Understanding File Systems & How They Matter

Hard drives are an integral part of your computer system, without which it’s not difficult to utilize files. It would not be possible to boot up the operating system, download an application, or play any game without installing a hard drive into the computer. 

The component that decides how a file is stored, arranged, sent, and received on a hard drive is called a file system. The logical disk component manages the internal different operating systems that can have different file systems that differ for Windows, Linux, macOS, etc. 

What Are Different File Systems?

Files systems are of different types that include NTFS, APFS, FAT, etc. All these file types are not universal, which means that the file system that works on one operating system may not work on another. 

If you format a hard drive as NTFS (New Technology File System), you can read and write data on a Windows computer; however, on connecting it to a Mac computer, it might only be able to read and not write on it. 

To be able to use NTFS on a Mac computer, there are a few things that you can do to tweak settings for the file system, but first, you will need to understand what is NTFS for mac and how it is different from the Windows file system.

Similarly, if you format an external storage media as APFS, Mac computers will be able to read and write data to it, but Windows PCs may not be able to even recognize the drive. 

How to Choose the Right File System?

Though there are a lot of file systems, including those meant to work on Linux and Android, this article is limited to the file systems for Mac and Windows devices. Let’s take a look at how you shall pick the file system for your computer. 

NTFS: Supported all Windows-based systems for reading and writing operations. It is partially compatible with Macs and allows for read-only tasks. Some properties of NTFS include:

  • NTFS is used on a large volume and extends up to 16 million TB
  • macOS computers can use the NTFS file system and can write to it using NTFS-3G drivers
  • Fragmentation in NTFS partitions is common, and thus users need to defrag these partitions every few months

APFS: Apple’s proprietary file system for macOS to organize and structure data in Apple’s storage system. APFS has the following properties:

  • Apple released APFS with macOS High Sierra to replace three-decades-old HFS+ file system
  • The latest macOS, including Cataline (10.15), Mojave (10.14), High Sierra (10.13), iOS 10.3 and later versions, watchOS 3.2 and later, and tvOS 10.2 and later versions, supports APFS
  • APFS was designed to work over SSDs (solid-state drives), flash drives, and modern hard drives

FAT: The FAT (File Allocation Table) is considered as a general-purpose file system to be supported on all major operating systems. FAT comes with the following properties.

  • Due to FAT’s simple structure, it suffers technical issues such as over-fragmentation, file size limitations, file corruption, file name restrictions, and more
  • FAT partitions cannot be extended beyond 2TB, and it is noteworthy that Windows cannot format a partition over 32 GB to FAT 32 while macOS can
  • Regular defrag is required 

exFAT: The Microsoft file system is supported over Windows and Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard) and later versions. The properties of exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table) include: 

  • exFAT partitions can store files as large as 16 million TB, but it’s not compatible with Unix or Linux operating systems
  • You need to defrag exFAT partitions often to avoid technical issues and maintain reasonable performance
  • It’s not possible for exFAT partitions to pre-allocate disk space

HFS Plus: Developed by Apple, HFS (Hierarchical File System) Plus is also popularly known as Mac OS Extended. It comes with the following properties:

  • HFS volume can extend up to 8 million TB, and the stored files can be as large as the partition
  • Windows hard drives can read HFS Plus but cannot write to it. 
  • Linux users can read and write to HFS Plus formatted partitions with the help of drivers


So, the file system plays a vital role in deciding how different file formats such as PDF files, JPG images, MP4 videos, are stored, retrieved, and processed by the disk. 

Knowing these file systems will help you to format the external hard drives appropriately to make them eligible for a particular operating system. 

You can go through the properties of each file system to understand them in detail.

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