External Hard Drive for Mac and PC Interchangeable

You’d like an external hard drive where both your Mac and your PC can interchange files or listen to the same MP3s?

Or is it that your household has a few Macs and PCs.

Macs and PCs you use for various jobs. And you’d like a central external hard drive to share and pop files onto.

The Good News!

The good news is. You can shape pretty much any external hard drive that can plug into both your Mac and your PC.

And  change your drive so that both Mac and Windows can read and write to it.

And all you need is a little know how.

Format Hard Drive For Mac And PC Overview Of The Steps

1. You format your external hard drive to Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system. 

2. You format your external hard drive to ExFAT.

3. Then you can share the drive.

Now, you can go ahead without step 1.

But to be honest I’ve seen Macs get picky about formatting the drive to ExFAT without formatting to Mac OS first.

It’ll only take you a few minutes. You’ll find out how, so why worry about it?

External Hard Drive Compatible With Mac And PC

To start you plug your external drive into your Mac.

You format your external hard drive as Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system first.

​Note: If there are files already on your hard drive

​​​You will need to copy them off as formatting will erase the files. 

But if you can’t and you still need to make your hard drive interchangeable with Mac and PC.

Take a look at this document. “External Hard Drive Compatible with Mac and PC Without Reformatting“.

Ready? Here are the steps.

1. Power Up And Sign Into Your Mac

​​Connect the USB cable to your hard drive and plug the other end into your Mac. If the drive needs an external power supply, plug that in ahead of connecting up the USB cable.

2. Find The External Hard Drive Icon On Your Desktop

Your hard drive icon will look like this.

External Drive Icon On Desktop
External Drive Icon on Desktop

If your drive icon hasn’t shown up on your desktop. And you’re not sure what to do next. Take a look at my article “Connecting up an external hard drive on a Mac“.

3. Open Up Disk Utility

Disk Utility is the software on your Mac that will format your external hard drive for Mac and PC.

​You can find Disk Utility by clicking on the Application folder. 

Applications Folder In Dock
Application Folder in Dock

Then click on the Utilities folder inside the Application folder.

Utilities In Application Folder
Utilities In Application’s Folder

​In the Utilities folder you can double click on Disk Utility to start it up.

Disk Utility In Utilities Folder
Disk Utility in Utilities Folder

​Or you can search for it using spotlight search. The icon for Spotlight search should be at the top of your desktop.

Spotlight Search Symbol
Spotlight Search Symbol

​Type in Disk Utility.

Disk Utility In Spotlight Search
Disk Utility In Spotlight Search

You click on Disk Utility to start it up.

4. Pick Your External Drive From The External Disk Section In The Window

Disk Utility Select External Hard Drive
Disk Utility Select External Hard Drive

Be sure to click on your external drive at the top level. As you see in the picture above.

Can’t see two levels?

Look at the top of your screen at the Disk Utility menu. Click on View. And make sure ‘Show All Devices’ is picked.

5. Look At The Options Across The Top Of Your Disk Utility Window

​You’ll see the option to Erase. You use this option to set up the formatting of your external hard drive.

Disk Utility Erase Option
Disk Utility Erase Option

6. Click On Erase To Format

​You’ll now have a screen where you’ll be able to give the external hard drive a name.

You can also select the formatting – the file system you want.

Disk Utility Formatting Page
Disk Utility Formatting Page

Your first time through these steps pick Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system.

Use the up down arrows at the end of the format field.

Then be sure to pick GUID Partition Map for Scheme.

Then click erase at the bottom right of the window. Wait a few minutes and you’ve done your formatting.

7. Now Format As ExFAT

When you’ve already formatted your external hard drive as Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system. You’re ready to format as ExFAT.

Go through steps 1 – 5 above again but this time.

Pick ExFAT for your format.

Selecting ExFAT in Disk Uitility
Selecting ExFAT in Disk Utility

Pick GUID Partition Map for Scheme.

Then you click on the Erase button at the bottom right of your Disk Utilty window.

And in a few minutes you’ve formatted your hard drive to ExFAT.

And you’re done!

Hurray.

Both your Mac and PC can read and write to your entire external hard drive.

You can drag and drop files and create folders as you wish.

And it only took a few minutes.

You can go ahead now and put some files on your drive with your Mac.

But remember before unplugging your hard drive read step 8. And Eject your external hard drive to properly disconnect your newly compatible drive. 

