How to format (external) hard drive for Mac and Windows PC?A Stepwise Guide

By Jessica | Posted to Home > NTFS for Mac Tips, updated on November 15th, 2021

Summary: Tutorial to format (external) hard drive for Mac and Windows PC. To make NTFS drive interchangeable, download NTFS for Mac tool - iBoysoft NTFS for Mac.

How to partition an external hard drive for Mac and Windows

Though the default hard disk file system (also known as format) of Windows and Mac are different, there should be some ways to format an external hard drive to make it compatible with your Mac or PC. This post will conclude these tutorials:

How to make external hard drive compatible with Mac and PC without formatting(No data loss)

Before you move to format external drives, you should know there is a more feasible way to make your external drives compatible with your Mac and PC. This method suits you most if you just want to use it occasionally on different OS or don’t want to lose files on your external drive by formatting.

Many famous external drives like Seagate Backup Plus Ultra Touch and WD My Passport are pre-formatted with NTFS, as the Windows default file system. However, the NTFS format is a hassle for users who need to use the same external drive on both Mac and Windows. Because you can read NTFS drive on Mac only and you can't write to this drive normally in this case.

Under such a circumstance, what you need is a professional NTFS driver for Mac like iBoysoft NTFS for Mac. It can solve external hard drive read only on Mac, and enables you to write to NTFS drives on the Mac with ease. Now, it also supports Monterey 12, Mac with M1, M1 Pro, and M1 Max chips. Here is an easy tutorial to follow:

  • 1. Free download, install, and launch iBoysoft NTFS for Mac on your computer.
  • 2. Connect your NTFS external drive to Mac, and iBoysoft NTFS for Mac will automatically mount it.
  • 3. Write to NTFS external drive after the disk has been mounted in read-write mode successfully.
Write to NTFS external hard drive on Mac with iBoysoft NTFS for Mac

How to format external hard drive for Mac

To format an Mac external hard drive, you'll need to launch Disk Utility app, the built-in disk management tool. If you encounter to see the external hard drive greyed out in Disk Utility on Mac or the external hard drive not showing up in Disk Utility, fix the problems in the first place. Then, you need to choose the best file format for your external drive when erasing it.

Disk Utility won't let you erase hard drive

[Complete Guide] Disk Utility Won't Let You Erase Hard Drives

If Disk Utility failed to do the job, read this post to get out of the error. Read more >>

Tips: Remember to back up the files on the external drive if you have saved anything important on it, formatting a disk will erase all the data on it.

Format the external drive with Disk Utility on Mac:

  • 1. Connect the external hard drive with your Mac, and the computer will mount your drive.
  • 2. Launchpad → Other → Disk Utility, and click the Disk Utility.
  • 3. Choose your target external hard drive or volume, click the Erase button on the top.
  • 4. Edit the disk name, select a file format and a scheme.
format external hard drive in Disk Utility Mac

There are 10 formats (file systems) you can select in macOS 10.13 or above. Although APFS is the suggested one, but it is only compatible with macOS. You need to choose FAT or exFAT to make the external drive compatible with Mac and Windows computers. The other file formats are only used for Mac.

choose a file system to format the external drive Mac

And 3 kinds of Scheme you can choose from, Mac users choose GUID Partition Map in most cases.

  1. GUID Partition Map: for all Intel-based Mac computers.
  2. Master Boot Record: for Windows partitions that will be formatted as MS-DOS (FAT) or ExFAT.
  3. Apple Partition Map: for compatibility with old PowerPC-based Mac computers.
  • 5. Click Erase to format an external drive.
  • 6. Click Done, and congratulations that you have finished all the steps.

How to format external hard drive for Windows PC

Similarly, you can also format your drive on Windows computers with a utility called Disk Management. Here is how to do:

Format the external drive with Disk Management on Windows:

  • 1. Find the external hard drive in Disk Management, right-click on it, and choose Format from the contextual menu.
  • 2. Then set the disk information, including allocation unit size, volume label, and format.

Also, choose FAT or exFAT as the disk format for the external drive so that you can use it on both macOS and Windows.

  • 3. Click OK to format the drive.
format external hard drive in Disk Management Windows

In the case that you find some important files missing once were stored on the external hard drive you format, you can restore files from Time Machine or resuce files with iBoysoft Data Recovery.

Which is the best format for external hard drive for Mac and PC

The file system is one of the most important parts of an external drive because it manages how your files are stored and retrieved. So, every hard disk needs a proper file system, including desktop drives and portable storage devices like external drives, USB flash drives and SD cards.

However, different formats have different advantages and disadvantages. So before you know how to format a hard drive, you should know the pros and cons of each file system.

