How to format an external hard drive for Mac and PC?

This page is about how to format external hard drives for both Macs and Windows PCs. You can also download NTFS for Mac driver, iBoysoft Drive Manager, to make an external hard drive interchangeable without formatting.

By Juno | Posted to NTFS for Mac, updated on August 6th, 2019 |

With an external hard drive, you can efficiently transfer large files between computers running the same operating system type. However, it could be a totally different story if you plan to do this between a Mac and a PC. That's because, the two platforms have their specific file systems by default: Windows uses NTFS, while Mac use HFS+ or APFS. Out of the box, Windows can't read or write to HFS+/APFS and Macs can't write to NTFS drives.

Though the default file system is really a hurdle to use one external hard drive between Windows and Mac, there're still file systems that can connect the two worlds, i.e. FAT32 and exFAT. Thus, in order to use the same external hard drive on both Macs and PCs, you can format your external hard drive and make it compatible with both macOS and Windows OS.

But before that, it will be helpful if you know some background information and do some preparations.

Table of contents
1. Understand common file systems
2. Format an external hard drive to make it compatible with both Mac and PC
  • 2.1 How to format an external hard drive in macOS?
  • 2.2 How to format an external hard drive in Windows?
  • 2.3 How to partition an external hard drive for Mac and Windows PC?
3. Make external hard drives for Mac and PC interchangeable without formatting

Understand common file systems

Whether you're transferring files between Windows and Mac using external hard drives, or other portable storage devices like USB flash drives or SD cards, you'll be told about 3 file systems: FAT32, exFAT and NTFS. But do you know what is the difference between them?

You could use an external hard drive for Mac, such as Seagate Backup Plus drives for Mac and WD my passport for Mac to back up your files, but do you know what makes a hard drive exclusive for Mac is not the disk itself but the file system of this disk?

To answer the questions above and broaden your mind, this part will have a brief introduction to some common file systems.

FAT32

Pros: It can universally work with all versions of Mac, Windows, Linux, game devices, as well as other devices supporting a USB port.

Cons: FAT32 comes with file size limits and drive partition limits. It doesn't support files larger than 4GB, drive partition larger than 32GB on Windows, or drive partition larger than 2TB on macOS.

So FAT32 is commonly used in floppy disks, SD memory cards, USB flash drives as well as many portable and embedded devices. Also, FAT is the standard file system for digital cameras.

exFAT

Pros: The largest partition and file sizes it supported are nearly unlimited by today's standards.

Cons: exFAT file system is not compatible with older operating systems. It should be used in macOS 10.6.5 or newer, and PC need to be Windows Vista SP1, Windows 7 or newer.

As most users have upgraded operating system, it is actually quite easy to meet to lowest operating system requirements of exFAT. So exFAT can be a very good option to share external hard drive between macOS and Windows. Similarly, it also optimized for flash memory drives such as USB flash drives and SD cards. It can be easily implemented in firmware that has low memory and low power requirements, such as cameras, mobile phones, media players, etc.

NTFS

Pros: It is an improvement for FAT32, and it is used as the default file system of Windows system hard drive due to its improved performance, reliability, and disk space use.

Cons: You can't write to NTFS drives in macOS and the disabled-by-default write support for NTFS in macOS is unstable.

Mac OS Extended (HFS+)

Pros: It is the primary file system of Apple computers with the 1998 release of Mac OS 8.1. It also frequently used as Time Machine backup external hard drives of WD, Seagate, etc.

Cons: If HFS+ format volume is connected to a computer running Mac OS 8.0 or earlier, the files will not be visible or accessible.

APFS

Pros: The proprietary file system for macOS High Sierra (10.13), macOS Mojave (10.14), and macOS Catalina (10.15). It is optimized for flash drives and SSD with a primary focus on encryption.

Cons: Because APFS has no support for hard links to directories while Time Machine still relies on them, APFS is not yet a good option for backup volumes for Mac.

Format external hard drives to make it compatible with both Mac and PC

Though you can't use APFS/HFS+ on Windows PCs nor write to NTFS on Macs by default, there're still file systems that bridge the two worlds, i.e. FAT32 and exFAT. Yes! You can format your external hard drives with FAT32 or exFAT to make it compatible with both Macs and Windows PCs, .

Warning: Formatting a disk or a partition will erase data on this drive. Make sure you have a copy of data backup in hand if you have important files on this external hard drive. However, if you have formatted this drive and are encountering data loss, you can recover data from formatted external hard drive with iBoysoft Mac Data Recovery.

How to format an external hard drive in macOS?

If you are using an APFS/HFS+ formatted hard drive on Mac right now, and you want to use it on Windows PC as well, you can use the method below to format your external hard drive with exFAT/FAT32. Also, if you plug in an NTFS formatted drive to your Mac and you have a copy of data backup, then you can follow the following steps to format your external hard drive for both Mac and PC without worrying data loss.

1. Click on Launchpad at the dock of your Mac, choose Other in the menu, and then select Disk Utility to open.

2. Select this external hard drive on the left part of the window.

3. Click the Erase on the top of the window.

4. Give a name to this disk, choose MS-DOS (FAT) or exFAT in the context menu, then choose a scheme.

Tips: You can choose FAT when you need maximum compatibility with the widest range of devices and if you don't have any files larger than 4 GB. exFAT would be advised if your external hard drive is larger than 2TB. And for better performance, you can choose Guide Partition Map scheme if your disk or partition is larger than 1TB.

