It doesn’t matter if you’re sat in front of a MacBook Pro, MacBook Air or iMac. The best format to pick for your external hard drive (HDD) depends on a few of things.
1. What Mac computer you have. And the version of the Mac operating system (MacOS) you’re running.
2. Is your external drive a hard drive or solid state drive.
3. And when you have the latest M1 MacBook Pro, Air or iMac. It then comes down to personal choice.
Best Format For Mac External Hard Drive
APFS is the best format for external drives on Macs running MacOS High Sierra (10.13) or later.
Mac OS Extended Journaled ( HFS+) is the best format for an external hard drive for a Mac running an older file system like Sierra.
And use Mac OS Extended on Macs running Catalina. When you want your external hard drive for a Time Machine backup.
Because Catalina does not support Time Machine backups on external drives in APFS format.
Best Format For External Hard Drive Mac Monterey
The best format for your external hard drive is APFS on Monterey. APFS has better security features and is a faster file system format.
In MacOS Monterey (12.0) you still can format your external hard drive. Or SSD Drive as Mac OS Extended (HFS+).
You choose which.
But if you plan to share your drive with an older Mac running Sierra. Pick Mac OS Extended. As those older Mac’s can’t use an APFS file system.
Best Format For External Hard Drive Mac M1
The best format for your external hard drive on an M1 Mac is APFS.
APFS is great for your external hard drive or SSD because of its speed. And enhanced security.
On your M1 Mac you have the choice to format your external hard drive. Or SSD drive as Mac OS Extended. And the best choice if you plan to share your drive with a Mac running Sierra or an older Mac operating system.
Best Format For External Hard Drive Mac Big Sur
The best format to use is APFS. APFS is more robust and secure.
You also have the choice to format your external hard drive as Mac OS Extended (HFS+).
It’s best to format as Mac OS Extended if you plan to share your drive with an older Mac running Sierra or earlier. Because Mac computers running Sierra or earlier OS’s can’t use an APFS formatted external drive.
Big Sur was the first Mac operating system where you can use both an APFS (Apple File System) format. And Mac OS Extended (HFS+) drive for a Time Machine backup.
The Mac operating system 11.0 is also known as Big Sur. And uses APFS as the default Mac format for any internal drive.
The exception to APFS Or Mac OS Extended is if you plan to share your hard drive with a windows computer. The best format to use then is exFAT.
You’ll find more about ExFAT later on in this article.
Best Format For External Hard Drive Mac Catalina
HFS+ is the best format choice for Catalina. Because you get the widest options on how you use your formatted hard drive.
Format your external disk as MacOS Extended (HFS+) for a Time Machine backup. Or for hard drives you copy and paste your files onto it.
The Mac operating system 10.15 is also known as Catalina. You can format as APFS for your SSD drives and for your hard disk drives.
But remember in Catalina there’s no Time Machine backup on to a drive using an APFS format.
Want to check out the Best Format For Mac Time Machine on an external drive? Click the linked text to find out.
Best Format For External Hard Drive Mac Mojave
MacOS Extended (HFS+) is the best file format when you’re using a hard external drive on your Mac with Mojave. Because it gives you the most options.
Mojave also known as the Mac operating system 10.14 allows you to format APFS on your SSD drive or hard drive. But you’re restricted because you can’t use APFS for a Time Machine backup.
Best Format For External Hard Drive Mac High Sierra
Mac OS Extended (HFS+) is the file system format of choice for High Sierra.
For a mechanical drive – an external hard drive you’re only using on your Mac.
Or sharing with a Mac,
High Sierra is also known as the Mac operating system 10.13. Allows a Mac user to format an SSD drive as APFS. And take advantage of the faster transfer speed of SSD drives. But format your SSD as APFS and you’ll have no Time Machine backup.
Format hard drive as Mac OS Extended (HFS+) if you want to use your SSD for Time Machine.
Best Format For Mac External Hard Disk Sierra Or Earlier
When you’re only using your external HDD on a Mac. Or sharing between Macs the best format is Mac OS Extended (HFS+) on the OS Sierra (10.12). Or an earlier version of the Mac operating system.
It’s the default file system.
Use for your external hard drive and or external SSD for copy and paste of your files. As well as for a Time Machine backup.
Now you’ve explored the different Mac operating systems. And the best Mac formats. Now let’s venture into some important terms to understand.
What Is This Thing A File System And Its Format?
The file system on your external HDD is how your Mac first recognizes your drive.
The file system allows your Mac computer to understand what is on the drive. How it’s laid out. And to find out where your files are on the drive.
Your Mac looks at the file system to read what is on your external drive. And then knows how to write your files to the external drive. Plus read how much free space is left.
So, you see it’s pretty crucial.
And it’s important for you to know on a Mac there are several types of file systems.
What Is An APFS Format External Drive?
APFS stands for Apple File System. Apple created it to take advantage of the new faster solid state drive technology.
