External HD for both PC and Mac ?
November 9, 2010 6:32 AM   Subscribe

How do I format an external hard drive so that it can be used on both a PC and a Mac ... DUMMIES version ?

I dropped my pc on the floor. I bought a USB external enclosure to test the HD...dead. OK, now I have this enclosure laying about, so I buy a new HD to use as a backup. My wife has a Mac I have a PC. How can Format this ( 320G WD Scorpio Black) so that we can both use it ? We only really need it for JPEG and PSD storage, no other heavy lifting. I'm capable in some areas, but woefully ignorant in others. Where can I find simple, step by step directions that don't require a degree in CS to understand?
posted by lobstah to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If you're formatting it on the PC, plug it into your computer, wait for the PC to recognize the drive, and then go to My Computer.

Right click on the drive and select "Format."

Make sure the file system is set to "FAT32". This is a file system that both machines will be able to read and understand.

Hit "Start", and let the format run!
posted by BZArcher at 6:40 AM on November 9, 2010


The exact method to format the drive varies but basically you just have to format the drive to use the FAT32 fileystem which is most supported across all computing systems iirc.
posted by the_ancient_mariner at 6:42 AM on November 9, 2010

Best answer: Oh - if it doesn't show up in My Computer, go to your desktop. Right click on "My Computer" and hit Manage.

In the Computer Management tool, go to Storage -> Disk Management. You should see the drive there, and you can kick off the format from this menu as well.
posted by BZArcher at 6:43 AM on November 9, 2010

BZArcher has it.

Hope your PC is not running XP, though -- there's a creaky old 4GB limit for FAT32 drives under Windows XP.
posted by omnidrew at 6:44 AM on November 9, 2010

The last time I tried to do this in Windows, FAT32 was not an option in the Format GUI, so you may have to go through the command line. Good luck!
posted by the_ancient_mariner at 6:44 AM on November 9, 2010

To expand on what omnidrew is mentioning - the downside to FAT32 is that individual files can not be larger than 4GB (a little bit smaller than a DVD-R). If all you're working with is photos, that should not be an issue at all!
posted by alaijmw at 6:48 AM on November 9, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers, guys. I do have XP on this old machine, so should I try to do it on this unit, or wait for the Mac to format it?
posted by lobstah at 6:51 AM on November 9, 2010

Response by poster: Oh ...individual files. The 4GB limit comment had me worried. We do have some huge files of her Mural and Portrait work, but I save them on a disc.
posted by lobstah at 6:54 AM on November 9, 2010

There's also a total drive size limit of 32 GB under Windows XP, as well as the 4GB/file limit. See all the FAT32/WinXP issues here: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/314463

Given that you want to use a 320GB drive, FAT32 is just not going to work for you. Unfortunately, there isn't anything else that WinXP + OS X are both going to read that doesn't have these issues. A cursory search makes it look like Windows 7 has this same issue, so upgrading isn't really going to solve your problem.

I'm not an expert, but I think there basically aren't easy solutions here. Off the top of my head:
  • I think you can get plugins for OS X (they might cost money, I forget) that let it read NTFS (windows' preferred file system). I also have dim memories of reading NTFS drives being easier and more reliable than writing them; do both OS need to be able to read AND write, or is it okay is only the Windows machine can write?
  • Swap out your hard drive for a "network attached storage" system. They're basically mini computers with big harddrives that you access over the network using a protocol that both Windows + OS X will talk to happily.
  • I don't know if Win7 supports more file systems. Perhaps it has plugins for something like ext3? A quick google search makes this look tricky.
Sorry this is so complicated. Sadly, this is one of those areas where operating systems just don't see eye to eye and the solutions get pretty technical pretty quickly. Good luck!

posted by heresiarch at 7:16 AM on November 9, 2010

You could also format it as NTFS, but that will require some extra software on your Mac. There are free and $20 options.

I use the latter only because it just worked and I feared NTFS-G would take more than $20 worth of fiddling. It may well not; I'm not sure I even tried it.
posted by chazlarson at 7:18 AM on November 9, 2010

You can format it on the mac. Fire up Disk Utility, select the disk (not the partition, if one is shown). Click Partition, Select "1 parition" from the menu, click options, make sure it is is Master Boot Record, close the options dialog. On the Partition pane, make sure the Format is "MS-DOS (FAT)". Hit Apply.

