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If you need to expand your storage space with an external hard drive and you use both Mac and PC, you’ll likely run into a few obstacles. Hard drives advertised as being compatible with Windows and Mac OS may have misled you into thinking you could actually use one hard drive for both computers.
You can, but not out of the box.
Most external hard drives (HD) are sold in a format called NTFS, which is designed to work with Windows. Macs read and write to a different format, called HFS+. Another format, called FAT32 is compatible with both OS platforms. Here’s a look at how the different HD format types function:
FAT32 (File Allocation Table)
— Natively read/write FAT32 on Windows and Mac OS X.
— Maximum file size: 4GB
— Maximum volume size: 2TB
NTFS (Windows NT File System)
— Natively read/write NTFS on Windows. — Read-only NTFS on Mac OS X
— Native NTFS support can be enabled in Snow Leopard and above but has proven instable.
— Maximum file size: 16 TB
— Maximum volume size: 256TB
HFS+ (Hierarchical File System, aka Mac OS Extended)
— Natively read/write HFS+ on Mac OS X
— Required for Time Machine
— Maximum file size: 8EiB
— Maximum volume size: 8EiB
Isn’t FAT32 the obvious solution?
According to the list above, formatting your hard drive to FAT32 so that you can read and write on either OS seems like the obvious solution. The video and directions below will guide you through the process, but before you format your HD to FAT32, beware of these drawbacks:
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- FAT32 offers no security, unlike NTFS, which allows you to set permissions. If your HD gets into the wrong hands, that person will be able to access your data.
- The max size for any given file stored on a FAT32-formatted HD is 4GB. So, for example, if you want to store a 9GB movie, it will be impossible.
- In general, FAT32 drives are more susceptible to disk errors.
- It’s not a huge issue, but FAT32 is less efficient at storing files. Its large cluster sizes waste disk space, unlike the other HD storage formats.
Now playing:Watch this: Format a drive for Mac OS X and Windows
If you’ve considered these issues and would still like to use FAT32, this video will guide you through the process of formatting your HD to FAT32 using a Windows or Mac PC:
OK, what are my alternatives to using FAT32?
The good news is, it’s not FAT32 or nothing. The alternative solutions do require more tinkering, but if you do not want to risk FAT32’s lack of security, choose from one of the following alternatives.
Option 1: Format to NTFS, and use NTFS-3G to read/write on Mac.
If you keep your hard drive’s out-of-the-box NTFS format for all the reasons FAT32 displeases, there’s a workaround that will allow your Mac to read and write files to the drive. NTFS-3G is an open-source program that, when coupled with MacFuse, will let you use your NTFS drive on your Mac. However, it is an open-source program, so use it at your own risk. Many have vouched for its success, but others complain about bugs.
The commercial solution, which will give you access to support and software updates, is Paragon NTFS. It’s $20, offers Lion support, and you get a five-day trial to try before you buy.
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Option 2: Format to HFS+, and use HFS Explorer to read/write on PC.
Conversely, you can format the HD to HFS+ and use HFSExplorer for Windows to read and write to the Mac-formatted hard drive. To get started, you’ll first have to format the hard drive from NTFS to HFS+. Here’s how:
Now that the hard drive is formatted to HFS+, install HFSExplorer (free) on your Windows machine to get read and write access to the drive. This is an open-source program, so use it at your own risk. Alternatively, you can opt for paid software like MacDrive instead.
Option 3: Create two partitions on your hard drive to use with each OS, separately.
This solution is a little different than the previous two because instead of having one hard drive that works with both machines, you’re splitting your HD into two sections, each dedicated to a different OS. For example, if you have a 1TB hard drive, 500GB of storage can be used with your Windows computer, and 500 will be dedicated to your Mac computer.
You won’t be able to write to the Mac side from your Windows computer, and vice versa, but it’s a good solution for people who want all the advantages each format has to offer for its respective system. Here’s how to do it:
With these three options you’ll be able to take advantage of either platform’s offerings, be it Time Machine support or security options. In the end, you may end up using FAT32 for its simplicity, but don’t say I didn’t warn you about the risks.
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For those who use both Microsoft Windows and Apple macOS, having a single external hard drive that is compatible with both operating systems could be very beneficial. The problem with this is that by default, Windows and macOS use different formatting styles that aren’t directly compatible with each other. Windows uses the NTFS (New Technology File System) format, while macOS uses either HFS+ (Hierarchical File System Plus, a legacy format used by older versions of macOS) or APFS (Apple File System, a newer format used by recent macOS releases.)
There are some third-party solutions that can read Mac-formatted data on Windows and vice versa, but some of these are costly and may not offer 100 percent compatibility for all files. Instead of buying one of those programs, a better solution is to set up your external hard drive so that it is compatible with both your Windows machine and your Mac. This lets you create an external hard drive for Mac and PC that doesn’t require any additional software to function.