If you’ve a newer MacBook or iMac. Any Mac built after 2017 and running the Mac OS X High Sierra (10.13) or later.
High Sierra was the first MacOS to use and support APFS.
Solid state drives (SSD’s) had been around a while. But at that time their pricing reduced enough to be used by everyday users.
APFS as a Mac file system format that has fast directory sizing. And stronger more secure file encryption. You can take fast file system snapshots.
You can use APFS formatting to make an external drive bootable. So, you can boot your Mac from an APFS drive if you want. Or you can use an APFS format external drive to hold your files. Photos, spreadsheets, music, movies anything you like.
You can also create extra partitions as you want. And when you want on an APFS format drive. You allocate free space on your drive to each partition as needed.
An APFS Format External Drive Is Good For
APFS Format External Drive Is Not For
And There Are Different Flavors of APFS
This not something to get too hung up on. As you’ll see it’s pretty obvious when you’d choose one rather than the other.
APFS – the standard default, fast file system format aimed at SSD drives.
You can format an ordinary mechanical hard drive with APFS.
But your MacBook Pro or Air or iMac must be running at least MacOS 10.13 (High Sierra).
APFS (Encrypted) – this version lets you add a password. It encrypts your files.
It effectively jumbles your files up so only the right key opens them. And the key is the password you put on.
This protects your files from viewers seeing what you have on your external drive. You have to enter your password before you can get to your files on your external drive.
APFS (Case Sensitive) – Is as its name implies case sensitive.
What does that mean?
Say you’ve a folder called photo. You can’t type in Photo to get to it. The case sensitive version of APFS sees your folder photo and Photo as different. And so, PHOTO would be another separate folder.
There may be special situations where this would be useful to you. But most users won’t need it.
On standard APFS, your folder photo, Photo and PHOTO are the same place on the drive.
APFS (Case Sensitive, Encrypted) – This version of the file system combines the case sensitive version of APFS with the Encrypted version of APFS.
What Is A HFS+ Format External Drive?
HFS+ (Hierarchical File System) has been around since the Mac OS X version 8.1 in 1998. And was the file system format on Macs and their external drives till APFS came along.
You’ll see it called Mac OS Extended inside your Mac’s operating system.
It runs on MacBooks, MacBook Pros, MacBook Air and iMac 2016 or earlier. It’s the file system format the Mac operating system MacOS 10.12 runs. Also known as Sierra.
HFS+ was made for mechanical hard drives and is still very much used on mechanical hard drives today.
What is a mechanical hard drive?
These drives have moving parts inside that read files from and write files to your drive.
Another difference with HFS+ is in creating partitions. You need to decide up front how many you want. And what format you want for each partition.
You don’t have the flexibility to add and format a partition later once your files are on the drive. You have to copy them off first or lose them.
A HFS+ Format External Drive is Good For
An HFS+ Format External Drive is Not For
The Different Type Of HFS+
And just like there are different flavors of APFS. There are similar flavors of HFS+
Mac OS Extended (Journaled) – is the standard version of the HFS+ format. It uses internal journaling to protect your files on your external drive. It does as much as possible to fix issues when there are drive problems.
Mac OS Extended (Journaled, Encrypted) – Encrypts your files on your external drive. You’ll need to assign a password. And use that password to read your files on the external drive. (Only available in Mac OS 10.12 (Sierra) or earlier releases.)
Mac OS Extended (Case-Sensitive, Journaled) – treats your file names as case sensitive. So, you can save files of the same names by changing the case you use in the file name from upper to lower case.
Mac OS extended (Case-sensitive, Journaled, Encrypted) – combines the features of case sensitive with encryption. You need to set a password. And use that password to get to your files. (Only available in Mac OS 10.12 (Sierra) or earlier releases.)
Other External Hard Drive Formats You Can Use On Your Mac
An MSDOS (Fat 32) Drive
Macs can read and write to FAT 32 formatted drives. But it’s an old MSDOS operating system. And it’s not particularly secure or robust.
Looking for backup disk storage of a large file? Then it’s not for you.
This external drive format has file size limits as well.
Only use if you have to. And for those gadgets that demand it.
An ExFAT Drive
Macs can read and write to an ExFAT formatted hard drive. It’s the ideal format to use when you need to share your files between a Mac and a Windows PC.
Because a Windows machine can read and write to ExFAT as well.
An NTFS File System Drive
NTFS (New Technology File System) is a newer Windows computer PC file system.
Because of an agreement reached between Apple and Microsoft. Macs can read but can’t write to an NTFS drive.
Not without you installing a specialist software driver program.
You can change the formatting of your external hard drive. Or SSD drive using disk management software on your Mac called Disk Utility.
Curious to know more?
You can find out how to Format Your External Hard Drive for Mac. Using this article here on the site.
And while you’re here why not check out the other related articles here on this site.
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.