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You want to do a Time Machine backup.

And you’re looking at external drives for your Mac. And wonder what the difference in file formats mean?

One manufacturer says their drive is NTFS formatted. While another one claims theirs is ExFAT formatted. And yet another says it’s for Mac.

Are you spinning around confused?

Settle back and discover what format to use for your Mac’s Time Machine. When you need the best one.

Best Format For Mac Time Machine Backup

When your Mac is running Mac OS X Big Sur (v. 11.0) or above. The best drive format for a Time Machine backup is APFS.

But for earlier Mac OS X versions like Catalina, Mojave … The best format to use is Mac OS Extended Journaled.

Mac OS Extended (Journaled) also known as HFS+. They are the same thing.

Why Does Time Machine Need A Special Format?

The format of a drive is also known as its file system.

What is a file system?

It’s how your files are laid out on the drive.

And it’s how your Mac understands how to write and read your files from your drive.

It’s how your Mac knows where to find your files.

Time Machine as part of your Mac’s operating system, needs to know how to write your backup to your drive.

And how to read your backup, back off your Mac’s drive. And so, needs your Time Machine drive in a Mac format.

So, your Time Machine backup drive format is pretty important.

Do you know how to check your external drive’s format?

No?

Then head over to this article on the site to tell you how. How to Check Format Of External Drive on Mac.

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Is APFS A Good Drive Format To Use For A Time Machine Backup?

Since MacOS 11.0, Big Sur, Apple supports backing up to APFS (Apple File System).

APFS is the latest file system format for Mac. And has been around since MacOS High Sierra.

It’s made for and created to run on Solid State Drives (SSDs). And takes advantage of the faster drive speeds of SSD drives.

You can run APFS on mechanical external hard drives. And there ARE advantages because it’s a more robust file system format.

You have the choice of picking to backup to APFS encrypted or non-encrypted. And if your files are sensitive. Then picking an encrypted format allows you to set a password on your drive and secure your files.

HFS+ The Alternative Format For Your Mac’s Time Machine Backup?

If your Mac isn’t running MacOS Big Sur. Or Monterey because you’ve not upgraded.

Or you’ve an older Mac computer and it’s not supported.

And definitely if you’ve a mixed collection of Macs. Some running Big Sur or later. Some not.

Then the next best format for a Time Machine backup disk is Mac OS Extended format. It’s also known as HFS+.

Because Mac operating systems before Big Sur. Like Catalina can’t read. Or write to an APFS format drive for a Time Machine backup.

Advantages of HFS+ In A Time Backup?

HFS+ (Mac OS Extended (Journaled) is a journaled file system.

So what?

This means that HFS+ does what it can to bypass small errors on your external drive.

So, when you have a drive that’s acting up. HFS+ does what it can to allow you to get to your files.

Extra, extra useful when it’s your backup files you want to get to.

And it’s an advantage because all releases of MacOS can read the Time Machine files on a HFS+ drive.

And those ‘for Mac’ drives you see advertised as delivered HFS+ formatted right out of the box. You can use them right away on your Mac for a backup.

Want to check one of those drives out? You can take a look at one here.

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What If My Mac is Running Big Sur But My Backup Drive Is HFS+?

Ok, so you’ve upgraded your Mac to Big Sur and your existing Time Machine backup is on an HFS+ formatted drive.

No issue.

You can carry right on using your backup disk drive. Your Mac will back up to it perfectly fine.

Does It Matter For Your Time Machine Backup If You’ve An External Hard Drive OR SSD?

No.

It’s not the type of drive that matters. It’s the format on it that Time Machine cares about.

But when you look at the cost of an SSD versus a mechanical based hard drive, you’ll see quite a difference.

And perhaps a real consideration when you have a lot to backup.

Tons of photos or movies. Or you may have several Macs to backup.

Most of the time the speed of your backups isn’t the most important thing.

There’s no issue in backing up your Macs internal SSD drive to an external hard drive.

The difference in speed of the two is not an issue for Time Machine.

And if you need the fastest backup and cost is not an issue. Then sure, get yourself an SSD drive for your Macs Time Machine backup.

What If The Drive You Want To Use Isn’t Formatted As APFS or HFS+

Say your drive comes ExFAT formatted. A drive format that’s Windows PC compatible. But can’t be used with Time Machine.

You can use Disk Utility on your Mac to reformat any drive.

If you’ve files already on your external disk you want to keep. Then copy them off first.

Then you can reformat to APFS or Mac OS Extended with a GUID partition map.

And if your drive is large enough. You can use Disk Utility to create a formatted section. A partition on your drive dedicated to your Time Machine Backups. And another section to store other specific files you want.

Then use System Settings. Or in Mac OS Monterey or older you’d use System Preferences on your Mac. Select Time Machine and set your Mac to use your drive with the ‘Select Disk’ button.

Not sure how to go about reformatting an external drive? You can read this post on the site.

What If My Macs External Drive For Time Machine Is NTFS Formatted?

NTFS is a file format for a Windows PC. A Mac can read a NTFS drive. But can’t write to it.

And it’s not a format that your Mac’s Time Machine software can use for a backup.

But don’t panic.

All external hard drives can be reformatted by your Mac.

Just make sure that any files on the external hard drive or SSD drive are copied off first.

Then use your Mac’s Disk Utility software to reformat the external disk to APFS or HFS+ – Mac OS Extended (Journaled). It’s your choice.

Don’t Need The Whole External Drive For Your Mac’s Time Machine Backup?

Then you can create a Time Machine backup partition. Or section on a large enough external drive.

And use that as your backup volume.

Curious to know how to partition an external hard drive for your Mac? Learn more here.

Time Machine And Macs

First thing to know about your Mac’s Time Machine software is that it’s been around for a long time.

It’s a reliable way of backing up your MacBook Pro, MacBook Air. Or Apple silicon M1 or M2 Mac.

And the best part is Time Machine is right there for you. Part of your Mac’s OS.

There no separate software for you to buy to do a basic backup of your Mac.

Use Time Machine and it backs up everything except your Mac’s operating system. Since Mac OS Big Sur your Mac’s operating system is restored separately using your Mac’s Recovery Mode. You can read about this in this article. Does Time Machine Restore OS. – link

Other than that Time Machine will backup all your applications, your photos, music, videos and spreadsheets. – Everything else you have on your Mac.

Having a recent Time Machine backup of your Mac will dig you out of a hole if anything happens to your Mac.

If you have to get it repaired or reset back to its factory settings.

Or the worst of the worst your MacBook is stolen.

At least then you’ve not lost all your files. You can get back to where you were by restoring your Mac from your Backup disk.

In Closing

In this blog post, you found options for drive formats to use for your Time Machine backup. And heard about the benefits of APFS or Mac OS Extended format for a Mac backup using Time Machine.

If you’re looking for more information on this topic, be sure to check out our other related posts!

Related Articles

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Best Format For Mac SSD (Find Out Before Putting On Mac)

ExFAT vs APFS (When To Use One Over The Other)

Reference: MacOS User Guide




2 Comments

  1. Just a thank you, Simon, for a clear and concise article confirming my thoughts about formatting an external drive for Time Machine.

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