8. Ejecting Your External Hard Drive From Your Mac

If you just pulled out your USB cable from your Mac or your PC you risk corrupting your drive.

Corrupting your hard drive would make it unreadable by your Mac.

This is because both Mac OS and Windows holds information in its memory. And this information only gets written down to the hard drive when you tell it to.

Ejecting your external hard drive. Tells Mac OS to write that information from memory down to the drive. Then you can safely plug out your drive from your Mac. 

You eject your external hard drive from a Windows PC as well. So that your PC can write down all data to your drive. And then it’s safe to take out your USB cable.

To Eject Your Hard Drive;

1. Hover over the Icon for the external hard drive on your desktop. Right click and pick Eject.

Right Click to Eject External Drive
Right Click to Eject External Drive

Or Go to a finder window. And click on the arrow to the right of your drive name to eject your drive.

2. Wait a few seconds for your drive icon to disappear.

3. Wait till the fan stops moving if your external drive has a fan or for the light on the hard drive to go off.

4. Then you’re free to disconnect your USB cable.

Format External Hard Drive For Mac And Windows YouTube Video

Still feeling in the dark about creating an external hard drive for Mac and Windows?

Would you like to see the reformatting done?

I have chosen this YouTube video as one of the best to view.

Video Credit: Acquevara

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Here’s some useful information. On the why is and what is of making your drive interchangeable with Mac and windows.

The Little Known Beauty Of ExFAT

Apple bought the rights from Microsoft. Rights that allow their computers to format and read ExFAT file systems. This means a Mac can read and write to an ExFAT formatted hard drive.

A Windows PC can also read and write to an ExFAT formatted hard drive.

Hurray! ExFAT is the one common factor.

Both Macs and PCs can read from and write to ExFAT file systems.

This means that as long as you can plug your hard drive’s USB cable in. You only need to adjust the formatting of your drive.

Then your Mac and Windows PC can read and write to that drive.

What Can You Share?

Documents, music, photos pretty much all your files.

What Can’t You Share Between A Mac and A Windows PC?

What Can’t You Share between a Mac and a Windows PC?

You can’t share Applications and Program files. These files are also known as executables.

Applications made for a Windows PC must run on a Windows PC.

In the same way an application made to run on Mac must run on a Mac.

You can store program files on a shared hard drive. But when you run these programs they must run on the computer they’re meant for.

Question Mark Icon

Why Does An External Hard Drive That Works For Mac And PC Seem So Hard?

Well the thing is, it’s not,

As long as you understand a few basics.

​Either you buy a drive already formatted as ExFAT. Like the Samsung T5 SSD.

Here is a link to a review where you can take a look at the Samsung T5 SSD.

Or you take a few minutes to format your external hard drive for both Mac and PC.

Why Can’t You Share An External Hard Drive From Mac To PC By Default?

Because your Windows PC’s use NTFS (New Technology File System) to store your files.

​What Is A File System?

​A file system is the structure the computer expects to see and read. This file system is how your PC finds its operating system, your documents, photos, mp3s… In fact anything you’ve saved.

File Systems A Windows PC Can Read

NTFS

NTFS has been around since Windows NT back in 1993. And has been the default file system for Windows based computers since then. Of course it has gone through a few iterations and upgrades since that time.

FAT32

FAT32 an MSDOS based file system preceeded NTFS. And backwards compatibility means that Windows PCs can read and write​ FAT32 drives.

ExFAT

The ExFAT file system was introduced in 2005 for Windows NT and XP systems. It got over some the file restrictions of FAT32.

For example the largest file size on FAT32 is 4GB.

ExFAT is a much better performing file system than FAT32. The ExFAT file size limit is 16 Exibyte​.

Which is enough for most of us.

Now you’ve a little PC file system history. What about your Mac?

File Systems An Apple Mac Can Read

Mac OS Extended (Journaled) File System

Macs pre High Sierra. And without SSD drives have Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file systems on them by default.

This file system is also known as HFS+ (HFS plus).

APFS

In 2017 Apple introduced a new file system called APFS (Apple File System).  It was part of the 10.13 release of the Mac operating system called High Sierra. APFS is faster and more secure than Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system.

APFS is the default file system installed on Macs as long as they have Flash drives or SSD (solid state) drives.  Your Windows PC cannot read a drive formatted as APFS.

