I recently brought Western Digital's Passport Essential, and will be using with my MacBook (running Snow Leopard), MacBook Air (running Lion) and Windows 7 Desktop. I should be able to read-write data using each machine/OS.

Moreover, I need to store and move files larger than 4GB.

So, what should be preferred file-system type: FAT, exFAT or NTFS? Will my portable drive support exFAT?

  • What kind of portable drive are you using? Brand, type,...
    – Michiel
    Commented Apr 20, 2012 at 10:08
  • @Michiel Western Digital's Passport Essential
    – I-M-JM
    Commented Apr 20, 2012 at 10:24
  • It will come in NFTS, but you can format it to exFAT!
    – Michiel
    Commented Apr 20, 2012 at 10:40
  • Could you accept the answer you find most suitable please? That's how this site works ;-)
    – Michiel
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 12:50

4 Answers 4



Fat is definitely off the table since it only supports files up to 4GB. So you won't be able to transfer files over 4GB like you stated in your question.


exFAT won't have this limit since it's capable of supporting files up to 16 exabytes (16.000.000 terabytes). It's an excellent format for your flash drives and/or external (not internal!) hard drives.


NFTS is an alternative, but your Mac (starting from 10.3) can only read it. It won't be able to write data on the drive, unless you use some extra software and hacks, but some users have reported some instability and performance issues using NFTS on a Mac.


Windows 7 will read and write FAT, exFAT and NFTS without any problem. (It can even ReadyBoost from an exFat flash drive). Starting from Mac OS X 10.6.5, the OS supports reading from and writing to exFAT formatted drives.


I would go for the exFAT. It's fast, supports huge datafiles and both your Windows 7 and your Mac will be able to read/write to it.

  • Can you elaborate on why you'd use exFAT on "external (not internal!)" hard drives?
    – Cajunluke
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 13:47
  • Because, AFAIK it's the (only) which seems to work backwards compatible with both Windows and Mac... Do you think otherwise?
    – Michiel
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 13:50
  • That's the first I've heard of any preference for external vs. internal, and I was hoping you'd add your reasoning. I'm not asserting that you're wrong, and I have no evidence either way.
    – Cajunluke
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 13:52
  • 1
    You're probably right; I've even upvoted your answer.
    – Cajunluke
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 13:58
  • 1
    One issue I noticed while using ExFAT is that OS X sees this file system as case-sensitive (while Windows doesn't treat ExFAT as case-sensitive). This might not be an issue in most situations but the software Steam.app for example won't run off of the ExFAT file system because of this, and I've also noticed duplicate folders in Windows, one capitalized and one lowercase. So even exFAT isn't an ideal solution for every situation.
    – j.mertz
    Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 11:09

The only format that support all of your requirements is ExFAT. It is natively supported by Win7, Lion and Snow Leopard (from 10.6.5, I believe).


I would actually recommend a 4th option - HFS+. I'm using Paragon HFS+ for Windows and its working very well. For $20 I am very happy with it and it definitely had advantages on the Mac side that you will not get with exFAT (TimeMachine, resizability, larger file sizes).


I'd like to point out that exFAT is orders of magnitude slower on the mac than HFS+ or FAT32, especially when used on a spinning hard disk. It works well on solid state (ssd's or flash).

  • I think brennan's point is important to make for people with slower computers or slower storage and needs for faster IO. The features of exFAT make it less likely to run into file and volume sizes, but there are some disadvantages for performance for some that mix exFAT and OS X.
    – bmike
    Commented Apr 25, 2014 at 13:25

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