map has to change to show more detail and a greater amount of territory. What if you start with a small town and end up with a country called Canada? That’s what’s happened to hard drives. They went from tiny storage areas. My first hard drive was 20 Megs. Now, I’m writing this article on a machine that has two 2.5 Gigabyte hard drives. The technology needed to track all this data storage space needed to change. And so FAT technology has been transforming.

Early versions of Windows and DOS used what has become known as FAT16. VFAT came along next in Windows for Workgroups and the first Windows 95 version. For Windows 98, which goes on sale June 25, Microsoft developed FAT32. It was also quietly released with Windows 95 OSR2. The problem with FAT32 on OSR2 is that it’s not very user-friendly. To implement FAT32 with the OSR2 release, it is necessary to first use FDISK. That’s a DOS-based hard-drive partitioning program. Before installing Windows 95, you’ll have to use FDISK on the hard drive to create a FAT32 partition.

“When you launch FDISK, and have a hard drive larger than 512 Megabytes, the program prompts you to decide whether you want to use ‘large disk support’, ” explained CyberWalker adviser Jeremy Schmuland. “If you say yes, you get FAT32, if you say no, you get FAT16.”

Since you already have Windows 95 installed, W.A., you won’t be able to convert after the fact. The good news is that Windows 98 ships with a post-installation conversion utility. In fact, it’s a no-brainer.

“The only cons behind using FAT32 that I’ve have seen,” said Schmuland, “are that it can be slightly slower, but not by much. Also, if you choose to run multiple operating systems, then Win95B and Win95C are the only ones able to work with the FAT32 partition.”

There are also a few bugs that may be of concern, but they’re so incidental that they’re not worth repeating here. If you’re interested in finding out more, have at look at Microsoft’s KnowledgeBase article on FAT32.

Finally, how do I know all this? Schmuland obviously has helped me along the way, but I found a lot of information on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fat32. On Wikipedia, by the way, there are lots of links about FAT with explanations of varying degrees of difficulty.