Although most people think of hard drives as one large block where you can save gigabytes of files, things are more complicated than that. Namely, storage devices use complex file systems, which lets hard drives store information about the types of files on the device, manage disk space, and remember where each file begins and ends.

However, operating systems use different file systems for their drives and partitions, bringing another complexity layer. Today, we'll explore universally compatible file systems and teach you how to format a hard drive for Mac and PC.

Table of Content
    1. Format Your Hard Drive on Windows Using Disk Management
    2. Format Your Hard Drive on Windows Using Settings
    3. Format Your Hard Drive on Windows Using File Explorer
    4. Format Your Hard Drive on Windows Using CMD
    1. Format Drive on Mac Using Disk Utility
    2. Format Drive on Mac Using Mac Terminal

What's the Best Hard Drive Format for Mac and PC?

Windows and Mac machines are different operating systems and, as such, use different file systems. You'll likely see NTFS on Windows, especially for your C drive, while other partitions or drives may use FAT32 or exFAT.

On the other hand, most Macs nowadays use APFS, a relatively new file system type for more recent versions of macOS. In the past, that was Mac OS Extended, also known as HFS+, and was the default option until macOS Sierra 10.12.6.

All the abovementioned file systems have pros and cons, but let's dive deeper into each one. We'll list them from least to most compatible below:

File Systems for
Windows and Mac
Explanation
Mac OS Extended (HFS+) This file system worked on older Mac OS X and macOS versions. However, it's specific to Macs, meaning Windows machines can't read such partitions. It also lacks the advanced features that Apple introduced with APFS.
Apple File System (APFS) The transition to this system began in 2017 with macOS High Sierra. It's Apple's latest and greatest file system, particularly great with SSDs and overall better than HFS+. However, it's still Mac only.
NTFS This Windows default file system is excellent at encryption and compression. Macs can read it but can't write on it. You'll need a third-party app to use it on a Mac, and the performance would be subpar.
FAT32 The king of universality is excellent for Windows, Mac, and Linux machines, but it has disadvantages. When you use this format, your partition can't be larger than 2 TB, and you can't put files larger than 4 GB on the partition.
exFAT It's a continuation of the FAT file system and is also known as FAT64. This file system format works on Mac and Windows, can handle massive volumes and large file sizes, and is ideal if you need drives or partitions for multiple modern operating systems.

Then, you can choose the best file system, depending on the operating system you use the most. For example, if you spend 90% of your time on Windows, NTFS would be your best bet. If the situation is reversed, you'll benefit more from an APFS drive.

However, if we're talking about an external hard drive that'll spend time on both Windows and Mac, it's best to format the drive to exFAT and FAT32. Choosing between the two formats that works on Mac and Windows, exFAT is generally better than FAT32 for several reasons:

  • File size limit: exFAT supports individual files up to 16 exabytes in size, while FAT32 has a maximum file size limit of 4 GB. This makes exFAT better for storing large files, such as high-resolution videos and large databases.
  • Partition size limit: exFAT can support partitions up to 128 petabytes, whereas FAT32 can only support partitions up to 2 TB. This makes exFAT more suitable for large storage devices, such as external hard drives and high-capacity USB drives.
  • Performance: exFAT generally has better performance than FAT32, particularly when dealing with large files or large numbers of files.
icon note
Note: Now, you know that exFAT is the best format for external hard drives on both Mac and PC. Another important thing to remember is that formatting a drive erases all data on it. Therefore, you should back up any crucial data before starting the formatting process. Wondershare UBackit can help with this.

How To Format a Hard Drive for Mac and PC on Windows

Windows gives you plenty of options for drive formatting. We'll add short guides for all four formatting methods below, and you can choose the one you prefer. Here's what they are:

Method 1. Format Your Hard Drive on Windows Using Disk Management

  1. Launch Disk Management on your Windows PC.
  2. Right-click on the drive's Unallocated space and select New Simple Volume.
    create a drive volume
  3. Follow the instructions and choose volume size, assign it a letter, and hit Next.
  4. Under File system, select exFAT, and enter a name under Volume label.
    format the drive with disk management
  5. Ensure "Perform a quick format" is checked, hit Next, and Finish.

