Shapefiles vs FGDB Feature Classes – The differences and the benefits of using Feature Classes

What is the difference?

Shapefiles are a type of feature class. A feature class is a collection of common features that share geometry, attribute fields and in GIS, a spatial reference. Geodatabase feature classes, which are more commonly referred to as just feature classes, are object based containers that store all of the above in a single item, rather than the multiple file structure we see in shapefiles.

Structure of Shapefiles – Multiple files required to make up same item

What we are comparing here is the difference between a shapefile feature class and a geodatabase feature class.

As the name suggests a geodatabase feature class can be stored in a range of geodatabases: file, personal or enterprise. The type of geodatabase can have slight differences on the functionality and properties of the feature classes. Geodatabases allow users to organise data and store their spatial data in the same geodatabase. This can include raster, feature classes and tables all stored within the same container. File geodatabases are commonly used for storing data that is being consumed in ArcGIS Pro and are the native and recommended format when working in ArcGIS.

Comparatively a shapefile is stored in a folder. A shapefile is made up of multiple files and all files must be found in the same folder with the same name, if the individual files do not have the same name and are not in the correct location, the shapefile will fail to open in a GIS application. A shapefile must have the following:

  • .shp – this file stores the geometry of the feature
  • .shx – this file stores the index of the geometry
  • .dbf – this file stores the attribute information for the feature

Shapefiles can also have additional files of the same name in the folder but only the above are required, most commonly there will be an additional .prj file with projection information. Shapefiles are open source and more widely supported in GIS and CAD systems.

Limitations with Shapefiles

Shapefiles are basic storage formats and come with limitations that include:

  • Consume higher storage
  • Only allow for 2GB of data storage
  • Fields cannot have more than 10 characters
  • Date and Time cannot be stored in the same field
  • NULL values are stored as 0 instead

Benefits of File Geodatabase Feature classes

Some of the benefits include:

  • Larger storage size (1TB)
  • Multiple users
  • Overall improved performance
  • Less restrictive. Locking can be done per table instead of on the entire database.
  • Take up less space on disk

The major difference lies in the additional functionality of geodatabase feature classes. This includes but not limited to:

  • More reliable – less likely to experience file corruption
  • Complex/ high precision geometry options
  • Support geodatabase topology
  • Support domains and subtypes
  • Ability to have annotation feature classes

It is recommend to use geodatabase feature classes when working in ArcGIS as this is the native format for the software. This allows for increased performance and greater functionality when working in ArcGIS Pro. ArcGIS provides many tools for converting other storage formats to geodatabase feature classes.

More information on feature classes:

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