How to Format a Drive for Mac & PC Compatibility
You can format a hard drive or USB flash disk specifically so that it will be compatible with both Mac OS X and Windows PC computers. Though this excellent cross-platform compatible ability is unknown to many users, it’s not a complex process, and if you frequently use both a Mac and Windows PC you will find this particularly useful because any data, media, or files stored on the the drive will always be accessible from any operating system. It only takes a few minutes to start and it’s extremely easy, and we’ll walk you through the entire process in a few simple steps.
Remember, formatting a drive erases all data contained on it so back up important files before proceeding. Let’s quickly review how to format any drive for Mac and Windows PC compatibility with read and write support.
Formatting a Drive for Mac OS X & Windows PC Compatibility
This works with any hard drive, flash drive, SSD, USB drive, or just about any other storage type that is accepted by both a Mac and Windows machine, and the entire process is performed in Mac OS X:
- Launch Disk Utility, found within /Applications/Utilities/
- Connect the drive you wish to format for dual compatibility to the Mac
- Click the drive name on the left side list in Disk Utility, and then click the “Erase” tab
- Click the pulldown menu alongside “Format” and select “MS-DOS (FAT)”
- Optionally, give the drive a name
- Click the “Erase” button to format the drive for Mac & Windows PC compatibility
If you wish to boot the drive on a PC or use it with older versions of Windows, you may also need to set the partition scheme to Master Boot Record (MBR) for full Windows compatibility:
- Click the drive, then select “Partition” tab
- From the “Partition Layout” dropdown menu, select “1 Partition”
- Click “Options” and choose “Master Boot Record” as the partition type, then click “OK” and “Apply”
Drives format very quickly, though the total time taken will depend on the size of the drive. Remember, formatting a drive erases all data on it.
Using FAT File System Format for Mac & Windows Compatibility
Once the drive is formatted it will be compatible to be read and written to on both a Mac and PC, and the resulting FAT file system is compatible with all versions of Mac OS X, Windows 95, 98, Windows XP, Vista, 7, Windows 8, even Windows 10, it’s one of the most widely recognized and usable file system formats.
This widespread compatibility makes FAT an ideal file system to use for USB flash drives or external hard drives that are intended for use in environments with multiple operating systems.
The primary downside to using FAT32 is the file size limit, which limits files on the drive to being 4GB in size or less. If you require single files to be larger than 4GB, use exFAT instead, though you will lose some compatibility with older versions of Mac OS X and Windows.
Is NTFS Compatible with Mac?
The NTFS file system is another option to use for Windows formatted drives and volumes, but it has limited compatibility with Mac OS by default. Mac users can mount and read NTFS formatted Windows drives, making NTFS compatible with the Mac on the reading and mounting front, but writing to an NTFS drive requires using either third party software or enabling NTFS write support on the Mac using an experimental functionality bundled on the Mac. This is less than ideal for most users however, so while NTFS is compatible with a Mac and Windows PC, if you want to do heavy file sharing between the two with a lot of reading and writing, you may be better off formatting a drive as FAT32 as discussed above.
What about HFS Apple File System?
HFS is the Mac file system. If you only intend on using the drive on a Mac it’s recommended to format for Mac OS X use only using the journaled file system. Just be aware that the Mac-only formats are typically not readable by Windows machines without some third party software on the PC.