Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

What File System should I use?

Right, my external HD enclosure has finally arrived (and it looks quite swish too), and so I will be cloning my MacBook’s hard drive and swapping them over, thus leaving me with a 60 GB external hard disk. However, I’m at a bit of a loss as to what file system to stick on it. The options are:


The good ol’ Hierarchical File System from Apple and the default for OS X drives. Now this drive will probably spend 95% of its life connected to a Mac and so having it use HFS+ would be a plus since it will have the various file metadata that OS X likes to include. But HFS+ support on non-Macs is almost non-existent without buying programs like MacDrive (for Windows), so it’s not going to be a whole lot of use on any other computer.


The most-compatible but the least features. Any operating system from the last 10 years will read FAT32 drives, but you don’t get any fun features like extended metadata (without lots of hidden files) and compression, and its cluster sizes mean that it’s not the most efficient.


So now we have Windows XP’s file system of choice. It’s more efficient and has more features than FAT32, and it’s even supported by Macs. Well, kind-of. Macs can read from NTFS volumes natively but to be able to write to them you have to install third-party software. The software is free and open-source, and quite a few people rely on it, but I’d be worried about data corruption. Incidentally if this is something you want to try yourself read my guide for Tiger users and this updated guide for Leopard users.
I’ll probably go for FAT32 as it’s the most compatible, but if you have any other comments or suggestions to make then I’d be happy to hear them.

Oh, and while I’m here, I’ve found out Windows XP won’t let you format hard drives larger than 40 GB as FAT32. There’s a free tool called SwissKnife which lets you overcome this limitation. It’s also dead quick.


  1. For the record, I use NTFS-3G on my Linux system at home and I’ve had absolutely no problems with corruption or anything. In fact, the whole ethos of NTFS-3G is such that it’s tested extremely rigorously for that sort of thing. (see for more information)
    I seriously don’t think you’d have any problems with NTFS should you decide to go that route.
    My own external hard drive is formatted with NTFS. Why? Because in my tests, throughput to a FAT32 partition under Windows was a lot slower than to an NTFS partition. This was important to me, as I was planning to do video editing stuff and throughput was important. (On the same note, I also found that USB 2 seemed to be better than FireWire for my purposes, which was the opposite of what I expected.)
    With NTFS-3G, I can use the drive for reading and writing from within both Windows and Linux, so there’s no loss.
    In my opinion, the only thing you’d want to keep FAT32 around for now is if you needed to be compatible with older OSes of the Windows 9x or pre-OS X variety.
    (btw, I tried to comment on your blog using the LiveJournal sign-in option, but it didn’t work; you may want to look into that.)

  2. Hi,
    I’d recommend using NTFS as a means of storage. All you need is Paragon running to be able to read and write to it with ease. It’s a lot simpler than NTFS-3G and has no drawbacks.
    Note- you might not be able to use it as a Time Machine backup drive with NTFS file system?