How to Format a USB Thumb Drive for Your Car: A Solution to a Nagging Problem

I drive a Honda Fit (2009 Sport model), and love the USB connector in the dash. Not being an iPod owner, I use it to connect a thumb drive that is big enough to hold as much music as I can stand. There were a few obstacles to getting this just right, however, and I thought I would write about the process here in case anyone else who had issues and like me is a not a super tech-nerd but can handle some hackerish tasks. Gere’s how to format a USB thumb drive for cars, the way I figured it out:

First, the problems:

  • The Fit (and possibly other cars) are picky about formatting: I needed to format my disk in “FAT32,” but on my Windows 7 lap top with a 64GB drive, that option doesn’t show up, only NTFS and exFAT. When I tried to use a drive formatted with either of those options, the car would not read it.

  • The car stereo would not display all of the folders: I discovered that if you have more than 700 folders, too bad (it’s easy to have that much music on 64GB. The car would read the first 699. You could play any track in random mode (I realized this when Velvet Underground tracks played even though I could not find the folder), but you couldn’t go select the tracks manually.
  • Folders would not appear in any logical order: Actually, it’s perfectly logical for folders to appear in the order you placed them on the disc, but that doesn’t help you when you have scores of folders you might like in alphabetical order. The tags in the MP3 files don’t always help, either, especially if you have a single folder for one artist drawing from several albums.

So, on to the solutions.

  • Limiting Folders: That was a simple matter of being more efficient in how I copied music on to the USB drive, creating one folder for each artist (for the most part), and  then finding away to arrange the files in order (next). That got me well under the manageable number of folders.
  • Rename the Song Files: The forum poster pointed me to an MP3 re-tagging utility. It turned out to be pretty easy to use. I renamed the files (once copied to the USB stick, never touching my originals) to display the album name first to group albums together within artist folders, then track #, then name. The images below show the process for renaming one of my albums, but you could do the whole shebang in one stroke. One thing I could not figure out was the code for shortening album titles so I could cram more info into the short car stereo display (the example in the post didn’t work for me), but otherwise it worked well.

  • On to sorting the files: The forum post pointed to this file sorting utility, which overwrote the default ordering (folders pop up on car display by date modified) by letting you order them as you wish. I, of course, chose alphabetical. The example below shows me adding a single folder (Nick Cave”) and putting it in its proper place.

Now, I can find any file by artist, rather than searching through jhundreds of artist and album folders in seemingly random order. Plus, when I add new purchases, I can slip them into the proper findable order as well. It was a bit of picking to find the process, but now that I have it it is reasonably easy. I hope this helps anyone else out there looking for a similar solution.

21 Comments

  1. JoeCascio

    This is what happens when car manufacturers build software. They don’t have a clue. I wonder if Ford has followed thru on their initiative to open their platform to outside app developers. Unfortunately, they went with a Windows platform. Someday some car company that realizes it should stick to steel and wheels will put a simple Linux box in their products and let developers have at it.

  2. I think they just assume everyone wants to plug in their iPod and use those playlists. I’m sure that works fine, but it’s not for me. It would be nice to have a more elegant solution, perhaps imagined by a Linux developer.

  3. Clifford

    I bought a Jensen JMS2212 radio and it has a USB port. I downloaded music to the flash drive and when I tryed to play it just played the first song over and over??? I can’t FF or REV. When I contacted Jensen they said I needed to place all the music in one folder but diden’t tell me how. Anybody know how to put 4GB of music in one folder and transfer it to a flash drive?

  4. Ken

    Sounds like a lot of work doing the re-tagging utility, but have not tried that yet. I bought a 16 gig PNY thumb drive and put most of my music on it. Same problem for me, my Charger has a factory usb input so I thought I could play it that way. Some songs and folders show up and some dont. I have tried several things but not had any luck getting it to work right. I was at walmart the other day and saw a little thumb drive that said on the package “Made for car audio”. It was only 4 gig but also only 9 bucks so I bought it. I put the songs/groups that didnt work on the first drive onto this drive. Bam! every song and folder shows up. But I cant find any of these larger than 4 gig. A bunch of sites on internet say the drives should be fat32 to work right, well my 16 gig is already fat32 but it does not work right…Hoping this may help someone

  5. Thanks for the comments all. I don’t have all the answers, but I was looking for a page like this when I was trying to format my thumb drive. Hopefully all of this is obsolete shortly.

    For myself, I actually started subscribing to Spotify and have been using that through my phone more lately. Streaming anything you want on demand may end up being the future anyway. Who knows…

  6. Steve

    My music is all well tagged and sorted how I like using drive sort. Plugging in my iPhone gives a much more sophisticated look, being able to search using the tags.
    What I am wondering is if there is a way to trick the system into thinking an iPod has been plugged in when you plug in a USB stick.
    Presumably there is something like a table of contents or another file which the system recognises and displays those options. If you could mimic this file on the USB stick, perhaps this could be achieved. If anyone can help with this, please share!
    Thanks

  7. Doug Haslam

    Steve– I have not found a way to trick the system,- alas, they are optimized for ipods/iphones when not even a majority of the population have them. That would be a curious hack.

