What hard drive format is compatible with Mac and PC?

Choosing the right file system format for an external hard drive is important if you want to use it across different operating systems. The file system is what organizes and manages data storage on a drive. While Windows PCs typically use NTFS and Macs use HFS+, there are some formats that allow full read/write functionality on both platforms.

Quick Answer

The best file system format for full Mac and PC compatibility is exFAT. exFAT allows read and write access on both Windows and Mac computers. Other cross-platform options like FAT32 allow read/write on both but have limitations.

What is exFAT?

exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table) is a file system optimized for flash memory like USB flash drives and SD cards. It was introduced in 2006 and is supported natively in Windows and Mac OS. Here are some key advantages of exFAT:

  • Supports file sizes larger than 4GB
  • Faster than FAT32 for large volumes
  • Implemented in firmware on many devices
  • Supported by current Windows and Mac operating systems

The main drawbacks are that exFAT does not have journaling for quick recovery from corruption issues. It also lacks some permission and security features of formats like NTFS. But for simple cross-platform file storage, exFAT is very compatible and reliable.

Difference Between FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS

Format Max File Size Max Volume Size Windows Mac
FAT32 4GB 2TB Full access Full access
exFAT 16EB 128PB Full access Full access
NTFS 16EB 256TB Full access Read only

As the table shows, FAT32 has low size limits, NTFS is not writable on Mac, and exFAT provides the best cross-platform experience.

How to Format an External Drive to exFAT

Formatting an external drive to use exFAT is fast and simple on both Windows and Mac. Here are the basic steps:

On Windows

  1. Connect the external drive to your Windows PC.
  2. Open Windows File Explorer and right-click on the drive.
  3. Select “Format…” from the menu.
  4. Under file system, choose exFAT.
  5. Give the drive a name and click Start to format.

On Mac

  1. Connect the drive to your Mac.
  2. Open Disk Utility.
  3. Select the drive from the left sidebar.
  4. Click Erase in the main window.
  5. Select exFAT as the format and name the drive.
  6. Confirm by clicking Erase to format.

The steps are very similar on both operating systems. Just be sure to backup any important data first, as formatting erases everything on a drive.

Tips for Using an exFAT Drive

Here are some useful tips for utilizing an exFAT formatted drive between a Windows PC and Mac:

  • Always safely eject the drive before unplugging it to prevent corruption.
  • If drive is unplugged improperly, scan for errors and run First Aid on Mac.
  • For Windows, use native chkdsk command to scan for file system errors.
  • Avoid fragmentation by regularly defragmenting the drive on Windows.
  • Update your Mac and Windows OS to the latest versions for best exFAT support.


The exFAT file system strikes the ideal balance for read/write compatibility on both Windows PCs and Macs. While FAT32 is an option, its limitations make exFAT a superior choice for modern external storage needs. With large file sizes, seamless cross-platform use, and easy drive formatting, exFAT is undoubtedly the best option for external hard drives used on Windows and Mac computers.

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