How does external hard drives work on Windows/Mac OS?

Discussion in 'MacBook Pro' started by juantoothree4, Mar 30, 2014.

  1. juantoothree4 macrumors member

    Mar 27, 2014

    I'm a complete newbie and am really lost how external HD work now. I always thought it would be simply just transfer files from any computer and save it in storage, but now I have recently found out that it is not that simple, to use the same external HD on both Windows and Mac Operating Systems.

    My situation;
    I have just purchased a Seagate BackUp Plus V1 2TB USB 3.0 and I have an old Seagate GoFlex Desk 1TB USB 2.0, and I know they support both Mac and Windows.

    First, I'm lost how everything works safely. I thought that 1 external hard drive can share all the files from any OS, since it is just an external. For example, what if I wanted to watch a movie, and the file was originally from a Windows PC, will I be able to play or transfer that easily with or to my MBP? And as well as vice versa, from Mac to Windows?

    I read about partitions, do I need to partition the hard drive to have Mac only and Windows only in it? If yes, does that mean I must have a duplicate of files on both partitions to be able to play it on both OS? That seems really complicated, I'm just looking for a storage to see all files at once, and copy/paste/move files instantly.

    I hope you understand me.

    My old 1TB HD has lots of movies in it, some are also bigger than 4GB, and it has 200GB left in it. I would like to use that with my MBP and also Windows on my MBP. What do I need to do to be able to use that with Mac and Windows on my MBP? Do I have to get rid of the files first inside to set it up for both OS? I have loads of files in it, and was hoping to not have to do that.

    I have an old Windows desktop PC and I'm planning to get the files in it with my newly purchased 2TB HD, and begone with the ancient PC. I'm also planning to get Windows for my rMBP 15'. So since it is a new hard drive, what do I need to do to set it up for both Mac and Windows use?

    I also plan to use these externals to watch movies on TVs.

    But first, how does it work? Can you please help me?

    Thank you.
  2. Ledgem macrumors 65816


    Jan 18, 2008
    Hawaii, USA
    The key here is the file system that the hard drive and its partition(s) are formatted in. By way of a very rough analogy, you can think of the hard drive as a book, and the file system is the language of the text that it contains. Two books can have the same content written within them, but the language can be different. If the reader (the operating system) doesn't speak the language, then it can't access the content that is written.

    By default, modern Windows uses a file system called NTFS. OS X uses a file system called HFS+ (sometimes called "HFS Plus"). OS X is able to read files from partitions that are formatted in NTFS, but without special software, it cannot write to them - that is, it can't modify the files on NTFS partitions. Similarly, there is software that allows Windows to read from partitions formatted in HFS+.

    NTFS and HFS+ aren't the only file systems, however. There is an older file system called FAT32 that can be read from and written to by virtually every operating system. USB "thumb drives" come formatted in FAT32 by default for this reason, as they're expected to be used on a wide variety of computers.

    Reformatting your hard drive - a simple process, but one that will erase all of the data on it in the process - is a fairly simple process. If you don't want to muck around with adding full NTFS support to OSX, or HFS+ support to Windows, then the simplest solution would be to reformat your hard drive in FAT32. However, as an older file system, FAT32 has some shortcomings compared to HFS+ and NTFS. The largest shortcoming to be aware of is that it is unable to contain any single file larger than 4 GB in size.

    If you'll primarily be using Windows on your Mac, then the best option would be to reformat the volume in NTFS.
  3. simsaladimbamba

    Nov 28, 2010
    There is also ExFAT:


    Overview of the four major file systems (called "Formats" in Mac OS X) used on Windows and Mac OS X, compiled by GGJstudios. You can use Disk Utility to format any HDD to your liking.

    Any external hard drive will work with PCs or Macs, as long as the connectors are there (Firewire, USB, etc.) It doesn't matter how the drive is formatted out of the box, since you can re-format any way you like. Formatting can be done with the Mac OS X Disk Utility, found in the /Applications/Utilities folder. Here are your formatting options:

    HFS+ (Hierarchical File System, a.k.a. Mac OS Extended (Journaled) Don't use case-sensitive)

