Best Format for External Drive Mac

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Best Format for External Drive Mac

You have your MacBook Pro or perhaps your iMac, you have the external drive you bought yesterday so you could backup some things on your Mac device, however, when you connect them, a window with the title DiskUtility pops up and you just have no idea what it is.

You don’t know what exFAT, FAT32, APFS, HFS+ and all the other abbreviations mean and you start searching the internet in hopes to find a solution since you are worried that you might not be able to use your drive or maybe in a compromised way. We wrote this article to help you find out what those labels are, what they stand for, and which one of them is the most useful to choose for your specific scenario. 

The best format type for an external drive for Mac computers is APFS (Apple File System). It is a format type that was developed by Apple and launched in 2017. This format type is optimized for Mac products and is the best go-to option when formatting an external drive for your Mac. 

Though the APFS is the clear winner overall, there are more details to be known about the whole formatting issue, and in certain scenarios, other format types might be better options. All the different format types have their advantages, they wouldn’t have been created in the first place otherwise. If you want to learn more about what is the best format for external drives for Mac devices, read on!

Formats for External Hard Drive Mac

In this section of the article, we will summarize what all of the format types mean and their origin and possible area of use. When opening Disk Utility on your Mac, there are 4 options to choose from when it comes to which formatting type you want to use on the given drive. These four are the Apple File System (APFS), Mac OS Extended (HFS+), exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table), and MS-DOS (FAT) formatting types. Read on to find out more about each of them!

APFS (Apple File System)

As we have mentioned before, the APFS is the new standard format type for Mac devices. The APFS format has been developed by Apple and launched in 2017 as a replacement for the previously used Mac OS Extended file system. All newly-bought Mac products come with the macOS already installed on an APFS file system. 

Apple File System is optimized for use with SSD and flash storage, but using it with traditional HDDs is also an option, however less useful. This option (the APFS) is the one you should pick if you happen to have a new SSD or a new USB drive which you don’t plan on using with a Windows PC or laptop, since APFS isn’t compatible with those.

If you do want to read APFS with a Windows device, you will need an extra APFS reading software (Paragon).

In the given scenario, where you have a Mac device and a new SSD, using the APFS format will give you the best performance, significantly reducing read and copy speeds (since the device will new exactly where to look immediately for the data you need) and extending both drive and laptop/computer lifespans and health by making them work optimally and thus reducing possible heating and other problems like fragmentation of the drives. 

Mac OS Extended (HFS+)

This was the format used with Mac devices all the way from 1998 to 2017 when the APFS was launched. The same way as with the APFS, the macOS you got, preinstalled, on a newly bought Mac device at this time was stored in HFS+ format. 

It is basically the same as the APFS, but weaker and it isn’t optimized for SSDs. If you have any Mac which was built before 2016-2017, you might have to use this formatting system unless you can update your OS to a newer version which also supports APFS. 

Due to this formatting system not being optimized for SSDs, you won’t see those speeds when using one as you would with the APFS. Aside from this, it is somewhat less safe than the APFS and also does less for the general health and performance of both your drive and computer. 

If you want to read HFS+ from a Windows computer because you found an older HFS+ formatted drive or just need to reformat a drive from this formatting type but want to make sure there are no valuable files on the drive, you need the Paragon HFS+ software to do so, which also shows that this is – similarly to the APFS – a Mac-exclusive formatting type. 

exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table)

This is the extended version of the standard FAT32 formatting type which we will talk about later. It was developed by Microsoft and launched in 2006. It is the perfect option if you want to format a drive, knowing you will use the drive both with Mac and Windows computers. exFat can be read by most devices and operating systems, it is somewhat like the go-to one-size-fits-all format. 

This does come with a couple of drawbacks when it comes to formatting something primarily for Mac devices. It doesn’t have SSD optimization and isn’t as easy for Macs to operate as the HFS+ and APFS, which will result in slower speeds and possibly a shorter lifespan (these lifespan reductions and increases are not large though, almost insignificant, but still present and worth mentioning in a review).

Another possible issue is fragmentation, which basically means that a given file (which is ultimately a collection of separate small amounts of data) is scattered all over the disks or the SSD cells. This results in the drive having to work extra hard to find the data necessary to open a file, which then leads to slower load times and an overworking drive (which equals a shorter lifespan).

The exFat format isn’t as optimized and well-organized for use with Mac devices and the probability for drive fragmentation is significantly higher. Drive fragmentation isn’t a difficult problem to deal with, though, so it might not be the deal-breaker when it comes to choosing a format type. 


MS-DOS (FAT) is basically the Mac name for the FAT32 formatting type. It is the most classical, standard, and bare-bones one out there, and is also probably one of the oldest ones in use right now. It was launched in 1996 (though the origins of the program date as far back as 1977) by Microsoft and has been used ever since, though with decreasing frequency. 

