External Hard Drive For Mac and PC with Data Interchangeable

By Simon Irons / September 9, 2019
External Hard Drive for Mac and PC Interchangeable

Would you 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 that are in 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, that you can adjust pretty much any external hard drive that can plug into both your Mac and your PC. In effect, change the drive so that both systems can read and write to it.

With 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.

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 will only take you a few minutes, I'll tell you how, so why worry about it.

If you want to skip the background information and find out what you need to have first for an interchangeable drive, click here.

Or if you want to cut straight to how to make your external hard drive for Mac and PC interchangeable. Click here to pop straight down to that section of this post.

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 the hard drive in, you only need to adjust the formatting of the 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 designed for a Windows PC must run on a Windows PC. In the same way an application designed for a Mac must run on a Mac.

 You can store program files on a shared hard drive. But when you run these programs they must be run on the machine meant for them.

Data Interchangeable Why Is It So Hard?

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. Iike the Samsung T5 SSD.

Here is a link to Amazon 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 PCs uses 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 have 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 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 the Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system.

APFS is the default file system installed on Macs as long as they have Flash drives or SSD 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 sharable 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 is a compatible middle ground and that middle ground is an ExFAT file system.

Formatted in ExFAT, a whole external hard drive can be shared between a Mac and a Windows PC. An ExFAT external hard drive means you can freely interchange files.

How do you do this?

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:

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

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

​You should buy an external hard drive that supports the connections you Mac and PC support. And think about speed you want for that drive​.

USB 3.0 and 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 is an explanation in that article with pictures of the different USB standards.

b. 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 external hard drives I think are the best? Take a look at my run down here

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

Below you will learn how to format an external hard drive that works with Mac and PC.

External Hard Drive Compatible with Mac and PC

To set up, you plug your external drive into your Mac.

Because your Mac formats your external hard drive as Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system. And you are going to need to do that step first.

- well you can bypass thus step and you may have no problems … but again you might.

​Note: If there are files already on the 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 my document. "External Hard Drive Compatible with Mac and PC Without Reformatting".

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 similar to this.

External Drive Icon On Desktop

External Drive Icon On Desktop

If the drive icon hasn't appeared on the 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

Applications Folder In Dock

Then click on the Utilities folder inside the Application folder.

Utilities In Application Folder

Utilities In Application 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. Select your external disk from the external disk section on the screen

Disk Utility Select External Hard Drive

Disk Utility Select External Hard Drive

Disk Utility will now give you information on your external hard drive.

5. Look at the options across the top of Disk Utility

​You'll see the option to Erase. This is how you set up the formatting of the external hard drive.

Disk Utility Erase Option

Disk Utility Erase Option

6. Click on Erase

​You will 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 the external hard drive isn't formatted in Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system.

Select the Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system option now.

Then click erase at the bottom right of the window.

Wait a few minutes and you are done.

7. Format as ExFAT

Once you have already formatted your external hard drive as Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system you are ready to format as ExFAT.

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

​Select ExFAT

Selecting ExFAT in Disk Uitility

Selecting ExFAT in Disk Uitility

Once you have selected the ExFAT formatting you'll be able to click on the Erase button at the bottom right of that screen.

In a few minutes the hard drive is formatted to ExFAT.

And you are done!

Hurray.

​The entire external hard drive is now capable of being read and written to by both your Mac and PC.

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

And it only took a few minutes.

You can go ahead and write some files with your Mac.

But before unplugging your hard drive read step 8.

And Eject the external hard drive to properly disconnect your newly compatible drive. 

​8. Ejecting Your External Hard Drive From Your Mac

If you just pulled out the USB cable from your Mac or your PC you risk corrupting your drive. Corrupting the hard drive makes it unreadable by your Mac.

This is because both Mac OS and Windows will hold some information in its memory. This information will only get written down to the hard drive when you tell it to.

Ejecting your external hard drive tells Mac OS to write that information down to the drive. Then you can safely remove the drive from the computer. 

You eject your external hard drive from a Windows PC as well. So the PC writes down all necessary data to the drive and then its safe to take out the USB cable.

To do this;

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

Right Click to Eject External Drive

Right Click to Eject External Drive

or Go to the finder window and click on the arrow to the right of the drive name to eject the drive.

2. Wait a few seconds for the 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 the 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

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 have 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 I have shown you how to take a drive that wont work for PC and Mac and make it shareable. I have shown you how to format hard drive for Mac and Windows.

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 using this link to Amazon.

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, in my opinion, 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 have suitable applications that can read those files. 

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

Final Words

I hope by now you feel 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.


You can find some other related articles on the site.

Not sure how to use an external hard drive? You can take a look at my article on how to connect an external hard drive. Jump down to the section on how to use an external hard drive to find out how.

If you'd like to choose a suitable external hard drive to share between a Mac and a PC. You can take a look at the ones I consider the best.​

​Maybe you are looking for the best external hard drive to store your photos on. Curious about the good ones? Find out here.