macOS File Systems: APFS, HFS+, exFAT, and MS-DOS (FAT) Difference

Learning about macOS file systems is also important for dual installations.


macos disc utility

This piece of writing delves into the distinctions and characteristics of different file systems available for macOS, encompassing Apple File System (APFS), macOS Extended (HFS+), exFAT, MS-DOS (FAT), and NTFS. Upon attaching a novel storage apparatus to your Mac, a selection of file systems is presented, necessitating the choice of one for drive partitioning. This operation can be executed via the path Applications > Utilities > Disk Utility. By perusing the subsequent elucidations, you can determine the file system format that best aligns with the requirements of your system.

Features of macOS File Systems

The macOS operating system presents a range of file formats that can be classified into four distinct categories. These categories encompass specific variations, including Extended, Case Sensitive, Encrypted, and Journaled.

  • Opting for the Case Sensitive option results in the system treating “text.txt” and “Text.txt” as separate entities, permitting their coexistence.
  • The Journaled attribute safeguards your data on the device, preventing potential data loss in case of a power disruption during write operations to the drive.
  • Furthermore, selecting the Encrypted feature, particularly on PCs equipped with Apple’s T2 security chip, affords your files an extra layer of protection through robust 256-bit encryption, deterring unauthorized access.

Apple File System (APFS)

Apple’s cutting-edge and most contemporary file system, known as Apple File System (APFS), made its debut in 2017 for iOS devices, marking a significant departure from Apple’s former Mac OS Extended file system. All recently introduced iMac, MacBook, and Mac mini models are pre-equipped with APFS, reflecting its ascendancy. While APFS is intricately tailored for SSD and flash storage optimization, its versatility extends to traditional HDD usage as well.

For those possessing an SSD or a USB drive earmarked exclusively for non-Windows usage, the optimal choice during formatting is the Apple File System (APFS) alternative.

One of its standout enhancements over its predecessor is the remarkable surge in operational velocity. The orchestration of data by the operating system results in nearly instantaneous copy-paste actions. Furthermore, APFS integrates features with a pronounced emphasis on encryption and metadata augmentation, a pivotal aspect given macOS’s profound reliance on metadata for tasks linked to storage management.

  • Good for: Only on system partitions, hybrid drives, SSDs, and flash storage devices that you use in macOS.
  • Not for: Pre-2016 Mac drives and Time Machine partitions.

Mac OS Extended (HFS+)

Mac OS Extended, commonly referred to as HFS+ (Hierarchical File System Plus), served as the principal file system for Macs spanning the years 1998 to 2017, marking its tenure until the advent of APFS. While HFS+ remains suitable for both SSD and HDD storage solutions, it’s noteworthy that SSDs configured with APFS often exhibit heightened operational speeds within the Mac ecosystem. An important caveat is that Mac systems preceding 2016 lack compatibility with APFS.

As a result, selecting anything other than Mac OS Extended could potentially render your drive incompatible with your system’s architecture. Drives formatted in the HFS+ framework are versatile, ensuring harmonious interaction across both contemporary and earlier iterations of Apple’s operating systems. For seamless access to storage devices configured under this file system when interfacing with Windows, software applications such as Paragon HFS+ can be employed.

  • Good for: SSD, USB flash and HDD drives used in pre-2016 Macs.
  • Not for: External storage drives to be installed in a Windows computer.


Crafted by Microsoft as a formidable alternative to FAT32, exFAT was conceived to extend compatibility and provide a robust solution. Its prominence shines when orchestrating storage drives intended for seamless interplay between Windows and Macintosh environments. Offering a dynamic equilibrium, exFAT emerges as the favored file system, catering to the demands of USB flash storage and external drives.

However, exFAT’s notable vulnerability lies in its susceptibility to fragmentation. Should the prospect of steering clear from third-party software to access Mac OS Extended drives beckon, exFAT becomes an attractive consideration. Notably, exFAT outperforms its counterparts – third-party NTFS or HFS+ drivers – in terms of stability. Moreover, exFAT garners intrinsic compatibility with an array of consumer devices such as televisions and media players, augmenting its appeal.

  • Good for: Drives used between Mac and Windows computers, especially USB flash drives.
  • Not for: Drives that are mostly used on a Mac (in which case a third-party drive can be used).


Within the confines of the Disk Utility tool, Apple extends its embrace to the venerable FAT32 format, taking on the guise of MS-DOS (FAT). The need for FAT32 is apt to be a rarity unless tethered to a legacy computer. However, an intriguing avenue materializes for those intending to forge a direct link between the drive and an Android device.

Correspondingly, if the requirement emerges to shuttle files towards a dated incarnation of the Windows operating system, the MS-DOS (FAT) formatting option unveils its relevance. Evidently, this file system accommodates partition sizes up to 2 TB and file dimensions up to 4 GB. Yet, in the broader context, exFAT looms as a superior preference.

  • Good for: Drivers for Windows XP or earlier versions of Windows.
  • Not for: Everything else.

Windows NT Filesystem (NTFS)

With the emergence of Windows XP, the technologically superior NTFS supplanted the FAT32. However, Macintosh systems don’t extend comprehensive backing to NTFS. While NTFS partitions can be observed, their writability remains a limitation.

In such scenarios, recourse to third-party applications such as Paragon NTFS for Mac and Tuxera NTFS for Mac comes to the fore. These utilities empower Mac platforms to inscribe data onto NTFS partitions and extend the capability to format novel devices into the NTFS framework.