It wasn’t that long ago when FAT32 was the de-facto standard file system for computers around the world. But technology is ever-changing, and the file standard has fallen out of favor, superseded by modern systems like NTFS or exFAT.

Even so, many computers and old pen drive still use the FAT32 formatting system. And if you lose your data on such a system, recovering it may seem difficult. After all, not all data recovery applications support legacy file systems like FAT32. To help you out, here are some guaranteed methods to retrieve your deleted data from a FAT32 drive.

💻 What is FAT32?

File Allocation Table or FAT is the oldest file system in existence. Developed in the early days of computer technology, FAT ensures the compatibility of data between different operating systems and storage devices.

With increasing disk capacities, FAT transitioned into FAT12, FAT16, and finally FAT32. This formatting system then became the standard across the computing world.

Be it Windows or Macintosh, all computers used FAT32 to format their hard disk drives and other storage media, like USB drives. Even SD cards used this file format before their capacities went past the 4 GB mark, rendering it unusable.

Nowadays, however, FAT32 has been replaced by better, more secure alternatives. For Windows, NTFS has become the default, while Apple uses its own proprietary file systems. Meanwhile, SD cards implement the exFAT system, which is basically a modified version of FAT32 that can handle larger volumes.

📓 How Does FAT32 Recovery Work?

When you copy a new file to a FAT32 drive, it does two things. First, it writes the file itself to some of the unused space on the disk. Second, it marks the address of the file on the File Allocation Table, allowing for it to be found again by the operating system.

But when you delete a file, things play out differently. While the file record is scrubbed from the table, the data itself is left untouched. It is only when you write a new file to the disk that the old data gets overwritten.

This means that if a program was to scan through the whole drive, checking each sector, it can ferret out files that do not “officially” exist and save them. That’s how data recovery software works for all file formats, including FAT32.

Part #1: Recover Data From FAT32 Hard Drive on Windows

Recovering data from a FAT32 hard drive is no different than recovering it from any other kind of disk. You have to use a data recovery application, that scans the drive and recovers deleted files that haven’t been overwritten.

For a Windows user, there are a variety of options for recovering your data. You can use Disk Drill, Recuva, EaseUs, and others. In this guide, we will use Minitool Power Data Recovery for restoring lost data from a FAT32 hard drive.

  1. Download MiniTool Power Data Recovery’s free version from the official website.Minitool 1
  2. Install the app by running the setup you downloaded. Internet connectivity might be required.MiniTool Installing
  3. Once you run the application, you can see all storage devices connected to your computer. This includes any USB sticks or external hard drives as well. Furthermore, the file system of each drive is displayed alongside its name. Select the FAT32 drive to start the scan.MiniTool Main Screen
  4. The view will now shift to a new file explorer-like window. As the scan progresses, the view will be populated with results.MiniTool Scanning
  5. You can pause the scan whenever you want to browse the results. You can even use the search functionality or any filters to find a file you need. To preview pictures, select an image file and click on Preview.MiniTool Enable Preview
  6. If this is your first time trying to preview an image, the application will download an addon to enable it. Once the download is complete, the preview will load up as normal.Minitool Preview Image
  7. Select all the files that you wish to recover and hit the Save button. Choose a destination folder and hit OK.Minitool Choose Destination

Do note though that the free version only allows you to recover up to 1GB of data. The trial also does not let you save the scan results, so try to finish restoring the data you want in one sitting unless you want to wait for a scan again.

Part #2: Recover Data From FAT32 Hard Drive on Mac

For Mac, there are fewer good data recovery tools available. Disk Drill is probably your best option, offering an easy-to-use interface along with a complete feature set.

  1. Head to the official site and download the setup. Install and run the application to get a list of all drives connected with your PC.Disk Drill Mac Main Screen
  2. Select the FAT32 drive you wish to scan and hit the Search for lost data button. As the scan progresses, you can see a breakdown of the files found, sorted by their file types. Click on Review found items to check out the recovered files.Disk Drill Mac Scanning
  3. The files are displayed in a new window, complete with their folder structure. You can preview any image files on this list by opening them. Note that this only shows you what the picture looks like; you will need to recover the files to actually get them in your drive.Disk Drill Mac Image Preview
  4. Once you have selected the files that you wish to keep, click on the Recover button. You will need to choose a recovery destination in which to save the files.Disk Drill Mac Recovery Complete

Part #3: Recover Data From FAT32 Hard Drive on Linux

Like with any other type of application, it is hard to find a good alternative for Linux. Most apps don’t support Linux distros like Ubuntu, making it difficult to recover data from a FAT32 drive.

PhotoRec is probably your best option. It is one of the rare few data recovery tools that work on Linux (along with Windows and Mac). It can recover most file formats too, including FAT32.

The only drawback is its purely text-based interface. On Linux though, it fits right in.

  1. To install PhotoRec, use the apt-get install command. It works on all Debian-based distributions such as Ubuntu.
    sudo apt-get install testdisk
  2. PhotoRec is a part of the testdisk package. You can run it directly with the sudo command.
    sudo photorec
  3. PhotoRec will display a list of all the drives connected with your computer. You can use the arrow keys to move up and down the list. Hit Enter after selecting the FAT32 drive you want to scan.Photorec Select Drive
  4. This will bring up all the partitions on the disk. Choose a partition and hit Enter once again.Photorec Select Partition
  5. You can choose to scan only the empty space in the drive or go over the whole drive. Scanning the free space is usually enough to find most deleted files.Photorec Scan Options
  6. One final thing: pick a destination folder to save the recovered files in. Unlike other tools, PhotoRec recovers all deleted files discovered in the drive, so make sure to choose a location with enough space to hold all that data.Photorec Choose Destination
  7. Enter C to start scanning. PhotoRec will automatically recover and save every file that is found, updating the statistics accordingly. Once the recovery is complete, you can check out the recovered files in the destination folder and discard the unnecessary data.Photorec Scanning

Conclusion

The FAT32 file format was once one of the most common formatting systems. And while its popularity has waned in recent years, there are still quite a large number of computers still using FAT32 for their hard drives.

Thankfully, it is not that difficult to recover data from a FAT32 drive. Most leading data recovery applications support legacy file formats just fine, and you can use them to restore your deleted files.

Whether you are on Windows, Mac, or even Linux, there is a good data recovery tool for your platform. Simply follow the instructions outlined above, and you will have your important files recovered in no time.

FAQ