When a hard drive is formatted, any data that’s currently on the drive is erased and a new file system is set up for a computer’s operating system to use. The file system determines how the operating system manages data, how that data is stored and what sort of storage blocks are used on the hard drive. The file system organizes the data in such a way that the operating system can access and use what it needs, so if the file system isn’t supported by the OS then it has no way to actually access and read the data. In most cases, a drive with an unsupported file system won’t even show up in Explorer or Finder unless you have set up your computer specifically to view the unsupported drives.
This is why it’s so tricky to format for Windows and Mac on the same hard drive. Assuming that you have newer computer models and are running recent versions of Windows and MacOS, the file systems used by your computers are incompatible. This is due largely to file system optimizations that were made with a specific operating system in mind, though competition between Microsoft and Apple may play a part in the proprietary nature of their respective OS file systems. With that said, there are a few ways to format a single external hard drive for both Mac and PC use without losing data or corrupting files.
How to Format for Mac and PC
While Windows and macOS primarily use their respective proprietary file systems, both support other file systems as well. In particular, both Windows and macOS support the exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table) file system that is commonly used for flash drives and other rewritable storage. This means that you can take an external hard drive and format it with the exFAT file system and it will then be readable and writable to both you_r Windows PC and your Ma_c.
If you choose to do this, however, it is important to avoid changing the settings of the file system too much when you format. By default, exFAT uses 32KB and 128KB data clusters when reading and writing (respectively); you can change this up to 32GB per function when choosing the formatting settings. MacOS doesn’t support exFAT cluster sizes greater than 1024KB, however, so if you increase the cluster size significantly then the drive will only be usable by your Windows computer. Additionally, some users have reported issues with reading exFAT drives on Windows PCs if the drives were formatted on a macOS computer; while this does not happen for all users, to avoid potential problems you may wish to format the drive on your Windows PC instead of your Mac.
If you have some specific need for NTFS or APFS/HFS+, or you simply don’t wish to use exFAT to format your external drive, there is another option available to you. Instead of formatting the drive with a single file system, you can create two partitions on the drive and format each of those with a different file system. This will reduce the amount of space that’s available for either Windows or Mac files, but it will ensure that you have storage space on your external drive that’s in your preferred format regardless of which computer you’re on at the time. If choosing this route, make sure that you have sufficient space on the hard drive to make the dual partition worthwhile. Starting with a 500GB hard drive would only give you 250GB of space per partition, assuming that the partitions were equal; you may be better off going with at least a 1TB hard drive unless your storage needs are minimal.
This can be done starting on either computer, using the operating system’s disk management tools to create two partitions on the drive. If you have any data currently on the drive you should back it up before partitioning, since it could become corrupted or deleted during the process. Either shrink the current volume and add a new partition on the empty space or create two partitions if the drive hasn’t been formatted yet. (If there is already a partition there but you wish to start fresh you can delete the current partition and treat the entire drive as empty space.)
Once the two partitions are created, use your Mac to format one of the partitions in either APFS or HFS+ and use your Windows PC to format the other partition in NTFS. Each computer will only be able to access its appropriately-formatted partition, though disk management software should be able to see the other partition as well if needed.
Reformatting the Drive
Should you decide at some point that you no longer want an exFAT or dual-partitioned drive, you can reformat the external drive for use by Windows or macOS at a later date. If there are multiple partitions on the drive then you should probably delete them to avoid accidentally formatting only one of the partitions instead of the entire drive. Even if there’s only a single exFAT partition on the drive, make sure that you back up any files or programs that the drive contains since reformatting will erase everything contained on the drive. While there are ways to recover files and data after a format, these are not always 100 percent effective and data may be damaged, corrupted or lost completely.
When you reformat the drive, it will be similar to the process of installing the file system with which you previously formatted the drive. Connect the drive to the computer you wish to use it with and format it in the appropriate file system to meet your needs. On a Windows PC, this would be NTFS; on macOS it would be APFS(or HFS+ if you’re using an older Mac.) Of course, if you’re moving from a dual-partitioned drive to a drive with a single partition on it then you could choose to format the drive with exFAT instead. Just make sure that you don’t adjust the cluster sizes too much if you’re hoping to retain the ability to use the drive on both a Mac and a Windows PC.
About the Author
Jack Gerard is a freelance writer and editor with over 15 years of experience writing about topics related to business and finance. His body of work includes copy for small businesses, how-to guides for entrepreneurs and even editing and copy work for international corporations.
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Gerard, Jack. ‘An External Hard Drive Compatible With Both Windows & a Mac.’ Small Business — Chron.com, http://smallbusiness.chron.com/external-hard-drive-compatible-windows-mac-67932.html. 27 March 2019.
Gerard, Jack. (2019, March 27). An External Hard Drive Compatible With Both Windows & a Mac. Small Business — Chron.com. Retrieved from http://smallbusiness.chron.com/external-hard-drive-compatible-windows-mac-67932.html
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Gerard, Jack. ‘An External Hard Drive Compatible With Both Windows & a Mac’ last modified March 27, 2019. http://smallbusiness.chron.com/external-hard-drive-compatible-windows-mac-67932.html
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