Almost all existing devices which can be attached to a drive or that can have an internal drive are able to read FAT32, since it is one of the most basic forms of file allocation. This does, on the other hand, cause some problems. 

There are some really annoying and out-of-date restrictions and limitations with the FAT formatting system, aside from the fact that there is an even higher risk of fragmentation and all the other problems the exFAT also might have.

One of these restrictions is that the maximum volume size the FAT formatting type can handle is 2TB, so that means that even if your HDD has 8TB of storage space, formatting it to FAT will render 6TB of that absolutely useless, which would be annoying, to say the least.

Another one is that files are limited to 4GB. This means that no file can be larger than 4GB, so transferring such a file won’t even be allowed. All-in-all, avoid the FAT format unless you need to get some data from older devices, like Windows XP age-range and older. 

Best Format for External Hard Drive Mac

Now that we have familiarized ourselves with the format options available to us on any Mac system’s formatting software, Disk Utility, we will dive into which format type is the best for Mac devices and why. 

As we have mentioned before, the APFS format type is the winner when it comes to the best format type for Mac devices. The simple explanation for this is that the APFS format is has been developed specifically for modern usage of Mac devices and drives.

It is the most well-organized, least likely to become fragmented, and the fastest as well, especially with SSDs due to the optimization. However, we will try to give a more detailed reason as to why the Apple File System is the optimal format to use with external drives for Mac devices. 

“APFS has been known to increase read/write speeds on solid-state drives (SSDs), as well as increase storage space due to the way in which it calculates the available data on disk. Since it was written from the ground up, many of the newer technologies that have been implemented are not retrofits (unlike it was on its predecessor) but are native to the file system, which allows for better performance when using modern computers and mobile devices.”

Tech Republic

So, as stated in the citation, the APFS format type wasn’t an improved version of the HFS+ like the exFAT was for FAT32, rather it is a whole new system built from the ground up.

Building any software from the ground up is the way programmers make sure to create the best product possible. When improving any type of code, there is a certain limit as to how many corrections you can make before it is more worth it to start all over again.

The HFS+ was a decent and properly functioning format, but it was not meeting the demands of newer technology, so instead of correcting the long and complicated code, Apple decided to write one from the ground up, that is tailored to modern Mac usage to provide optimal performance.

This is how they could include the SSD optimization aside from having some basic features completely changed to a better version. 

There was quite a lot about the HFS+ which was criticized, and the APFS  managed to solve most of them. One of them being the lack of a relatively simple function, which is taking snapshots.

A drive snapshot is basically a file that is like an image of the drive: it contains all the data and their locations at a given point in time. This is extremely useful for backing up sensitive data or restoring it in case of disaster.

Taking a snapshot will allow you to easily restore all data to a drive once it is lost, since the system will be able to read the snapshot and populate the drive with the data and locations that the previous, now wrecked, drive contained. The HFS+ did not have this basic function which could save countless hours of trouble, the APFS does have it. 

Another thing the APFS improved on, which is quite a marvelous thing actually, is that due to the more efficient management of storage, using the APFS can result in additional free space.

The difference might not be huge, but it is there and it can help with keeping the drive healthy and not fragmented, and also naturally means there is more space to store data. 

All-in-all the APFS format system is just superior to the HFS+ when it comes to formatting external drives for Mac devices exclusively. This superiority is increased if your external drive happens to be an SSD since as we have mentioned before, the APFS formatting system is optimized for SSD use and can increase read and write speeds on SSDs.

Thus, if you ever buy a drive or have a chance to format your existing one and you will only use it with a modern Mac device, choose the APFS as your format of choice, for the numerous benefits it offers over any other formatting type available. 

How to Check Format of External Hard Drive on Mac?

Okay, so you have found yourself in the following scenario: you found this article and figured you could format your external drive to APFS since you use it only with your Mac device and could use some optimization, but you aren’t even sure which format is applied to your drive.

It might even be the case that you already have the APFS system applied, you just don’t know about it. Anyways, checking the format of your external drive that you are currently using is a really useful way of potentially improving your drive’s and your computer’s performance by reformatting your drive and being able to place more files on it from your computer to free up space. 

So how do you go about checking the format? You will first have to go to the Settings on your Mac. Then, under the /Applications/Utilities folder, you should be able to find Disk Utility. Disk Utility is the built-in software on all Mac devices which helps you do a range of tasks with your drives, external and internal.

Once you open disk utility, you should be able to find the external drive (of course, it has to be connected to the Mac) you want the check the format of.

By clicking on the icon of the drive, you open up the possible actions you can do with the given device, together with a couple of specifications and basic info at the bottom of the window. Between these specs and info, usually in the left column, you can find the format of your external drive

It is important to know the format of your external drive for a variety of reasons. There are countless questions on online forums like Reddit and Quora concerning things like:

  • “why does my 8TB HDD only show 2TB of available space?”
  • “why can’t I copy an 8TB video file to my modern Samsung SSD?

