Disk utility allows users to choose from various file system formats when they need to format USB on Mac or other external drives. However, if the file system is not c compatible with your MacBook, the external drive may create problems and hinder you from having a great experience. So, look at the file systems supported by Mac and learn which one you must pick for your external drive.

HFS+ (Hierarchical File System Plus)

HFS+ was the primary file system used for MacBook system storage from 1998 until Apple launched APFS in 2017. Purchasing your system between those dates probably shipped with macOS installed on an HFS+ volume.

You can use HFS+ if you have an older Mac (pre-2016), especially a system that is too old to update to any of the latest operating system versions. By choosing this file system format, you will enable your external drive to work seamlessly with your Mac.

The format is also used for Time Machine backups if it is a mechanical hard drive or if you are using macOS Catalina or earlier. The format can even be used if you use an SSD as a Time Machine drive, but it is not compatible with APFS.

The external drives formatted with HFS+ can only be accessed on Windows through third-party applications. Seagate and other manufacturers allow users to read and write data interchangeably on Mac and Windows without the need to format the drive.

APFS or Apple File System

Apple File System is Apple’s modern file system, and it was first launched in 2017 for iOS devices. In macOS Sierra, the experimental support of APFS was first seen, and in High Sierra, SSD boot drives were converted to APFS after installation. With the release of macOS Mojave, HDDs and fusion drives were upgraded to APFS.

The Apple File System documentation highlights several improvements over HFS+. Everyday operations like copying folders and files are made easy and instantaneous. Users can even manage free space on the drives and improve performance by effectively using the copy-on-write metadata scheme. Therefore, the chances of data corruption are decreased, and the focus on encryption is increased.

APFS is used when convenience and speed are the top priorities and cost is not a concern. Users can use an external SSD to get the best performance over APFS, but not if they have to use the drive with pre-Sierra Macs.

Apple allows users to format an external drive and select APFS for Time Machine on macOS Big Sur. You will not be asked for this option if you are using an already formatted HFS+ disk.

When compared to HFS+, Time Machine backups to APFS are impressive. It consumes less space, is fast, and there’s more room for backups. It even has more excellent resistance to data corruption and copies sparse or cloned files efficiently.

If the Time Machine volumes are formatted as APFS, it will work with MacBooks running Big Sur or later. However, Time Machine will not recognize it if you connect that disk to Catalina.

The drives formatted with APFS can be accessed on Windows via third-party applications.


Apple includes support for FAT32, labeled as MS-DOS (FAT) in Disk Utility. Generally, users must avoid using FAT32 unless they are dealing with an old device or computer.

You can use FAT32 with flash drives as they come formatted in this file system format. In addition, the format offers maximum compatibility with old computers and game consoles.

However, individual files on a FAT32 drive cannot be more than 4GB in size. The partition must not exceed 8TB. That’s why exFAT is almost always a better choice.

Besides these, NTFS is a dominant Windows file system that replaced FAT32 when Windows XP was launched. NTFS is much more suitable for modern purposes and helps to overcome the restrictions placed by FAT32. Luckily, Macs can read NTFS file systems natively. However, it cannot write to them. Users need to use a third-party utility like Tuxera NTFS for Mac or Paragon NTFS for Mac to get write access.

exFAT or Extended File Allocation Table

Microsoft designed exFAT to offer similar compatibility to FAT32 without the annoying limitations. As a result, it is the preferred file format for flash storage drives shared between Mac and Windows.

exFAT does not have any realistic partition or file size limitations. Therefore, it does not require complicated ACLs and file attribution systems like NTFS.

Users can use exFAT because both Windows and Mac offer full read-and-write support for the file system. Therefore, it is the perfect format if files are frequently shared between Mac and Windows.

exFAT does not support journaling, and it doesn’t have any in-built encryption. So, users must be careful not to lose data in a crash.

The Bottom Line

Users typically use these Mac file systems for an external drive. It would be best if you made your choice according to your specific requirements.

By admin

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