Compatibility issues between Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s MacOS have diminished sharply over the years, but that doesn’t mean those issues have completely disappeared. Today, if you buy a new external hard drive, you may notice that working between the two is an often demoralizing task.
But it doesn’t need to be.
Fortunately, there is a solution. You can “partition” your hard drive, or divide it into different sections with different rules and functions. In this case, you can partition your drive so that part of it works properly with MacOS, and part of it works properly with Windows, avoiding the issues that can crop up. Both computers have the necessary tools to help you partition a new drive once you have it connected.
It’s a split, niche scenario
A quick Google search may lead you to believe you’re on the right path by formatting the entire drive with Extensible File Allocation Table, or exFAT. It’s a simpler, universal method if every file you store is less than 4GB in size. However, this format doesn’t support larger files, which can be problematic for transferring 4K videos and so on between Macs and Windows 10 PCs.
Meanwhile, the NTFS system used by Windows 10 supports large files, but this format can’t be read natively by MacOS. That puts you in a peculiar pickle, limiting any shared file between the two platforms at 4GB or smaller. If you want to save larger files, you’ll need to create a second, dedicated space using a format optimized for MacOS (Extended) or Windows 10 (NTFS).
That said, our guide splits the external drive in half: One primary section capable of storing files larger than 4GB, and a secondary section capable of sharing files between MacOS and Windows 10. It’s not the ideal solution — we get it — but it works nonetheless.
Before digging in, select a primary format you’ll use the most: MacOS Extended if you primarily use Mac with a secondary exFAT partition, or NTFS if you mainly use Windows 10 with a secondary exFAT partition.
Finally, formatting deletes all data stored on the drive. Make sure you back up anything important before beginning the formatting process. We have guides for Windows and MacOS in case you need a helping hand.
Partition the drive on Windows 10
We have a full guide on how to complete the process from Windows 10 here. But let’s go through the important steps you need to know to quickly partition the drive while working on Windows. On a PC, the process is less straightforward than what you see on a Mac, but it’s now easier than ever.
Step 1: Right-click on the Start button and select Disk Management on the Power User menu.
Your PC’s primary boot drive (C:) hosting Windows and other programs appears as Disk 1. If your PC has a secondary “data” drive (D:), Disk Management assigns it as Disk 0. Windows 10 typically lists an external drive as Disk 2 along with the next successive alphabetic label if you don’t have any other internal disk-based storage. Windows 10 lists optical drives differently.
Typically, external drives are formatted out of the box. However, you may encounter a “Not Initialized” error when connecting the device to your PC. That means it’s not formatted correctly to work with Windows. Even more, it won’t have an assigned drive letter in File Explorer (This PC), and may not even have allocated space for saving data.
If you see an Initialize Disk pop-up window, it provides two formats: Master Boot Record (MBR) and GUID Partition Table (GPT). The former is older and only supports capacities up to 2TB, but is compatible with older versions of Windows. GPT is a newer format supporting larger capacities but isn’t compatible with older versions of Windows.
Select the partition style and click the OK button to continue. If you accidentally closed the pop-up, right-click on the listed disk and select “Initialize Disk” on the pop-up.
If you didn’t get the pop-up warning, move on to Step 2.
Step 2: Right-click on the unallocated space, and select the New Simple Volume option on the pop-up menu, as shown above.
Step 3: The New Simple Volume Wizard begins. Click the Next button.
Step 4: Since we’re creating two partitions, divide the listed physical number in half. Type that number into the field next to Simple Volume Size in MB and click the Next button to continue. In our scenario, we’re dividing a 1TB SanDisk Ultra SSD.
Step 5: Allow the Wizard to assign a drive letter, or manually assign the letter using the drop-down menu. Click the Next button to proceed.
Step 6: Select a file system. Since your primary PC is Windows 10, use NTFS. Enter a volume label (drive name) too — we used “Windows 10,” though you can label this partition with anything. Click the Next button to proceed.
Step 7: Click the Finish button to complete.
In Disk Management, the external disk should list one new volume — “Windows 10” in our example — and a second portion with unallocated space.
Right-click on that unallocated space and repeat step 1 to step 6. This time, however, choose exFAT as the file system during step 6, which you’ll use to share files with MacOS. Note that you don’t need to specify a volume size.
The result should look something like this:
Partition the drive on a Mac
Partitioning an external drive in macOS isn’t quite as troublesome. Assuming that your external drive has no partitions, you will then need to create two. If you already own a Mac-friendly partition, you can skip ahead to step 5.
You may first see an “initialize” error because the drive’s file system isn’t “readable.” Click on the Initialize button on the small pop-up screen to create your first compatible partition and begin at step 5. If the error does not appear, you may start with step 1.
Step 1: With Finder highlighted, click Go on the menu bar followed by Utilities on the drop-down menu.
Step 2: Double-click the Disk Utility icon in the following window.
Step 3: With Disk Utility open, your drive appears under External located on the left. Click Erase, located on the app’s top toolbar.
Step 4: In the following pop-up window, enter a name, select MacOS Extended (Journalist) as the format, and GUID Partition Map as the scheme. Click the Erase button to make these changes.
Step 5: Once complete, your drive should have a single partition. Highlight the drive again in Disk Utility and click Partition instead.
Step 6: On the following screen, click the small “plus” button located under the blue pie chart to add a second partition.
Step 7: A second portion appears, slicing the pie graph down the middle. Enter a volume name, select the exFAT format, and click the Apply button.
Step 8: Click the Partition button in an additional pop-up window to complete the process.
The result should look something like this:
There should be two icons representing each drive on your desktop.
It’s worth noting that the exFAT file system isn’t 100% reliable. For this reason, it’s a good idea to hook your hard drive up to a Windows computer and create a secondary Windows partition to NTFS. You can check out our in-depth explanation of this in the Windows section.
As you can see, partitioning a hard drive is a reasonably simple process, whether you’re using a Windows or a Mac. Another option is installing a paid application like Paragon’s Microsoft NTFS software or the free and open-source Tuxera on your Mac to enable NTFS to read/write support. Some features like Time Machine won’t work correctly with an NTFS file system, even with third-party software.
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