Learn the difference between Quick and Full Format .

Method 2. Format Your Hard Drive on Windows Using Settings

  1. Open Settings on your Windows 10 or 11 machine.
  2. Head into System > Storage > Advanced storage settings > Disks & volumes.
  3. Hit Properties under the drive you wish to format.
    open disks and volumes
  4. Choose Format.
    select the format option
  5. Name the drive under Label and choose exFAT under File System.
    choose format settings
  6. Ensure "Perform a quick format" is checked and click Format.

Method 3. Format Your Hard Drive on Windows Using File Explorer

  1. Head to This PC (My Computer), right-click the drive you want to format, and select Format.
  2. Select exFAT under the File system, and give the drive a name under the Volume label.
    format drive through file explorer
  3. Ensure "Quick Format" is checked and hit Start.

Method 4. Format Your Hard Drive on Windows Using CMD

CMD is all about entering commands. Follow the instructions, enter the commands below, and you'll quickly format a hard drive to work on Mac and PC.

  1. Open Command Prompt as Administrator.
  2. Type in this command: diskpart
  3. Enter the following command to see all available disks: list disk
    open command prompt and diskpart
  4. Select the drive with this command: select disk 2
    select the drive to format
  5. Clean it before you format it: clean
  6. Create a partition on the drive: create partition primary
  7. Format the drive with this command: format fs=exfat. This command formats the drive to NTFS, but you can also use "exfat" instead of "ntfs" to format it to the ExFAT file system, as ExFAT works on Mac and PC.
    format the hard drive on windows
  8. Assign a letter to make it accessible: assign
  9. Exit DISKPART by typing in "exit".

The method might seem complicated, but you'll do fine following the instructions.

How To Format a Hard Drive for Mac and PC on Mac

If you're formatting the hard drive for both Mac and PC on a Mac, there are two ways to do it, and we'll cover both below:

Method 1. Format Drive on Mac Using Disk Utility

  1. Launch Disk Utility and select the drive you want to format on the left side.
  2. Hit Erase in the top part of the screen.
    format the drive with disk utility
  3. Name the disc drive, select ExFAT under Format, and click Erase.
    name it and choose the format

Method 2. Format Drive on Mac Using Mac Terminal

  1. Launch Terminal and enter the following command: diskutil list
  2. Locate the drive you want to format and remember its identifier.
    use terminal to format the drive
  3. Enter this command to format the drive: diskutil erasedisk exfat disk_name disk_identifier

Remember to change "disk_name" to name the device and "disk_identifier" to match your Mac's identifier.

Both Mac formatting options will format the drive to exFAT, arguably the best file system for disk drives that work with Windows and Mac.

How To Make External Hard Drive Compatible With Mac and PC Without Reformatting

You're not entirely powerless if you want to make the hard drive working on Mac and PC but already have a disk drive full of vital files. In case you have nowhere to back up your essential data, you can use a third-party app that'll bring support for natively unsupported file systems on each OS.

Paragon is an example of a software provider that bridges the gap between these two operating systems. Its macOS app, Paragon NTFS for Mac, adds native-like support for NTFS drives on macOS, allowing Mac users to read and write on NTFS partitions almost natively.

Read more: Top 8 free NTFS drivers for Mac

On the other hand, Paragon's HFS+ for Windows and APFS for Windows applications let PC users read and write to HFS+ and APFS drives.

Other applications exist, including iBoysoft NTFS for Mac, Tuxera NTFS for Mac, FUSE, HFSExplorer, etc. They range in pricing and add NTFS support to Macs and HFS+ and APFS support to Windows PCs. However, data loss isn't uncommon since these aren't natively supported file systems.

Read more:

How To Recover Data from a Formatted Hard Drive on Windows and Mac

Whether you've lost data due to third-party apps reading your hard drives or you reformatted the disk drive without first backing up vital files, there's still a way of bringing your essential data back. Third-party apps from reputable software providers, like Wondershare Recoverit, can quickly retrieve your data.

