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File systems for storage drives, which one to use?

Once we have selected the external storage drive that is most suitable for our use, it is up to us to decide which file format to use. If you have any doubts or you don’t know any, we show you all the ones we can use and how in OS X.

Before we begin a clarification. When we buy an external storage drive in whose box it says Made for Mac it means that it is already formatted in the HFS+ file system that is used by Apple to install its operating system. But this doesn’t mean we can use another one or buy another disk even if it doesn’t put that purely advertising phrase and later decide which system to use.

Operating and File Systems

File systems for storage drives, which one to use?
File systems for storage drives, which one to use?

Each operating system uses a different file system . OS X makes use of the HFS+ system while Microsoft’s Windows systems use NTFS and for Linux distributions it is ext3 although ext4 is already being used in some of its “flavors”. Well, each of these systems has its pros and cons.

Each system has support for certain file systems so, for example, a Windows computer cannot read or write to a HFS+ formatted disk. So, first we’ll see what we’ll need. If your disk is only going to be used with your main computer it is best to use the format that the OS uses . If, on the other hand, it is mainly on Flash drives or portable disks, we will need to connect the device to different computers and it is best to use the most universal or advantageous format possible.

Formats, uses and needs

  • HFS+, the OS X format. Besides being used for the operating system it is the only format supported by Time Machine. Therefore, if we want to use a disk for backups it will have to be in HFS+. This limits its use to Mac computers although later we’ll see that thanks to third party applications we’ll be able to use it on Windows systems.
  • NTFS, the Windows format. OS X can read disks that use this format but can’t write so we’ll still have to use third-party applications to do so. In a world where most computers use Microsoft’s system, having the disk in NTFS format can be a good option if we are going to need to connect it from computer to computer.
  • FAT32, everybody’s friend. It is the most compatible format, all systems recognize it and despite its limitations, it does not support files of more than 4GB, it is the best option for use in Flash memories. It will allow us to read and write in OS X, Windows and Linux but at the same time to connect in other devices like TVs, DVD players, etc…
  • ex-FAT, the rookie. It’s the renewal, so to speak, of FAT32. It improves the limitations of the FAT32 format by allowing larger partitions and removing the 4GB file cap. The only drawback is that it is a recent format so only the latest versions of operating systems support it. OS X 10.6.5 or higher; Windows XP SP3, Vista SP1 and 7 also support it. Therefore, only if we know that we are going to connect it to updated computers is it advisable to use it.
  • ext3 is the format used in Linux. OS X does not support it but it is available from third parties, as we can do with NTFS.

Unidades de almacenamiento externo, ¿cuál es el más adecuado para cada usuario?

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Read and write in O.S.-supported formatted units

Whether by the format chosen for our disk or simply to ensure compatibility with the possible situations that we face on a daily basis, we show you third-party applications to allow the reading and writing of certain file systems in our operating system.

  • HFS+ in Windows thanks to MacDrive. If we use any of the Microsoft systems the solution goes through MacDrive, an application that allows to connect disks with HFS+ format in Windows. Allowing to read, write, partition and repair disks used by a Mac. The application is paid. Under Linux we can also access disks in HFS+ but the process is a bit more complicated, needing to resort to terminal commands and some other intermediate process.


To sum up this whole world of formats, possibilities, advantages, etc… I’ll tell you what:

  • If we are only going to use the storage drive in our Macs the best format is HFS+. Remember, also the only one compatible to be used by Time Machine.
  • If we are going to connect in more computers, depending on the operating system and we do not need to store files of more than 4GB the option is FAT32.
  • If the disk is used preferably on Windows computers, we use the NTFS format and install some of the third-party applications to allow writing on OS X.

And you, how have you configured your external units?

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