    NTFS (Windows NT File System)
    • Read/Write NTFS from native Windows.
    • Read only NTFS from native Mac OS X
      [*]To Read/Write/Format NTFS from Mac OS X, here are some alternatives:
      • For Mac OS X 10.4 or later (32 or 64-bit), install Paragon (approx $20) (Best Choice for Lion)
      • For 32-bit Mac OS X, install NTFS-3G for Mac OS X (free) (does not work in 64-bit mode)
      • For 64-bit Snow Leopard, read this: MacFUSE for 64-bit Snow Leopard
      • Some have reported problems using Tuxera (approx $36).
      • Native NTFS support can be enabled in Snow Leopard and Lion, but is not advisable, due to instability.
    • AirPort Extreme (802.11n) and Time Capsule do not support NTFS
    • Maximum file size: 16 TB
    • Maximum volume size: 256TB
    • You can use this format if you routinely share a drive with multiple Windows systems.

    exFAT (FAT64)
    • Supported in Mac OS X only in 10.6.5 or later.
    • Not all Windows versions support exFAT. See disadvantages.
    • exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table)
    • AirPort Extreme (802.11n) and Time Capsule do not support exFAT
    • Maximum file size: 16 EiB
    • Maximum volume size: 64 ZiB
    • You can use this format if it is supported by all computers with which you intend to share the drive. See "disadvantages" for details.

    FAT32 (File Allocation Table)
    • Read/Write FAT32 from both native Windows and native Mac OS X.
      [*]Maximum file size: 4GB.
    • Maximum volume size: 2TB
    • You can use this format if you share the drive between Mac OS X and Windows computers and have no files larger than 4GB.
  4. juantoothree4 thread starter macrumors member

    Mar 27, 2014
    Ok. First, read means moving or copying files from the external to the internal for example and write means from the internal to the external storage?

    I plan to use both Mac and Windows. Will that be too much hassle to use it both almost simultaneously?

    What do I need to install in my Mac and Windows? I'm guessing I need NTFS or the HFS+ because I want both Mac and Windows and freedom of any files to transfer? Where do I install NFTS and HFS+, Windows or Mac or both?

    I'm still confused, how does the external actually work? Will it show up as two drives in my computer or only one corresponding to the OS of the computer it is plugged into? Must I duplicate my files then to show up on both Mac and Windows?

    How do I format, what programs do I need?

    And so is there no way to set up my old external HD, originally always used with Windows, to be used with Mac as well?

    Sorry, I can't understand the informations well.
  5. dmccloud macrumors 6502a


    Sep 7, 2009
    Anchorage, AK
    Most Seagate drives now come with a version of the Paragon NTFS driver that allows you to read and write to/from (Seagate branded) NTFS partitioned discs in OS X. You can also get that driver for (I think) $15 direct from Paragon and use it with any external drive.
  6. juantoothree4 thread starter macrumors member

    Mar 27, 2014
    Can anyone tell me how I can use an external AS ONE for both Mac & PC? Do I use NTFS? If so how do I do this from the very first step?

    I would like to know how to set up a new external hard drive and an old one with files already in it, and been used on Windows all its time.

    I just want to be able to move files around from a windows PC to Mac PC and vice versa and also be able to see all the files in the external in both OS.
  7. juantoothree4 thread starter macrumors member

    Mar 27, 2014
    Ok I think I'm fine now. Fortunately, my old seagate was already formatted to NTFS. I understand it better now. So my MBP can actually read the files already in my old HD. Very relieved.

    @dmccloud You are right about the included driver, I found it in my old Seagate. It's called Mac Installer.dmg ... I also saw a video from their website how to install that to be able to read and write. I'm not sure if that is the same as the paragon or whatever driver some people have to pay for, but I'm glad that Seagate comes with it.

    I will not be installing the Mac Installer.dmg yet, I will wait for a newer HD that will come to me I have mentioned above. Maybe the driver in that one will be newer or something, I will see.

    Thank you
  8. Ledgem macrumors 65816


    Jan 18, 2008
    Hawaii, USA
    "Reading" and "writing" are good descriptions for what is actually happening. "Reading" means accessing a file (opening it, copying it); "writing" means making a change to the hard drive (creating a new file; editing files that already exist).


    NTFS and HFS+ aren't programs to be installed. They are file systems, or the "language" that the operating system reads and writes with.

    As stated previously, OS X can read NTFS volumes without installing any additional programs. In order to write to NTFS volumes, you will need additional software. Similarly, in order for Windows to read or read and write to HFS+ volumes, it must have additional software. But your volume will be either NTFS or HFS+; therefore, you'll only need to install something to one of the two operating systems, depending on which file system you choose.

    The answer to this depends on how you format the drive. This involves discussing partitions, which are virtual divisions of the hard drive. Since it isn't relevant to what you're trying to accomplish and is likely to confuse you, the simple answer is that you're going to use one partition and thus your hard drive will appear as a single drive when it is plugged into your computer and powered on. It won't matter whether you are using it with OS X or Windows, it will appear the same.