    Jack– my Honda Fit display does not allow for images, so I was not concerned with album art. feel free to comment here again if you find a solution, as I remain curious,

  8. Michael Bates

    Nice post. I had a similar problem with my Pioneer stereo. The tracks and folders weren’t in alphabetical order, which made finding folders harder and made audiobooks troublesome since chapters were out of order. The DriveSort utility did the trick for me. One thing to note if you want to sort sub folders, check the sub folder options under the sort and save icons. And saving the changes will take several minutes if you have a lot of files.

  9. Brenda

    this is what I found on my 2014 outback: a usb can have 255 folders. a folder can hold 255 files. when I had all 400 songs in root directory, it would only play 1st 125 approx. so root was actually a folder. if all 250 songs were in a folder it only played the first 125 approx. looks to me like it counts an index entry for each song title as a file. so, a folder needs to limit to 125 songs (+ 125 title index entries= 250 files). I can set for random play and it bounces from folder to folder. it took a couple of hours to figure this out.

  10. Nicholette Burney

    I am having a similar issue I have a Kenwood car stereo with a USB port and I just bought a 32 gigabyte hard drive and put almost 500 folders of music on there all different artists and it will not play past folder 255…… considering having two USB drives in the car….. seems like the better technology gets the more setbacks you encounter

  11. James

    I just bought a Lexar 32GB flash drive and Kenwood KDC radio w bluetooth. I transferred some videos instead of the just audio only songs by mistake, but the first song played ok, but I can’t skip past songs with the radio remote. Is there a way to play whatever number song I want like on a CD?

  12. James

    Also does it matter that the Spotify converter placed this in MP4 format? I also have now placed all of the songs in one folder and hopefully this will eliminate the 1st song playing over and over.

  13. Nick

    I am having problems with my car drive as well, I fix computers for a living and one would think I could find a work around but when it comes to cars…..I don’t think computers should be so involved in them but that a conversation for another time. My biggest problem I keep having is, My car thumb drive stereo only can see 5,000 files. No matter how I add them folder them or anything. I can put 40-50 Thousand files on there in MP3 format BUT, Don’t matter, The car stereo ain’t reading it. So What I am asking is, How do you find out the file limit? Is there any place that can tell you or am I going to get stuck because the stereos are in cars and most likely they car designers etc won’t have a clue what I am even talking about?

    Thanks,

    Nick

  14. Doug Haslam

    As noted above, I have gone subscription (Spotify) and haven’t been dealing with the USB in some time. I seem to recall a file limit with FAT32, but don’t recall the details: could it have to do with directories? Perhaps there is a file limit per folder. That rings a bell but again I am not sure I remember correctly.

  15. Dave

    I did pretty much what you did. The only other problem is that whenever I shut my engine off, the system can’t remember the last song played, therefore starting from there when I turn it on again. Any programs I could put on the USB drive to help with that?

  16. Sharon

    Wow! I am just starting out with adding music to a . My husband and I have replaced our stereo in our big truck with a Kenwood radio. I started having the problems of my radio not reading past 255 songs. I went on some forums and discovered that you had to place them in different folders. I also discovered that the more folders you add the less songs will play on the previous folders. How frustrating!! Nicholette and James did you ever discover any fixes for our Kenwood radios since your last post? I would love to hear what you discovered. I have been trying to figure out how to manage the songs and the folders. Just a thought I wonder what would happen if I just add 100 songs per folder. Let me know your thoughts and suggestions. Thanks,

  17. Rob

    Thanks for this page Doug, I was about to pull my hair out with it all and now find I’m not alone. I too have a Kenwood system DNX525DAB, and it seems to have this arcane method of handling USB too. I have raised it with support, but I’m not sure they understand the issue. I must admit I stunned in these days of portable media systems that the USB implementations still even rely on folders to index. I wish I could say it was resolved to my liking, but I can’t yet. I struggle on.

  18. Dave

    Thanks for the insight, Doug. My wife’s 2012 Prius v seems to play anything you stick in it, and lists entries alphabetically no matter how they are on the jump drive. I am amazed that Honda’s system is so archaic when compared to Toyota, but my 2015 Civic EX-L with navigation has all the problems you list, still! I am having to build a drive specifically to make it work properly, so I appreciate your input!

  19. Rudy

    The key is to read the manual–most manuals tell how many songs the USB player can read, and how many folders it can support.

    What I do find archaic is that many of these players cannot read the full filenames and sort based on those–instead, they appear to be going off of the order of the files in the FAT. My JVC in-dash can read the file and folder names and sort on them, but the Pioneer that is three years newer still cannot do this. (The Pioneer is a POS anyway, but that’s beside the point.)

    The key thing to keep in mind, also, is that it is not the car manufacturer’s fault in any of this–they have a contract with the major electronics companies to provide the in-dash electronics. Honda for years used Alpine for the head units, but might contract with Matsushita (parent company of Panasonic and Technics) to build, say, the cassette add-on unit, while Pioneer provides the speakers. This is true for many of the import car companies.

    I had to use DriveSort to fix the USB drive for the Pioneer in-dash, and it works well. But the point is, this is 2015, electronics are cheap, and none of us should have to do this…

  20. Doug Haslam

    It’s crazy that this is still an issue with some cars. I am on a 2013 Fit now, and while as stated above I just use my phone and Spotify, I suspect I would still have the same issue, at least today.

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