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Choosing The Right Format For An External Hard Drive

From exFat to APFS, drive formatting options are wide—and not very obvious

There are several factors to consider when it comes time to format an external hard drive. Whether you’ll be using it to back up photos for travel, shuttle video files from machine to machine or archive files for the long term, the format you choose for the disk makes a big difference. Here’s help to choose the right hard drive format whether you use a Windows PC, a Mac or both.


Unless your new hard drive was factory formatted for use with a Mac, it’s likely formatted NTFS. NTFS has long been the default Windows file format, which makes it an incredibly useful choice if your primary machine runs any Windows operating system. If you want to be able to transfer files to a Mac, NTFS can accomplish that too—but with one caveat: files can’t be written or deleted when the drive is connected to a Mac. So, if you need more workflow versatility than this one-way transfer allows, consider another format such as APFS for Mac-first applications or exFAT for true interchangeability.

Mac OS Extended

The HFS+ file system is used in Mac OSX. Built to replace the original Hierarchical File System (HFS) more than 20 years ago, HFS+ is better known by a different name: Mac OS Extended. It’s an ideal format for photographers who need only to access their images and video files on a computer running the Mac operating system because HFS+ isn’t readable by Windows machines.

There are actually a few subcategories in the Mac OS Extended family, which can be selected when formatting a drive in Mac’s Disk Utility. For several years, the Mac formatting standard has been “Mac OS Extended—Journaled,” which helps prevent corrupted data in case of power outage, improper ejection or drive failures. “Mac OS Extended—Encrypted” uses password-protected encryption to secure the data on individual disk partitions.

Unlike the standard in the Mac universe, “Mac OS Extended—Case-sensitive” adds another layer of specificity to file and folder names based on capitalization. That means a file named “john_smith_portrait.jpg” and the file “John_Smith_Portrait.jpg” could exist separately side by side. There’s a fourth Mac OS Extended formatting option that combines all three of the aforementioned quirks for those who want it all: “Mac OS Extended – Case-sensitive, Journaled and Encrypted.”


With the 2017 advent of the High Sierra version of Mac OSX, Apple introduced a new file system. Designed with flash media in mind, APFS is the new default drive format and a great option for security and speed—particularly with increasingly popular solid state drives (SSDs). One additional APFS benefit is for those who may need their drive to interact with Windows machines. With third-party programs such as Paragon’s APFS for Windows and MacDrive APFS, APFS-formatted drives can be read and written via Windows PCs.


A very versatile format, exFAT hard drives can be used interchangeably on many Mac and Windows operating systems without the limitations to partition size and file size. This makes it an ideal format when platform agnosticism is important—such as file delivery for client uses and in work environments where multiple users on multiple machines need read/write access to the data on the drive. Or for a photographer who needs to shuttle files between a Windows workstation and a Mac.


The very definition of an oldie but a goodie, FAT32 may be approaching its 25th birthday but it has still got some useful life left for a very specific application. The good news is a FAT32 drive can be used on any Mac or Windows operating system. The bad news with FAT32 is related to security and size. The system offers zero security and creates large data clusters that wasted disk space. Even more troubling are partition size restrictions and file size limitations. FAT32 partitions are limited to 2 TB maximum on a Mac. Worse, on Windows, those partitions top out at just 32 GB.

But, perhaps the biggest drawback to FAT32 for photographers and videographers is its file size restriction. Try to save a layered PSD or TIF file larger than 4 GB and the drive simply won’t accommodate it, instead delivering an error message. For a photographer needing access on an ancient system, however, FAT32 may be the way to go.

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