The dialog says FAT but they really mean FAT32.

I would advise against NTFS formatting as I don't think the Mac can write NTFS.
posted by chairface at 7:48 AM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would advise against NTFS formatting as I don't think the Mac can write NTFS.
Correct. Read, yes. Write, no.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:52 AM on November 9, 2010

Correct. Read, yes. Write, no.

I've had no problems thus far with the NTFS-3G driver mentioned three posts above (i.e., Read, yes. Write, yes.) YMMV.
posted by astrochimp at 8:04 AM on November 9, 2010

There's also a total drive size limit of 32 GB under Windows XP, as well as the 4GB/file limit.

This is simply incorrect. The maximum size for a FAT32 drive under XP is 8 TB (as is clearly indicated on the link heresiarch provided). The 32 GB limit is the limit on the size of a volume XP can format during the installation process. You already have the OS installed, though, and you're not installing it on this drive.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:30 AM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Mr. Roboto and Chairface have it covered. You're not worrying about an install partition here, so it's all gravy.
posted by BZArcher at 10:29 AM on November 9, 2010

Stay away from FAT32 because of the aforementioned 4GB file size limit on all operating systems. It's a showstopper when you really need it. Do whatever you can get NTFS working, it's worth the effort.
posted by exhilaration at 11:14 AM on November 9, 2010

If the drive is going to be used for JPEGs and PSDs, 4GB file limits shouldn't be a problem, unless lobstah is shooting pictures with an aircraft hangar instead of a camera.

He asked for the easiest and simplest methods for what he needs. I think the FAT32 concerns are overthinking the problem.
posted by BZArcher at 1:09 PM on November 9, 2010

Response by poster: OK Folks, thanks again for the imput...here's an update.

I decided to go ahead and format with the PC and it sees the drive, but nothing else. If I open My Computer, it does not show up, but if I RC My Computer, I am able to navigate to Computer Management, where it shows up as Disk1. At first there was ( I think it was) a red oval with a negative sign on the listing, but that went away after I started farting around with it. I tried to find a "format" icon, drop box, option, but to no avail. I did see an opportunity to "initialize" the drive, and I made a couple of steps into that process, before I chickened out. I tried to name the drive, but that has not shown up, so I think I cancelled my way out of that process. The red oval negative sign disappeared after that, but that is the only change. The Computer Management window shows it as Disk1 Unallocated, and that is the only reference to the device at all. I think I just hit my woefully ignorant wall. Any Ideas?
posted by lobstah at 2:26 PM on November 9, 2010

Lobstah - Relax, man, it's OK.

You were on the right track with initializing - basically the drive was never allocated to anything at all, so we have to tell it what to do.

If you initialize, allocate the full amount of space on the disk to the new drive, give it a name (doesn't need to be fancy), then it should ask you how to format the drive, and you can charge on from there.
posted by BZArcher at 3:36 PM on November 9, 2010

Response by poster: What do I click to restart the initialize process ? I have tried the new partition box, and gave the partition the entire drive, the drop down menu only offers to format as NTFS. I must be missing something, or not going far enough.
posted by lobstah at 3:45 PM on November 9, 2010

If you go back to the computer management and right click on it, what options do you see? If format shows up now, go ahead with that.
posted by BZArcher at 8:17 AM on November 10, 2010

Response by poster: OK, I tried that and still no go... something to do with XP I think. I ended up punting it to the Mom and Pop store where I bought the drive. They used a mac and set it up in less than 5 minutes N/C. I couldn't use my wife's mac because she got it from the school where she volunteers, so technically, it is not hers. The Tech there is kinda strict, so I didn't dare to cross her. Thanks to all who offered assistance, especially BZArcher who probably thinks I'm a lost cause :)
posted by lobstah at 2:20 PM on November 10, 2010

Heh. No, trust me, I deal with much worse at work on a daily basis....glad you're all set to go!
posted by BZArcher at 4:20 PM on November 10, 2010

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