1. FAT32

FAT includes three major file system variants but the majorly used one is FAT32. FAT32 is commonly used in floppy disks, SD memory cards, USB flash drives, digital cameras, as well as many portable and embedded devices.

Pros

  • Works universally with all versions of Mac, Windows, Linux machines, game devices, as well as other devices supporting a USB port.

Cons

  • Doesn't support a file size larger than 4GB and a drive partition size larger than 32GB on Windows.
  • Doesn't support the drive partition larger than 2TB on macOS.
  • Doesn't provide security and prone to disk errors.

2. exFAT

exFAT is a good option for external hard drives (e.g. Seagate Backup Plus Slim), especially for large-capacity removable storage devices. It also is frequently used in flash memory drives such as USB flash drives and SD cards. exFAT is easily often implemented in firmware that has low memory and low power requirements, such as cameras, mobile phones, media players, etc.

Pros

  • Supports the largest partition and stores files larger than 4GB.

Cons

  • Not compatible with too much old operating systems.
  • Not a good option for drives less than 32GB because it can't maximize space utilization.

3. NTFS

NTFS is a proprietary journaling format developed by Microsoft. It is used as the default file system of Windows system hard drive (e.g. Windows 10). NTFS does well in data security based on its encryption, access permission control, and log file.

Pros

  • Improved performance, reliability, and disk space use.
  • Performs better in protecting data security, data management.
  • Compatible with all versions of Windows and latest hardware.

Cons

  • Read-only in macOS and the disabled-by-default write support for NTFS in macOS is unstable.

4. Mac OS Extended (HFS+)

HFS(Hierarchical File System) Plus or HFS+ is a journaling format developed by Apple Inc. It's the startup disk's default file system before macOS High Sierra. It also frequently used as Time Machine backup external drives of WD, Seagate, etc. And Mac OS Extended Journaled, the previous generation file system of Apple, is only compatible on macOS 10.12 and earlier.

Pros

  • Supported by all versions of Mac OS X and macOS 10.12.
  • Has journaling, compression, and encryption features.

Cons

  • Has no access permission control.
  • Performs slow or crash in dealing with a large number of files.
  • Harder for data recovery when an HFS+ drive is corrupted.

5. Apple file system (APFS)

APFS is the new proprietary file system of Apple. It has been known to increase read/write speeds on solid-state drives (SSDs), as well as increase storage space due to the way in which it calculates the available data on disk.

Pros

  • Allows full-disk encryption with single or multi-key encryption for added security.
  • Efficient in management of free storage space

Cons

  • Not good for Time Machine backup due to no support for hard links to directories.
  • Can only be used on macOS High Sierra and above.

After knowing their unique specifications, it becomes easier to choose the best one from mentioned file formats for your external drive on Mac and Windows computers.

If you want to use the disk on Mac and Windows computers, both FAT32 and exFAT are compatible formats. And if you prefer to use the external drive on only one operating system, you can choose APFS(Apple file system) for Mac and NTFS for Windows to work to the utmost extent. To enjoy the features of NTFS on Mac or APFS on Windows, you need the help of a third-party program.

How to partition external hard drive to make it compatible with Mac and PC

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

How to partition an external hard drive for Mac and Windows

Step 1: Connect the external drive to your PC and then launch Disk Management.

Step 2: Check if the external drive is initialized or not.

If the drive is not initialized, you need to initialize the external hard drive with Master Boot Record (MBR). Then you can create two new partitions. You need to format one of them as NTFS for Windows use and format the other as your wish.

If the external drive is initialized, you need to right-click the disk to check if it's an MBR external drive.

  • If you see Convert to GPT Disk in the context menu, be it greyed out or lighted, it’s an MBR hard drive. Then you can create two or more partitions. And you need to prepare one partition for the NTFS format, and reformat the other with any file system.
  • If you see Convert to MBR Disk in the menu, it's a GPT hard drive. In this case, you need first backup files, delete the existing partitions, then click the Convert to MBR Disk button. Then, you can create two new partitions. You need to format one partition as NTFS for Windows use, and then format the other randomly.
check the scheme on an external drive on Windows PC

Step 3: Up to now, there should be at least two partitions on the external drive. And one of them (the NTFS one) is ready for Windows use. Then, you need to safely remove the external drive and plug it into a Mac.

Step 4: Open Disk Utility and select the other partition (not the NTFS one) under the name of your external drive.

Step 5: Click Erase on the top, choose Mac OS Extended format when it asks, and choose Erase to finish.

Up to now, the external drive will have two partitions. One is HFS+ formatted for Mac, and the other is NTFS formatted for Windows.

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

Final Words

To sum up, it is easy to format external drives for Mac and Windows. 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 with the NTFS file system, an NTFS driver for Mac (like iBoysoft NTFS for Mac) is a better and feasible solution.