Need to access or transfer files between Mac and PC? As simple as this task sounds, it’s not very straightforward for inexperienced users. Since Mac OS X and Windows use totally different file systems, the way a drive is formatted can determine what type of computer it will work with. In fact, there are four ways you can format an external or USB flash drive to achieve varying degrees of compatibility between Macs and PCs. Let’s take a look at them:
Mac OS X’s native file system is HFS+ (also known as Mac OS Extended), and it’s the only one that works with Time Machine. But while HFS+ is the best way to format drives for use on Macs, Windows does not support it. If you’re only going to be using your external or USB flash drive with certain PCs – such as at home or the office – you might be interested in a program called MacDrive. When you install MacDrive on a Windows PC, it will be able to seamlessly read & write to HFS+ drives. This isn’t a good solution if you need your drive to work on any PC without installing software, though.
The native Windows file system is NTFS, which is only partially compatible with Mac OS X. Macs can read files on NTFS drives, but it cannot write to them. So if you need to get files from a PC to your Mac, NTFS is a decent option. However, you won’t be able to move files in the other direction, from Mac to PC.
The most universally supported way to format your drive is with the FAT32 file system. It works with all versions of Mac OS X and Windows. Case closed, right? Well, not so fast. Unfortunately, FAT32 is a very old file system and has some technical limitations. For example, you cannot save files that are larger than 4GB on a FAT32-formatted drive. This is a deal-breaker if you work with huge files. The other limitation is the total size of the partition. If you format your FAT32 drive in Windows, the drive partition cannot be larger than 32GB. If you format it from a Mac running 10.7 Lion, the drive partition can be up to 2TB. Much better, except for that pesky 4GB limit.
The exFAT file system eliminates the two major deficiencies of FAT32: the largest partition and file sizes it supports are virtually unlimited by today’s standards. Awesome, it’s perfect! Almost… since exFAT is fairly new, it isn’t compatible with older Macs and PCs. Any Mac running 10.6.5 (Snow Leopard) or 10.7 (Lion) supports exFAT, while PCs running Windows XP SP3, Windows Vista SP1, and Windows 7 are compatible. If you know you’ll be using computers running updated versions of these operating systems, exFAT is the clear best choice.
Format a drive using Disk Utility on a Mac
- Launch Disk Utility (Applications > Utilities).
- Select your external hard drive or USB flash drive from the list on the left.
- Click on the Erase tab. Select the format – Mac OS Extended (HFS+), MS-DOS (FAT32), or exFAT – then name the drive.
- Click the Erase button and the drive will start formatting. Be aware that formatting a drive deletes all of the files on it, so back up anything important before completing this step.
Format a drive using Windows
- Go to Computer (or My Computer in Windows XP).
- Select your drive from the list and right-click on it. Choose Format from the contextual menu.
- A window will pop up where you can choose the format – NTFS, FAT32, or exFAT. Make sure the allocation unit size is set to default and type in a volume label.
- Click Start to format the drive.