5. Click Erase to proceed with this formatting process.

format an external hard drive in macOS

After you format this external hard drive to FAT32 or exFAT, you'll be able to use this disk both on Mac and PC seamlessly.

How to format an external hard drive in Windows?

You can also format your drive on Windows computers by following the steps.

1. Click on This PC/My Computer at your desktop.

2. Connect your external hard drive to your PC, and then select this drive from the list and right-click on it.

3. Choose Format from the contextual menu.

4. Choose format (FAT32 or exFAT), and then set format information (allocation unit size, volume label and format option).

Tips: FAT32 would be better if the partition of your external hard drive is less than 32 GB .

format an external hard drive in Windows

5. Check Perform a quick format and click OK to format the external hard drive.

In Windows OS, you can also format your drive in Disk Management by typing "disk management" in Windows search or going to Control Panel > Administrative Tools > Create and format hard disk partitions.

How to partition an external hard drive for Mac and Windows PC?

Except for having the whole external hard drive formatted, you can also split this disk with two partitions. One is formatted with the file system that is compatible with macOS, another partition is compatible with Windows conversely. By this means, you can use all the advantages each format has on the respective system.

Warning: Still, you need to back up files on this drive before you begin to create two separate partitions to work for Mac and Windows PC.

Here are the steps to do this, which is a little tricky.

How to partition an external hard drive for Mac and Windows PC

Step 1: Connect your external hard drive to your Mac, and then launch Disk Utility.

Step 2: Click on the drive name in the left sidebar, and then click on Partition at the top.

Step 3: Select Partition in the pop-up menu and click on the add button "+" to create another partition.

Step 4: Click on the untitled half of the pie, give it a name, choose exFAT format, and decide the size according to your need.

Step 5: Click on Apply and this partition will be created.

Step 6: Then click on another partition and format it with Mac OS Extended, and give it a name like "Mac" for your convenience.

After saving all these changes above, there will be two partitions on your external hard drive. One is formatted with exFAT, and another is HFS+. Then, you need to eject this drive and connect it to a Windows computer, so that you can convert exFAT into NTFS.

Step 1: Search for Disk Management and open it. Then you will find this external hard drive at the lower right column.

Step 2: Right-click the Windows exFAT partition and select Format. Choose NTFS and check "Quick format" box.

Step 3: Click OK and complete the format process.

By creating two separate partitions, you can use this external hard drive on both Mac and Windows. You won't be able to write to the Mac partition from your Windows computer, and vice versa. Thus, it's a good solution for people who need to swap between two operating systems but with separate work.

Make external hard drives for Mac and PC interchangeable without formatting

NTFS and HFS+ file systems are hassles for users who need to use the same external hard drive on both Mac and Windows. NTFS drive will be read-only on Mac and you can't write to this drive normally in this case. But formatting is not feasible as it includes several steps and you will lose data if you didn't back up your files.

Then, can you solve external hard drive read-only without formatting?

Definitely! If you want to use NTFS formatted external hard drives on Mac, there are two efficient software can help you.

1. NTFS Assistant - the cheapest NTFS for Mac software in App Store

NTFS Assistant is a handy NTFS driver for macOS that can effectively mount NTFS drives as a regular drive with read-write mode. It supports macOS Mojave 10.14/10.13/10.12 and Mac OS X 10.11/10.10/10.9/10.8/10.7. It is the cheapest NTFS for Mac software in App Store, and has very stable and effective performance.

Step 1: Download NTFS Assistant from App Store >>

Step 2: In iboysoft.com, download and install NTFS Assistant Helper >>

Step 3: After installing these two software, launch NTFS Assistant and connect your NTFS drive to the Mac.

Once you see the notice that your NTFS external hard drive has been mounted on Mac, you can get down to editing, copying, transferring, deleting files on this drive natively.

2. iBoysoft Drive Manager - professional NTFS for Mac software

iBoysoft Drive Manager is a professional NTFS for Mac software, which can automatically mount NTFS drives in read-write mode on Mac. It supports macOS Mojave 10.14/10.13/10.12 and Mac OS X10.11/10.10/10.9/10.8/10.7. With this useful tool, you'll have full access to NTFS drives on Mac and make your external hard drive interchangeable between Macs and PCs without formatting. Also, you can mount and unmount NTFS drives from the Mac menu bar with advanced and optimized options.

mount NTFS external hard drive on macOS with read-write mode

What's more, iBoysoft Drive Manager is also a handy tool to manage external drives and network drives. You can use it to easily mount, unmount and remount network drives, external hard drives, USB flash drives, SD cards, memory cards, CF cards, pen drives, etc.

Tutorial to mount NTFS external hard drive on macOS with read-write mode with iBoysoft Drive Manager

Step 1: Free download, install, and launch iBoysoft Drive Manager on Mac.

Step 2: Connect your NTFS external hard drive to Mac, and iBoysoft Drive Manager will automatically mount it.

Step 3: Write to NTFS external hard drive after getting notified that it has been mounted successfully.

If you want to use HFS+ or APFS formatted external hard drives on Windows, you can also attempt to install HFS+ for Windows software or APFS for Windows software on your PC to get read and write access to this external hard drive.

Conclusion

To sum up, it is easy to format an external hard drive for both Mac and Windows PC. You can either choose to format the whole disk as exFAT/FAT, or you can create two separate partitions of HFS+ and NTFS if you prefer. But compared with formatting, an NTFS for Mac driver like iBoysoft Drive Manager is a better and feasible solution.

Juno

Juno is a technical expert @iBoysoft. She has over 5-year experience in data recovery/repair technology. She loves to write data recovery tips and tutorials.

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