…and the answer usually lies in the format of your external drive. Both of these questions can be looked at as symptoms of a wrong drive format, seeing as the first question implies a 2TB storage capacity cap (FAT32 symptom) and the second question implies a size limit to the possible data transfers (4GB in the case of FAT32).

Getting the format right might not only let you utilize more storage or transfer larger data but also to increase the potential lifespan of your devices and also their speed. A modern Samsung SSD like the T5 has transfer speeds of up to around 400-500 Mb/s, but you can increase that speed (which is already a very good speed) somewhat by properly formatting your drive. 

Do watch out for the wrong recommendations on some internet websites. You can easily find articles that say that after purchasing a drive, you should format it to FAT32 so it is compatible with everything and be done with it.

However, if you are a Mac user, it would probably be the worst option available for you due to all the previously mentioned reasons. Make sure to also do your own research when it comes to an issue you aren’t sure about.

We have done ours, and our recommendation is to format any drive you have and will use in a Mac environment to the Apple File System using Apple’s in-built Disk Utility program.

Read on to check how to format the disk, in the case that you have checked yours and it turned out that it is formatted to a below-optimal version! 

How Do I Format An External Hard Drive for Mac?

So you have checked your drive format and realized that it has been formatted wrong all along and you weren’t even using your piece of tech at its full potential.

Normally, you want to change that as fast as possible. How do you do it? Like many other things in IT, the term formatting a drive seems like a pretty daunting piece of text to the layman, even more, if you add “reformatting an exFAT drive to APFS format”.

However, it is actually really simple to do by following a couple of basic instructions. Read on to learn the exact steps to change the format of any external drive to APFS (or any format of your choice)!

First of all, keep in mind that many external drives are formatted to a certain OS (Windows or Mac) out of the box, so you might not even have to deal with this part of setting up your drive.

Even if this is the case, and the box you get your external drive in says it is formatted, we recommend you check the format of your drive. Not because we distrust manufacturers, but rather because we like to ensure you get the most out of your product.

An important thing you have to watch out for is whether the external drive you own has its own formatting software or not. Some drives come with built-in software that can completely erase the data on the drive, reformat the drive, and do a couple of other basic tasks.

Something like a basic built-in Disk Utility program. If this is the case, the first time you plug in your drive to a device, you will probably be able to choose the format through the drive’s own pop-up settings, in which case you won’t require the steps we are about to write down, since those are for formatting a drive through the Mac Disk Utility program.

So once all possible distractions or alternative situations are gone, you have identified that you have a wrong and sub-optimal format on your drive and no way to format the drive with its own software, you can go about reformatting it the following way using the Dist Utility program which we have mentioned earlier: 

  • First step: through the settings, open the Disk Utility program we have mentioned earlier
  • Second step: on the left-hand side, the available drives will be visible to you. If you have properly connected the drive to your computer, it should be listed amongst the drives. Click on your external drive, or the one you want to format.
  • Third step: At the top of the Disk Utility window, click on the Erase option.
  • Fourth step: When the erase pop-up appears for your selected drive, Enter a name for your drive, then select the format of choice (APFS recommended)
  • Fifth step: Click on Erase and wait until the program reformats your drive (anywhere between a couple of seconds to a whole day, depending on how populated the drive is, whether it is an HDD or an SSD, the type of connection you are using, etc.)

It is this simple to format your drive. Do bear in mind, however, that you will most likely lose all your data while formatting. The reason for this being that when you format a drive, you basically erase the address tables that the drive uses to identify the positions of the files you are looking for. 

This is the way any storage system works: it needs a controller that has the address table and the actual storage space which is where the addresses lead. The device’s format technically means the arrangement of the address table on a given device (it does mean more than that, but this would be a sort of basic concept).

So it is obvious that when you format a device, you erase the existing table and its contents and create a new clean table by which the controller will both place the information that is to be stored and record its address so it can find it later. So, you aren’t technically losing your actual recorded data, much rather the address to them, which is the almost same in the end result.

There are ways, however, to retrieve information from a formatted drive, and that is by using data recovery services and tools. These can be quite expensive (especially the services), since the job of extracting the data from a microscopical landscape of cells on an SSD or the single ferromagnetic charge of disks is no easy task to be done mechanically and manually.

The data recovery software on the other hand is either inaccurate or very expensive. If you plan on formatting your external drive once you already have written on it, first back up the data to another drive or device so you get to keep them, then go on with formatting the drive.

This way you won’t have to pay large sums of money for data you probably placed onto the drive to keep safe in the first place, only because you wanted to make your drive healthier and more efficient to use. 


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