External hard drives, flash drives, and other such removable media have made life a lot easier when it comes to moving data. However, we live in a world where each person is likely to own multiple devices that (in theory) external storage can be connected to.
There are also various options for using external storage and, not least, a variety of formats to choose from. So when you need to choose a format for your shiny new external storage device, which format is best for external hard drives?
What is only “formatted” disk?
What does it mean to “format” a disk? What is disc format? It’s actually pretty easy to understand. Your SSD, hard drive, flash drive, SD card, or whatever storage medium you work with has a set amount of raw physical space.
For example, an SSD is made up of microchips containing microscopic memory cells. Each cell can contain a certain number of “bits”. That is, ones and zeros that make up a binary code. Think of it as a giant room filled with empty bookshelves.
Format is the principle of organization that we use to fill this space with data. The library uses something like the Dewey decimal system to determine the order of the books on the shelves. This makes it very easy to find a specific book. In the same way, the disc format tells the computer how to store information on the disc.
Some disc formats are more efficient than others, and some formats are simply not compatible with specific operating systems.
Can macOS read Windows formats?
The main Windows disk format, NTFS, is not supported by macOS At least not really. MacOS can read NTFS drives, but does not write to them. This is useful if you need to fetch data from a friend’s Windows drive, but if you use both Windows and macOS, you need a different option. The most likely choice is exFAT, which we will discuss in more detail below.
You also have the option of using third-party add-on applications, but of course this is not the most elegant solution. This is especially important if you are using BootCamp on your Mac, as you don’t want to lose access to external storage just because you booted into a different operating system.
Can Windows read macOS formats?
Windows PCs cannot read macOS formats. The file systems used by macOS are not understood by Windows by itself. Reading and writing to these disks requires a little help in the form of a third party application.
The only free application we know of that will let you do this is hfsexplorer, which uses Java and is really only suitable for transferring odd files.
FAT32 – the most compatible option
FAT or File Allocation Table is possibly the most widely supported disk format in existence today. It is a direct continuation of the original DOS format used on floppy disks and hard drives. FAT32 exists mainly to increase the absolute file size that older versions of FAT can handle. The maximum single file size that FAT32 can handle is 4GB.
This is probably fine for most files, especially if you are using a flash drive rather than an external hard drive. However, it is quite normal these days to have video files or other high quality resources larger than 4GB, making this unacceptable for large drives that can accommodate larger files.
Do you use Apple and Windows? Do you want exFAT!
The only real drawback to exFAT for external hard drives is the lack of “journaling” capabilities. This means that it does not have the ability to keep track of file changes. One consequence of this is that exFAT drives are slightly more vulnerable to data corruption due to sudden power losses.
Be sure to make sure your drive is safe to eject, or avoid disconnecting it while reading or writing to the drive.
NTFS – for Windows users only
NTFS or New Technology File System is the current Windows default. It is the most secure and reliable file system a Windows user can wish for. This means it is the preferred format for system drives on Windows computers.
NTFS has quite a few strong advantages that can actually make it a good choice for certain external hard drives, depending on the circumstances.
- NTFS resists disk corruption due to power failure.
- It has advanced security features like per folder permissions.
- Make it so that multiple users can use the same disk without accessing each other’s data.
- It is also notable for its logging feature, which records file changes. This is one of the reasons why it is more resistant to file corruption.
If you only want to use an external drive with Windows machines, NTFS is a great choice and probably the best option overall. However, if you need to use the drive outside of the modern Windows ecosystem, exFAT is better.
Best formats for Linux external hard drives
Linux distributions such as Ubuntu Linux are becoming more popular every day, but overall are still relatively niche. Linux has its own proprietary EXT formats, and if you’re only going to use an external drive with your Linux machine, feel free to choose that format.
However, Linux does support NTFS, making it a worthy middleman if you have both Windows and Linux machines. Mac can also read NTFS. The most compatible option is FAT32, but as we mentioned above, it has a hard file size limit of 4 GB.
Unfortunately, there is no exFAT support on Linux yet, but this will reportedly change with the 5.4 kernel release.
What about SD Cards and USB thumb drives?
Choosing the best format for external hard drives requires different considerations than other forms of external storage. SD cards and USB flash drives are still an important part of our digital life, so which formats should you choose?
With the fairly cheap but large flash drives we have today, there is some overlap in the options for using flash drives and external hard drives. This means that you may want to use large files like HD video files on your flash drive. This makes exFAT a good choice. Especially if you also want to use your flash drive with iPad, iPhone and Mac.
FAT32 is a fallback if you want to use the flash drive with older devices that don’t support exFAT. Of course, if you’re also going to be using a flash drive on your current Linux computer, exFAT won’t work at the time of writing. However, this will change in the future.
In the case of SD cards, your choice should entirely depend on the formats supported by the devices you are using. exFAT is still a good choice if your DSLR (for example) supports it, but follow the manufacturer’s guidelines. In fact, most devices have an internal procedure to format the SD card, so we recommend that you just let the intended device format the card.
End Coordination Wars
Choosing a format for an external drive can be quite confusing. Choosing the wrong drive can turn into a real pain when you need to back up and reformat your entire drive because it won’t work as intended.
Hopefully you now know which of the above options to choose from a list of the best external hard drive formats that can save your bacon when the wrong choice could lead to a situation where the external drive simply won’t connect and work. –