    Windows and OS X both have the tools to format the drives built in. If you choose to format in HFS+, you will be using Disk Utility in OS X. If you choose to format in NTFS, you will be using Windows' volume manager (which wasn't a stand-alone program in Windows XP; I can't speak to Windows 7 or Windows 8 - to access it, right-click the drive in Windows Explorer and choose "format"). If you wish to use FAT32 or exFAT, then you can format the drive in either OS X or Windows.

    If your hard drive was used with Windows then it is either formatted in FAT32 or NTFS. OS X will be able to read the files on the hard drive without any problem. If the drive is FAT32, it will also be able to write to the drive. If the drive is NTFS, then you will need to install additional software to be able to write to the drive.
  9. juantoothree4 thread starter macrumors member

    Mar 27, 2014

    Thanks for the clear explanation of read/write. I needed that hehe.

    I understand it better now. I'm glad that my external was already formatted to NTFS. If not I would have to back up all 750GB worth of file in my old one.

    What I'm gonna is I'm gonna stay with NTFS, I think it is the best for my situation because the Seagate externals have a software that enables me to write with OSX as well. I hope I interpreted that correctly.

    The Seagate HDs are really good externals. I've had this old one of mine for 3-4 years, it is still I would say prime. Considering it was not banged up too much, just stayed out home basically and slight drops and bangs. I use it for watching HD movies on the TV. It has its own power adapter, I feel that is necessary for a long life of externals.

    Thank you for your help. I will be able to clarify myself again if needed with this.
  10. yjchua95 macrumors 604

    Apr 23, 2011
    GVA, KUL, MEL (current), ZQN
    You interpreted it wrong. The MacInstaller.dmg software in your Seagate is basically just a utility for you to format the drive into a HFS+ partition without using Disk Utility. It will NOT let you write from OS X if the drive is still formatted as NTFS.

    OS X can read NTFS partitions, but cannot write to it. In order to write to NTFS partitions, you must buy software such as Paragon NTFS.

    Windows can read HFS+ partitions (basically Mac format partitions such as Mac OS Extended), but not write to it. In order to write to HFS+ partitions, you need to buy software such as Paragon HFS+.

    The only cross-platform formats are exFAT and FAT32. They both have limitations.
    exFAT only works on newer versions of Windows.
    In FAT32 partitions, a single file cannot be more than 4GB, so say goodbye to storing movies on FAT32 partitions.

    There is no such thing as a free cross-platform solution for natively writing to NTFS from OS X or HFS+ from Windows respectively.
  11. juantoothree4 thread starter macrumors member

    Mar 27, 2014
    Oh wow. Ok thanks for clarifying. That sucks, I don't know what to do now. I don't wanna get rid of the slick macbook.

    Maybe I should format my drive to HFS+ since if my main will be Mac, is this the optimal way?

    If I format my old HD to HFS+ from NTFS using that program supplied by Seagate, will I be able to keep all my files inside the HD?

    Is exFAT the way to go, how safe is it?

    Another question is, will TVs read any formats of HDs? I plan to play movies with the TV.

    Wow this really sucks realizing it all.
  12. \-V-/ Suspended


    May 3, 2012
    How does external hard drives work on Windows/Mac OS?

    It's best to format to the Mac partition scheme using a Mac. If you're going to exclusively use a Mac, HFS+ is the way to go. You DO NOT want to format your drive with the files on it. Formatting the drive will completely wipe all the data off of it. You need to back up all your important files first to another drive before formatting it.

    How are you planning to watch movies on your TV?
  13. yjchua95 macrumors 604

    Apr 23, 2011
    GVA, KUL, MEL (current), ZQN
    There is no way to preserve data when you format the drive.

    On TVs, it depends on manufacturer.
  14. juantoothree4 thread starter macrumors member

    Mar 27, 2014
    Ok. @V I'm not sure what you mean exactly.

    With my old NTFS hard drive I just basically plug in and play from the TV. So I think that's how I plan to play movies on TV. I play with .avi, .mkv, etc.. I know some file types are not recognized.

    I have a Samsung TV. If the type of TVs matter, can anyone explain how I would know which TV can play different formats of HD.

    Also, I'm confused. Since the types of files that I will be playing on the TV are gonna be the same no matter what format the drive is, correct me if I'm wrong, how or why would it still matter what format my drive is?

    I'm assuming not much people use exFAT since it is not well implemented yet. Is there anyone who paid for the extra bucks for Paragon? Also, is there a difference if I buy that Paragon software for NTFS or HFS+ since it will both be able to read/write on any software.

