When you work on a Mac. And also need to take the same files to a Windows computer to continue working on.
You need an external drive with a file system you can easily swap between both.
Minus the drama.
And that need naturally leads to you asking yourself: What is the best format for external hard drive Mac and PC?
There’s an easy answer. Read on for a full explanation.
Best Format For External Hard Drive Mac And PC
ExFAT (Extensible File Allocation Table) is the best format for a shared external hard drive. Desktop hard drive, portable external hard drive Or partition.
No matter which Mac computer or Windows PC you have. If it’s made in the last 15 years, ExFAT will work on them both.
Because since then all Macs and PC’s have supported the ExFAT file system.
Why Is ExFAT The Best Format For External Drive Mac And PC?
Because your Windows computer can run its normal operating system. And file system on its internal drive(s).
Yet read an external hard drive with an ExFAT file system on.
Or read an external disk with an ExFAT formatted partition on it.
And when you connect that same external hard drive to your Mac, MacBook Pro. Or MacBook Air running its default file system. Your Mac can read your files. And you can use those files on your Mac.
And write back your changed files from both your PC and Mac.
Of course, on both computers. You’ll need application software that can read the file format your files are actually in.
What do I mean by that?
You’ll need an application program that can read .pdf files if that’s the type of file you’re sharing. Or a .docx file or .xlsx for example.
As long as the application software program can understand the file. Both your Mac and PC can use the file. And read and write the file to an ExFAT external drive.
Since When Has An ExFAT External Hard Drive Worked Between A Mac And A PC
First brought out in in 2006. ExFAT is a file system originally made for a PC. ExFAT stands for Extensible File Allocation Table.
The aim of ExFAT was to work on a USB drive. – Which most external hard drives are. Also, ExFAT supported Solid State Drives – also known as a Flash drive.
Because at that time there was a need for a file system that could work with. And store files larger than the limited file size supported by FAT32. The original PC file system.
So, PC’s manufactured since 2006 support the ExFAT file system.
Apple licensed ExFAT from Microsoft. And introduced ExFAT file system support in Mac OS X Snow Leopard. Mac OS 10.6.5 in 2009.
At that point you had a file system that would run on both a Windows PC. And on Mac OS X. Allowing the sharing of files between them both. And making ExFAT the best file system format to use.
So as long as your PC was made since 2006 and can run at least Windows XP (2001). And your Mac can run a minimum of Snow Leopard. Then with an external hard drive in ExFAT format you can share files between that PC and your Mac.
What About The File System My PC Runs Why Isn’t That The Best?
Modern PCs run Microsoft NTFS (New Technology File System). Interestingly enough your Mac can see an attached external NTFS drive. And can read files from an NTFS drive.
And as long as you’ve an application that can read those files. You can work on them on your Mac. But if you want to save your changed files back to your NTFS format external hard drive. You can’t.
It’s like driving up a one way street. Your files can only go in one direction. Up onto a Mac but not back down to the external drive. That doesn’t make it the best format for sharing files between a Mac And PC.
There is a much older file system that’s been around since 1996. FAT32 was bought in for a PC running Windows 95. The original format for a PC file system. It’s had a few upgrades from the original MSDOS based PC version. That was made for floppy disks. Not modern external hard drives.
Your Mac can read and write to a FAT32 drive. But.
FAT32 is a file system that’s not robust. Fast or secure. It has a 4GB file size limit for example. Which is not much use these days when you’re working with large photo files. Or videos.
And no good for speedy external SSD drives. And so FAT32 does not get the vote for best file system for a PC and a Mac.
What About the File System My Mac Runs Why Isn’t That The Best?
Back in 1998 with Mac OS 8.1. Mac’s ran HFS+. Also known as the Hierarchical File System.
You’ll see many ‘Made to run on a Mac’ external hard drives described as HFS+ drives.
You’ll also see it referred to inside your Mac’s system files as Mac OS Extended Journaled file system.
Mac OS Extended Journaled was the default file system format for Macs with internal hard drives.
Connect a Mac OS extended formatted external drive into your PC. And your PC can’t see it. You won’t see it’s connected. And that’s no good if you plan to work on the files on that drive from your PC running Windows.
Apple made a new more flexible, robust and secure file system in 2017. It’s called APFS (Apple File System). Made to take advantage of. And for a solid state drive.
Macs shipped with SSD drives internally. Now run Apple File System formatted drives inside.
And with the later Mac operating systems like Big Sur and Monterey. APFS runs on external hard drives and SSD’s.
But again. Connect up an APFS external storage device to your PC. And your PC can’t see the drive. It’s like it’s not connected.
A bust if you’re want to use the files on there. And that’s why APFS is a disaster as a file system format between a Personal Computer and a Mac.
Best Format For External SSD Drives For Mac And PC
It’s ExFAT. Just like on a hard drive. ExFAT is the best for SSD’s too.
ExFAT is optimized for SSD’s and for a USB flash drive.
Use ExFAT when you want to share a SSD drive between a PC and a Mac.
Or use an SSD with an ExFAT partition to share.
And for all the same reasons as a hard drive. It’s the best winning format to use.
How To Install The Best Format For External Hard Drive Mac And Windows
You use a piece of disk management software on your Mac called Disk Utility.
Disk Utility is a part of your Mac’s operating system. And you use that software to format your external hard disk to ExFAT.
Why use the disk management software Disk Utility on your Mac?
Because Mac’s are finicky about the file system format on their external disk.
Use a PC or other 3rd party software to format the hard drive. Or your SSD drive if you’re sharing one.
And you risk the external drive not working reliably.
Use Disk Utility to format it on your Mac.
You can find out how in this article here on the site. [How To] Format External Hard Drive For Mac? Easy Steps.
With this article. You now have a great idea of how you can use an external drive to move files back and forth between a Mac and a PC.
As a Mac user and a PC user with this knowledge you can make the most of your external drive.
Or even share a partition on that external drive.
So, what are you waiting for?
Use the best format for your drive and get it working for your PC and Mac.
About Paul Gregory
I’ve been a system administrator for various corporates for 15 years. And as admin I’ve helped many with their Mac’s and there many Apple devices.
I’m excited by watching users, armed with a little knowledge take control of their Mac’s and their files. And why not?
When I’m not at work or working on the site I like to chill with few beers. And watch a bit of car racing. From Formula 1 to stock car racing. The competition is my thing.