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Picking the Right Drive Format: ExFat is Not Your Friend

This is all about drive format and, mainly, why ExFat is not your friend. 

The TL: DR? I’m going to suggest you only use ExFat for transferring between computers – not as an active access use. Use HFS+ (macOS Journaled) if you’re on Mac systems; use NTFS if you’re on Window systems. If you’re cross-platform,  buy a utility (like MacDrive) that allows you to read the other format for the highest compatibility/data sanity.

Here’s a shortlist of common drive formats. Yes, there are some others, but these are the ones you’re most likely to encounter.

  • Fat32 (File Allocation Table). Most of my thumb drives have been formatted from the factory. They read/write cross-platform, but a file must always be less than 4GB.
  • NTFS (New Technology File System). This is the Windows standard for drives. Readable on both Mac and Windows, but only writeable on Windows.
  • HFS+ (Hierarchial Filing System +). It’s the most common Mac drive format – and also called MacOS Extended. Read/Write only on a Macintosh. You can’t see it on Windows.
  • ExFat (Extensible File Allocation Table). It can be read/written by Mac or Windows and doesn’t have the limitation of 4GB like Fat32. On paper, it looks great, but no, I don’t think you should use it!

A good rule of thumb? If you’re on a Mac, use HFS+/Mac OS Extended. And if you’re on Windows? NTFS.

There are many, many of us who professionally switch platforms, sometimes inside of the same day. And ExFat looks like the solution

ExFAT (Extension File Allocation Table)

Here’s the problem with ExFat. It’s not Journaled. While reading/writing to a drive, some information is cached – especially some quick small elements. If they’re not accounted for, and you eject the drive incorrectly, you’ll possibly lose data or corrupt the drive. 

Where should I use ExFat? Predominantly on a removable drive that is used solely to transfer between systems. Never use for live access of information.

What should you do instead? It depends on your primary platform. 

  • If you’re primarily on Mac, format everything HFS+ and buy a utility like Paragon’s Microsoft NTFS for Mac. It can read/write the Windows Format on a Mac System.
  • If you’re mainly on Windows, format everything NTFS and buy a utility like MacDrive. It can read/write the Mac format on a Windows system.

That way, you stop thinking about what any drive is formatted and just get your work done.

Which to Pick?
Which to pick?

One footnote: I am hesitant to mention other ways to write NTFS on OSX for free. And at least one way to read HFS+ on Windows (for free). Why am I hesitant? I consider disk access too important. I want a group with support.

I hope this answers some common drive questions. Friends don’t let friends use ExFAT. Hope you found this helpful. And let me know if you have any questions.

Jeff Greenberg
the authorJeff Greenberg
Jeff Greenberg is an Editor/Colorist/Consultant in post. An early adopter, he sent his first email in the 80s. He chairs conferences and is a Master Trainer (teaches the “Train the trainer” classes for the major NLEs.) Most of all, he’s a Dad and Filmgeek. And hates being defined by fifty words. Just like you.
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  • On a MAC I formatted a USB drive as NTFS and used Paragon software to write to it. This worked fine for a couple of years. However a recent Catalina update has resulted in me being unable to mount any external NTFS drives (yes, I did update the Paragon drivers and have tried all sort of machinations to get working again). I’ve given up and gone for exFAT – at least OSX can write to it natively and there is no worry about third party software comparability the next time there is an OS update.

    • On my mac, I’m regularly using Paragon’s NTFS tool; I keep it updated as major OS changes (and the yearly desire for revenue) are the major factors.

      Will I use Exfat? Sure, for a quick transfer. In April, I’m doing a series of hands on classes at the NAB Post Production Show – including some in the theater where people can bring their own laptop. The thumbdrive I’ll give them? Exfat. But for my everyday Mac/Win interop? Cross platform formats (both systems have the other utility on them)

  • gotta say I made the mistake of saving a video to an exfat formatted thumb drive for a presentation off a windows 10 laptop a couple of years ago. Guess what? The windows machine did not see the thumb drive… luckily I’d also put it up on dropbox so I could download it from the venue and also put it up on vimeo so I could stream it if necessary… what can I say, I’m a belt and suspenders guy. I work in Adobe CC on both a windows machine and a couple of different macs so I bought and installed the paragon utility to be able to read macos extended formatted drives on the windows machine. works great although I occasionally need to “locate” a file or 2 when I move the project from a mac.. Although I had an earlier version of macdrive, if I remember correctly, the paragon utility was considerably cheaper than the macdrive upgrade….

  • Hi! I have a WD MyBookLive 3TB Hard Drive connected via my home based wifi network I’ve been using for years.There is a provision on the Drive to Back-up files using TimeMachine which I’ve been doing for quite a while, but I’ve never yet tried to restore from this drive, and I’ve also never tried to format this drive. Apple’sDisk Utility indiactes that Time
    Machine Backups are stored in a sparse bundle disk image, presumably formatted by the system in Mac OS Extended Format. If I’m running OSX 10.15.7, or later should on a 2014, 27″ iMac , Retina 5k) should I reformat the This drive to drive to APFS. Can APFS files be read by a 2008 iMac running OSX 10.10.5? The Timemachine Backup is doming for the 2014 iMac running OSX 10.15.7, foramatted I presume in APFS. Thanks for a very useful article.

  • As people migrate old unsupported Macs to Linux, I’d like to see a similar article that also addressed Linux formats. Pretty please!

  • What about APFS? If I’m on a Mac exclusively and using flash-based storage, APFS is going to be a better pick vs HFS+. And even for Time Machine on hard drives APFS is going to be a better pick for faster backups. Would love to hear your takes on AFPS!

    Does MacDrive read/write APFS yet?

    • According to the MacDrive site, there is a beta, but I haven’t tried it myself yet.

      See what I wrote MaX (below) about APFS; yes on Apple only SSDs, less yes on spinning disks, less yes on cross-platform (although MacDrive has the capability.)

      • Thanks for the follow up, I couldn’t see the other comments when I made my post, so apologies on the double question.

  • I write to NTFS Seagate (internal) HDDs anytime I need to just by using OS/X Mojave. I format the HDD in Disk Utility and have no issues writing using Mojave. No problems writing and reading.

    • Great question

      First, I love APFS – but I tend to resist one size fits all. For Apple-centric SSD-based devices? Fantastic.

      Here are a couple of headaches – older systems, especially prior to Sierra are out. Fusion drives (at the last time I checked) can’t do it. And I believe, prior to Big Sur, it had difficulties with Time Machine Drives. And I don’t know if it’s still the case, but OSX couldn’t share APFS over AFS, but rather had to fall back to SMB or NFS. I haven’t checked that one recently.

      Generally, APFS is less efficient on spinning disks – I’ll reference an older blog post here for some of the technicals. The person who wrote that is one of the developers of Softraid. Mostly about how it handles blocks and specifically “extents”.

      Last, this tip though is heavily focused on cross-platform workflows and especially about the perils of ExFat. I use APFS for my boot drives, but given the amount of cross platform work I do, I’m more hesitant to format external storage AFPS.

      Hope that makes sense!