You’ve bought yourself an external drive. Or you’re thinking of buying one.
And you realize you have a choice in the file system format you can format your drive to.
When would you use ExFAT? When would you use APFS?
Does it matter if you have an external SSD (Solid State Drive)? Or an external HDD (Hard Disk Drive)?
Read on and discover the reasons why you’d choose one rather than the other.
|Works On Mac||Yes||Yes|
|Works On PC||Yes||No|
|File Security Features||No||Yes|
|Optimized for SSDs||No||Yes|
|Older Mac Support||Yes||No|
ExFAT Versus APFS When You’re Using Your Drive Only On A Mac
When you’re only using your external drive on your Mac, APFS (Apple File System) is the better file system to pick.
Why? Read on for the reasons why.
ExFAT On Your Mac
You’ll find your Mac can read any file on your ExFAT external drive. And write to your file(s) to your drive. As well as update any file on the ExFAT drive.
You can copy and paste your files onto your ExFAT drive.
Put your external ExFAT drive on your Mac. Double click on your drive icon to open up a Finder window and you’re ready to use.
Put your ExFAT formatted drive onto a Windows PC and your PC can do the same. Read every file, write new files and update the files on the drive.
But important for your Mac. Your external ExFAT drive needs to be ExFAT formatted with an GUID Partition Map. You can create a formatted ExFAT drive like this on a modern version of the Windows operating system.
But many Windows users may not be familiar with creating drives on their PCs.
Your Mac needs this setup for the ExFAT drive to be readable on your Mac computer. And it is the cause of many ExFAT drives showing as unreadable on a Mac.
It’s easier to format the ExFAT file system onto your external drive using Disk Utility on a Mac. Then you know it’s done.
Versus APFS On Your Mac
APFS (Apple File System) format is a native Mac file system. Created by Apple Inc in 2017 to take advantage of and optimize for SSDs (Solid State Drives).
Modern Macs with SSDs inside come with APFS as the default file system format.
You can create your APFS file system on your external drive using Disk Utility on your Mac.
Then you can.
Double click on your external drive icon and a Finder window opens. Inside that finder window you can copy and paste your files to the drive. And since Mac OS X Big Sur.
You can use an APFS formatted external drive as the destination for your Mac Time Machine backup.
APFS is optimized to run on a Mac. ExFAT runs on a Mac but is designed for sharing. Not for performance on a Mac.
ExFAT VS APFS For External SSD Or External Hard Drive
Whether it’s an external hard drive or an external SSD. Mac OS X reads and writes to an ExFAT drive just fine.
Because you can format an SSD. Or an external hard drive to ExFAT or APFS.
So, when would you?
ExFAT as a file system format was created in 2006 by Microsoft. It was made as file system that could be used across different operating systems. And it was created in the days when computers used external hard drives.
APFS in contrast was designed to take advantage of the faster speed of an SSD drive or flash drive. It was built with those drives in mind and is optimized for them.
Though APFS runs pretty well on an external hard drive. APFS was not made for other operating systems. Just Mac OS.
So, when you want your drive only for your Mac. You can put an APFS file system format on your external hard drive. Or onto your SSD.
But for backwards compatibility with earlier Mac OS X releases before Sierra.
Then for your older Mac use the Mac OS Extended Journaled file system as the best choice. As those Macs will not support an APFS drive.
APFS Vs ExFAT Speed Benefits
APFS compared to ExFAT on speed. And APFS wins. It is the faster file system optimized for Mac. And optimized for SSDs.
ExFAT doesn’t have those advantages.
But for most users using external drives. The vast majority of those external drives are external hard drives. APFS isn’t optimized for a hard drive. And for those users comparing ExFAT and APFS. It’s a closer run race.
When you’re only using your external hard drive or SSD on a Mac then APFS wins hands down.
But when you’re looking for a shared drive APFS isn’t going to work on a PC without driver software. And driver software involves a translation layer.
Which does nothing for speed.
In a shared drive environment speed isn’t the issue. Compatibility is. And ExFAT wins out.
ExFAT Or APFS For Sharing Files With A Windows PC
ExFAT is the best format to use when you need a drive to share between a Mac and a Windows computer.
Microsoft created ExFAT in 2006 with that job in mind.
In contrast a Windows PC can’t even see a connected APFS format external drive.
As Microsoft Window’s default file system is an NTFS file system.
The only way for a Windows computer to use an APFS external drive. Is for you to use 3rd party disk driver software on your Windows based computer.
And that adds additional cost, time and management when you could just format your drive as ExFAT.
Because you’ll likely need to pay for driver software if the drive manufacturer doesn’t supply it for free. You’ll need the software on each PC you plan to use the drive on.
And you’ll need a compatible version of the software to run on each operating system release you upgrade to.
It is best to format a drive you plan to share between a Mac and a PC as ExFAT with a GUID Partition Map. And it’s easier to do that using Disk Utility on a Mac.
And definitely when buying an external drive that ships ExFAT formatted. Double check the format of the drive. Check that it’s formatted right for sharing. And the partition Map isn’t a Master Boot Record.
As Master Boot Record for your Mac external hard drive. Or SSD causes issues on a Mac.
It’s always worth remembering. You can always create an ExFAT partition on a larger APFS format drive. And then you can use that partition to share files with a PC.
ExFAT Or APFS For Storing Your Important Files
Whether you use ExFAT or APFS if your files are important then have at least a 2nd copy on another drive. Or in Cloud storage. As both an ExFAT external drive or an APFS external drive can fail.
That said. APFS is the more secure file system format. Because it offers better security, file encryption and data recovery features than ExFAT.
APFS has more file protection features built in.
A sudden power failure or disconnection will trigger the APFS drive to roll back. And better protect your important files. And that makes APFS is the more robust file system.
Lacking those features makes ExFAT more fragile compared to APFS. So, you’ll need to take greater care and eject your drive correctly before plugging out of your computer.
But as a Mac format, APFS doesn’t have the cross platform features of ExFAT.
ExFAT is not the fastest file system. But then it’s not built that way. It’s fast enough for most needs. And wins when you want a shared drive, or a shared partition on a larger drive.
APFS Or ExFAT For A Time Machine Backup
This is an easy choice. When you want a Time Machine back up of your Mac the only choice out of the two is APFS.
Macs do not support a Time Machine backup to an external drive formatted as ExFAT.
Even with APFS there are some things to bear in mind on your Mac.
APFS as a fairly recent file system format was only supported for a Time Machine backup since Mac OS Big Sur.
There is no APFS Time Machine backup support on earlier Mac OS releases. For those earlier versions of Mac OS. You’ll need your external drive Mac OS Extended Journaled formatted for Time Machine.
So now you’ve a pretty good idea on the comparison and merits of an ExFAT formatted drive. Versus a APFS formatted drive.
What you plan to use your drive for is the important consideration. And will be the driver for to pick APFS over ExFAT.
Thank you for reading.
While you’re here why not take a look at our other related articles on the 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.