    I checked the Seagate website of the HD that I have, it says I can use the HD both for Mac and PC interchangeably. Does that mean I can cross-platform?
  15. yjchua95 macrumors 604

    Apr 23, 2011
    GVA, KUL, MEL (current), ZQN
    Well if the hard drive is in an unrecognisable format (HFS+ for instance), the TV will know that there is a hard drive connected to it, but cannot see its contents inside (i.e. all the MKV, MP4 files inside).

    It depends on which OS you use more. If you use OS X more, I suggest you format as HFS+ and then pay for Paragon HFS+ for Windows whenever you want to copy files to it from Windows.

    As for which TVs support which formats, there's Google.

    Of course Seagate would say that the hard drive would work interchangeably with OS X and Windows, it just never mentions that there is a 4GB limitation in FAT32, which is cross-platform. So there is no true cross-platform solution actually.
  16. juantoothree4 thread starter macrumors member

    Mar 27, 2014
    Ok. I understand now. I'm probably gonna use a software to read/write from both OS.

    The question now is, what format should I set my HD?

    If I choose to stay with an NTFS HD and just Paragon my way for accessibility, will there be any difference if I use an HFS+ HD and MacDrive with a Windows PC? Does it really matter?

    Because if it is both the same, I will just keep my NTFS HD to save hassle from making a backup for the files already saved in the HD even though I will be using a Mac OS most of the time. Will this be okay?

    If not, then I can go HFS+. Keep in mind that I will be using Windows as well HERE in my MBP... I always thought that I could just easily boot with either and download and save files from both and easily transfer it with the external. lol I guess that is no way at all.
  17. dusk007 macrumors 68040


    Dec 5, 2009
    I recommend NTFS with Paragon NTFS driver on OSX.
    HFS+ has the problem that not many devices support it. An NTFS drive you can hook up to almost any TV and play pictures, movies, music. HFS+ usually isn't supported. exFAT is the cheapest solution and fast but it has reliability and licensing issues which is why support isn't that great either.
    NTFS is the best supported all over and Paragon NTFS works best in my experience. I tried Tuxera and the free 3gfs too. Paragon is the least buggy.

    Also every friend or college will support NTFS, and even Mac users can at least read it. Using HFS+ just breaks compatibility with everybody other than Mac users.
    Performance wise it doesn't matter. exFAT has the least overhead but the others are fast too. It is mostly the quality of the driver that determines speed.
  18. juantoothree4 thread starter macrumors member

    Mar 27, 2014
    Thanks guys. I think I'm gonna do that, NTFS format with Paragon. I also thought that HFS+ is not the most commonly used one compared to NTFS, so I'm gonna go with NTFS.

    Just another question, are there any harmful effects for using Paragon? I'm just thinking it would because it is a program, and seems like violating the natural rules of a drive format's purpose.

    Otherwise, my problem here is solved.

    Thank you very much all.
  19. simon48 macrumors 65816


    Sep 1, 2010
    It's not doing anything weird, it's just a driver that allows OSX to write to NTFS drives. Think of it like it's teaching your Mac a new language. It doesn't do anything to the drive.
  20. Gav Mack macrumors 68020

    Gav Mack

    Jun 15, 2008
    Sagittarius A*
    Paragon can cause problems doing big OSX upgrades, it is wise to uninstall it before doing them. Myself I use exFAT drives for common OS data, as I've found macdrive to be a right pain at times like paragon on the OSX with blue screen moments. If you are running bootcamp it's not too much of a pain, just copy your ntfs stuff in windows..
  21. juantoothree4 thread starter macrumors member

    Mar 27, 2014
    Alright thanks, I'll keep that in mind. Do you know what kind of problems can happen and how often it is?
  22. dhburch macrumors newbie

    Mar 24, 2015
    Simultaneous OS connection...

    Gav Mack, I am trying to find a solution that will allow me to read/write a single ExFat formatted drive on a PC and a Mac at the same time (no unplugging/replugging) so that I can pull data from that one drive to both computers for various projects. I do a lot of video work, store the components on one drive but have to edit in both environments (simulating for others that I am helping) so that project templates and training can be made for both platforms. Do you have any idea how to make this work? The searches I've conducted so far come close to people with the same issues, but I can't seem to find an answer. Any help would be appreciated.
  23. snaky69 macrumors 603

    Mar 14, 2008
    You could invest in a NAS, or alternatively some routers offer a USB 3.0 Port to plug an external hard drive in.

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