ExFAT

Apple Macs can format external hard drives to the ExFAT file system. Macs can also read and write to ExFAT drives thanks to the agreement made with Microsoft.

Is NTFS Compatible With Mac?

A Mac can read files on NTFS. A Mac can see a NTFS formatted external hard drive but cannot write to it.

This means you can copy files from an external hard drive formatted in NTFS to your Mac and use them there. But you can’t write them back out to the NTFS Windows PC drive.

Which is not that helpful when you want a shareable external hard drive for Mac and Windows.

A Mac cannot create a formatted NTFS drive.

So there you have it.

Your Mac can read but can’t write to NTFS. And your Windows PC cannot see, read or write to Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file systems. Or HFS+.

Or for that matter the new Apple File System.

An ExFAT External Hard Drive Is The Middle Ground

Luckily there’s a compatible middle ground and that middle ground is an ExFAT file system.

Formatted as ExFAT you can share a whole external hard drive between a Mac and a Windows PC. An ExFAT external hard drive means you can freely interchange files.

External Hard Drive For Mac And PC Interchangeable What You Need

Your Mac will need to set up your chosen drive before it’s shared. Macs are very choosy about the drives they will write to.

You will need:

1. An external hard drive attached to your Mac via USB.

USB 2.0, USB 3.0, USB 3.1 or USB C are the common external hard drive standards.

​You should buy an external hard drive that will fit the ports your Mac and PC have. And think about the speed you want for that drive.

USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 are physically different ports. But are backwards compatible.

You may need a cable adaptor if say your Mac has a USB-C port but the Windows PC you want to share with has a USB 3.0 port.

Not sure on the differences between USB ports have a look at my article on connecting up an external hard drive. There’s an explanation in that article with pictures of the different USB standards.

Or you might need a USB C hub. Does your newer MacBook not have enough USB C ports for you to plug everything you need in at the same time?

Then you might want to take a look at this USB C hub reviewed on this site.

2. A large enough external hard drive. One big enough to hold everything you want to put on it. Don’t scrimp here, you’ll regret it later.

Want to see some of the best external hard drives.

You can take a look at my run down here.

It doesn’t matter what format your chosen hard drive is currently in.

You just format to ExFAT to share with your Mac and PC.

Partition A Section Of Your Hard Drive For Mac And Windows

Are you interested in having just a section of your external hard dedicated to sharing?

Partitioning allows you to divide a part of your external hard drive for PC and Mac.

Perfect when you’ve a large drive.  Then you can set up sections for specific things.

 I have an article on the site that tells you how. If you follow this link.

Other Frequently Asked Questions

1. Can You Use The Same External Hard Drive For Mac And PC?

Yes!

And in this post you’re shown how to take a drive. Format it. So that it’ll work for PC and Mac. And make it shareable.

But there are other alternatives.

a. Buy a hard drive already formatted as ExFAT. For example the Samsung T5 Portable SSD is ExFAT formatted and you can use straight away.

You can go over and take a look at the Samsung T5 Portable SSD on Mac Review using this link.

b. Some drives come with downloadable software that provides compatibility. The only thing is, when you upgrade your Mac or PC’s operating system. Is the software still compatible?

Often it isn’t.

Which is why you’ll find formatting the drive yourself is the safest way to go.

2. Best Format For External Hard Drive For Mac And PC?

The best format when you want to share a hard drive between a Mac and a Windows PC is ExFAT.

Both operating systems can read and write to that external hard drive format.

You can share and watch the same videos and photos. Listen to the same MP3s. Work on the same files – as long as you’ve suitable applications that can read those files. 

For example a pdf reader to read pdf files. Microsoft Word to read word files. etc.

In Closing

Now you’re fully up to speed on how to create an external hard drive. A drive that is interchangeable between a Mac and a PC.

With the help of this article, you will happily swap files back and forth between your Mac and Windows PC.

Related Articles

You can find some other related articles on the site.

How To Choose An External Hard Drive For Your Mac

Best External Hard Drive for Mac Photographers




2 Comments

  1. Hi Julia,
    Yes, following the procedure in this post will erase any files already on your hard drive.

    There is a notice saying this in the grey box before step 1 “Power up and sign into your Mac” to make this point clear.

    If you need any files on your hard drive, you’ll have to copy them off onto your Mac. Or onto another hard drive first before you reformat.

  2. Hello, if I do this, will it erase all of the files already on my hard drive?
    Thanks,
    Julia

Comments are closed.