Accidentally deleting files, formatting the drive, interrupting file transfers, disk corruption, malware, and system crashes will no longer be a problem. Windows or Mac, Recoverit works in over 500 scenarios and has a recovery rate of over 95%. It can recover files from over 2,000 devices, including hard drives, SSDs, USBs, memory cards, etc.

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Here's how to use Wondershare Recoverit to retrieve data from a formatted hard drive:

  1. Launch the app on your computer.
  2. Click on Hard Drives and Locations on the left side and select the drive from which you want to recover data.
    launch wondershare recoverit data recovery process
  3. The hard drive data recovery tool will start scanning for deleted or lost files automatically.
    scan for deleted files
  4. Once completed, select the files you wish to recover and hit the Recover button to save them.
recover files from formatted hard drive

You can select files and preview them as the app recovers them during step three, which makes finding the correct files effortless.

Free Download
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Why Should You Consider Formatting Your Hard Drive for Windows and Mac

Users don't often format drives since the action deletes all data. Instead, most people choose a file system and format the disc drive when they first get it. However, there are multiple reasons why you'd want to do it again and format a hard drive for Mac and PC. Here are a few of those:

  • Universal Compatibility – Reformatting the drive to a different file system can make it usable on Windows and Mac. Users who spend equal time on both operating systems for personal, hobby, or work reasons can significantly benefit from using a compatible file format instead of separate hard drives.
  • Migrating Data – Moving from one ecosystem to another can be effortless if you format a drive for both Mac and PC, and you can quickly move back and forth between operating systems.
  • Creating Backups – As most Macs have locked storage today, you might benefit from an external backup drive. Moreover, formatting a drive for Mac and PC is also beneficial, as you can back up one system to another.
  • Collaborating on Two OSs – If you and a colleague work on different operating systems while collaborating on a project, you can benefit from reformatting the drive to fit both users' needs.

Other reasons also exist, and whatever they are, they're valid. However, before you go ahead and format the drive, it's best to first prepare for it.

Conclusion

Windows and macOS use different file systems, preventing users from using the same drive for both operating systems. However, using compatible file systems like FAT32 and exFAT, users can format hard drives for Mac and PC.

On the other hand, formatting wipes data from a drive. You can be in big trouble if you haven't backed up your vital files. In that case, only apps like Wondershare Recoverit can help retrieve your lost data.

Format Hard Drive for Mac and PC FAQs

  • Can a hard drive be formatted for Mac and PC?
    Yes. You can format the drive to a file system compatible with Windows and macOS. These file formats include FAT32, and exFAT, and they're mentioned from the least to the most compatible file system.
  • Is exFAT compatible with Mac and Windows?
    Yes, exFAT is one of the best file systems universally compatible with Windows and macOS. It's a continuation of the FAT file system and is also known as FAT64, with predecessors like FAT16 and FAT32.
  • What file systems are available for formatting a hard drive for Mac and PC?
    You can use a few file systems for hard drives on Windows and Mac computers, but their compatibility varies. These include:
    1. NTFS – Native to Windows, but Mac users can only read files for it and can't write to the drive.
    2. FAT32 – Compatible with Mac and Windows but has file and partition size limitations.
    3. ExFAT – Windows and Mac users can read and write on ExFAT hard drives without FAT32 limitations. However, its disadvantages include error recovery and data integrity, which are lacking compared to other file systems.
  • Can I format an internal hard drive for Mac and PC compatibility?
    An internal hard drive can be compatible with Windows and macOS. You could use NTFS, but that'll make the drive read-only for macOS. On the other hand, Windows will likely refuse to install on an exFAT-only drive, making FAT32 the best option.
    However, it's best to partition the drive and format the partitions according to your needs. You can use NTFS for a Windows partition, APFS for a macOS partition, and exFAT for a partition that contains shared files.
Eleanor Reed
Eleanor Reed Jun 14, 24
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