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I bought a new external hard drive for my Mac. What is the best file system in 2021 to format the external hard drive?

I would like to encrypt the hard drive and I only use it with Macs so I don't need Windows compatibility. I used to format external drives with encrypted APFS but I heard it's not the best file system for spinning hard drives, only for SSDs.

Has anyone experience with this? Pros and cons? Should I use APFS or HFS+ for external hard drives? Thank you!

4 Answers 4

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APFS has no advantage over HFS+ (macOS extended) and vice versa in terms of post-mount performance when it comes to hard disks (non-SSD drives).

However, macOS Sierra (10.12) or older can not access APFS-formatted disks. On the other hand, though unlikely in the foreseeable future, it is possible that Apple might drop support for HFS+ in some future versions of macOS. Should this happen, you may not be able to access your hard disk in a future version of macOS if you format it in HFS+. In addition, AFPS is said to be less prone file corruption issues than HFS+. I recently had to erase everything on a HFS+ external hard disk due to corruption issues and reformat it.

In summary, if you are planning to access your hard disk from a computer running on macOS 10.12 or older, then format it with HFS+. Otherwise, go with APFS.

There are more details in the article "APFS vs Mac OS Extended – Which Mac Disk Format Is Best" if you need more information.

P.S. If you plan to use this hard disk with Time Machine on macOS 10.15 (Catalina) or older, HFS+ would be your only option. Time Machine works with APFS only when the macOS version is macOS 11 (Big Sur) or more recent.

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    Thanks, I was just confused by articles like this about performance issues with APFS. But I think it's the more future-proof format.
    – T. Walker
    May 25, 2021 at 20:40
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    Time machine does work with apfs and has for a year. Big Sur made that work
    – mmmmmm
    May 25, 2021 at 21:19
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    Correction, APFS has negative advantage when used on rotational drives. Mount times become significantly slower (particularly Time Machine drives). Directory traversals become exponentially longer as the directory structures themselves are changed after initial creation. Unfortunately, Apple removed the ability to create HFS+ Encrypted volumes since Big Sur.
    – adib
    Jun 28, 2022 at 2:23
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    "Apple might drop support for HFS+ in some future versions of macOS" Eventually, that's almost certain to happen, but it might not be for a long time, if the transition from HFS to HFS+ is a guide. HFS+ replaced HFS (without the +) in 1998. Booting from HFS was dropped with OS X in 2001. Write-support was dropped with 10.6 Snow Leopard in 2009. Read-only support for HFS was deprecated in macOS 10.12 Sierra in 2016, but continued to work until macOS 10.15 Catalina in 2019, 21 years after HFS was discontinued. Jul 23, 2023 at 15:38
  • I bought an External dual-drive with high-end thunderbolt-3 connection, and two high-performance Toshiba 14TB enterprise level drives - and formatted one APFS one HFS+ I must say APFS is horrible on rotational drives. It is not just slow - it causes the whole OS to hang when it becomes suddenly "busy" doing its thing. Any manipulation of the file-systems is extremely slow and cumbersome. The only benefit is the flexibility in creating and moving around multiple volumes (I use it as hot-backup drive for several different Macs). Otherwise - only HFS+ Feb 14 at 21:03
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For HDD, if you are not going to install macOS, then use a Mac OS Extended (Journaled) or Mac OS Extended (Journaled, Encrypted) format. When using a hard drive just to store files, APFS or APFS (Encrypted) could also be used. The main advantage to APFS is more APFS volumes can be easily added or removed.

In your case, open the Disk Utility. Press the +2 key combination. Highlight the external drive. Select the Erase button and choose the format and scheme given below. Note: High Sierra (macOS 10.13.6) was using in this example.

The Disk Utility will create a small hidden FAT32 formatted EFI partition followed by a JHFS+ formatted partition. In order to allow encryption, the JHFS+ formatted partition will be converted to a Core Storage partition and a small hidden JHFS+ formatted partition will be added.

The output from the command diskutil list external after erasing a 16 GB flash drive is shown below.

/dev/disk1 (external, physical):
   #:                       TYPE NAME                    SIZE       IDENTIFIER
   0:      GUID_partition_scheme                        *15.5 GB    disk1
   1:                        EFI EFI                     209.7 MB   disk1s1
   2:          Apple_CoreStorage Untitled                15.2 GB    disk1s2
   3:                 Apple_Boot Boot OS X               134.2 MB   disk1s3

/dev/disk2 (external, virtual):
   #:                       TYPE NAME                    SIZE       IDENTIFIER
   0:                  Apple_HFS MyExternalVolume       +14.8 GB    disk2
                                 Logical Volume on disk1s2
                                 C9787C76-7FAA-4E41-AFEC-4F3D8F2AC9CE
                                 Unlocked Encrypted

 

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It would seem that one big advantage of using APFS, even on rotating drive, would be that it can take advantage of the copy-on-write technology, via the Finder or in Terminal with cp -c, thereby saving a lot of disk space. This also allows much more efficient use of local snapshots.

If the advantage of this is still overweighed by other negative factors, I would welcome your opinions.

But this, which I've only recently become aware of, would seem to tip the scales in favor of going to APFS for all drives that don't require write access by pre-Sierra systems or other operating systems.

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In general, almost all HDD formats are perfectly compatible with Windows. You can use APFS or HFS+. There is no difference. It's just a matter of how you know how to configure it and what is more convenient. Recently, my HDD on my Mac broke down, and I had to use Windows for a few months. I used this service -- https://www.salvagedata.com/hard-drive-recovery/, they used HFS+, and it was perfect for me. In general, I suggest you read more about each format on the Internet or watch videos on YouTube. I hope I have helped you, good luck to you, if you have any questions, PM me, I will answer everything.

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