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 MacBook Pro, Air or iMac. It then comes down to personal choice.
Best Format For An External Hard Drive On Your Mac
HFS+ (Mac OS Extended Journaled) is the best format for an external or portable hard drive you’re only using on a Mac.
Or sharing with a Mac.
APFS is a format option for external drives on Macs running MacOS 10.13 or later.
But it’s made for Solid State Drives and does not support Time Machine backups.
Best Format For External Hard Drive Mac Big Sur
MacOS 11.0 is also known as Big Sur.
And the default Mac format for external disks on Big Sur is APFS.
But for external hard drives the best format for your Mac formatted drives is HFS+.
Because it runs the best on hard drives. You can use a HFS+ formatted disk as a backup disk for Time Machine.
But if you’ve an external SSD. As long as you don’t intend to use the drive for Time Machine. Then format as APFS. As it’s designed for SSD drives.
The exception to this is if you plan to share your drive with an older Mac running Sierra or earlier. Or you plan to share your SSD with a windows computer.
More about that under ExFAT later.
Best Format For External Hard Drive Mac Catalina
MacOS 10.15 is also known as Catalina.
Here again HFS+ is the best choice because it gives you the widest options on your formatted hard drive.
You can use your HFS+ external disk for a Time Machine backup. Or copy and Paste your files onto it.
You do have the choice of APFS for your SSD drives and for your hard disk drives. But remember there’s no Time Machine backup for you using APFS.
Best Format For External Hard Drive Mac Mojave
Mojave is also known as MacOS 10.14.
When you’re using a hard external drive on your Mac with Mojave. HFS+ is the best choice. Because it gives you the most options.
You can choose APFS for your SSD drives or for your hard drive. But you’re restricted because you can’t use AFPS for a Time Machine backup.
Best Format For External Hard Drive Mac High Sierra
You’ll find High Sierra is also known as MacOS 10.13.
When you’ve a mechanical drive – a hard disk drive you’re only putting on a Mac. Or sharing with a Mac, HFS+ is the default file system of choice for High Sierra.
When you’re using an SSD drive for Mac you can format as APFS for speed. But you’ll have no Time Machine backup.
Format as HFS+ if you want to use your SSD for Time Machine. You have the choice.
Best Format For Mac External Hard Disk Sierra
Sierra is MacOS 10.12. And when you’re only using your external HDD on a Mac. Or sharing between Macs the best format is HFS+ on Mac OS Sierra. It’s the default file system.
You can store, copy and paste your files onto the external drive as well as doing a Time Machine backup.
You can use an external SSD drive on your Mac running Sierra. Format it as HFS+.
Running Mac OS X On A Pre Sierra Mac?
Then an external disk formatted as HFS+ is your best choice on Mac OS X.
Now you’ve explored the different Mac operating systems. And the best Mac external drive formats. Now let’s venture into some basics.
What Is This Thing A File System And Its Format?
The file system on your external HDD is how your Mac first recognizes the drive.
The file system allows your Mac computer to understand what is on the drive. How it’s laid out. And 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.
You may have an existing external drive with a certain file system on.
Or you’re looking to choose the best file system for your Mac and that external drive.
So what else do you need to know?
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. Pretty much those shipped since 2017. They would have come with the Mac operating system MacOS 10.13.
This Mac operating system also has the name High Sierra. 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 has fast directory sizing. And stronger more secure file encryption. You can take fast file system snapshots. And it allows you to space share.
You can use APFS formatting to make an external drive bootable. So you can boot your Mac from it 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, 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 them up so only the right key opens them. And the key is the password you put on.
This protects your files from casual 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 photos. 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 maybe special situations where this would be useful to you. But most users won’t need it.
On standard APFS, your folder photo, Photos 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 operating system 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.
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.
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
Mac’s 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 computer and a Windows PC.
Because a Windows machine can read and write to ExFAT as well.
An NTFS File System Drive
NTFS 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.
It’s a page of the Disk Utility manual. This is the software that formats external hard drives on a 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.