HFS+ vs NTFS: Mac vs Windows Hard Drive Format

by Paul | Last Updated: August 9, 2021

It really is no news that there are three types of operating systems for computing devices (desktop and laptops): Windows, Mac, and Linux. Two are more popular (Windows and Mac), and it is safe to say they have dominated the market. Developers put a lot of effort to ensure that the two are distinct and give users different experiences.


Mac uses the Hierarchical File System Plus (HFS+) and has been using it since the Mac OS 8.1. It is also referred to as the Mac OS Extended format. NTFS is for windows; its full form is New Technology File System. It has been in use since Windows 7. The thing is windows cannot read HFS+ formatted drives but Mac can read NTFS formatted drives.

There might be similarities between both operating systems but there are more notorious for their differences and this transcends beyond design or other aesthetically pleasing features, this is evident in the architect and other aspects of the software.

There is more to a PC that meets the eye, we usually notice the storage device, RAM, and so on. There is a layer or the foundation that a system runs on, in this article, we will look at two of them. These are referred to as file system which basically means how things are arranged to operate.

Asides from the B-tree similarity in both file systems, there are no major similarities. The block or sector design for allocating volumes and tasks are different. The focus of the Mac is on maximizing space while the windows focus on operational functions and efficiency.

HFS+ Mac OS File Format

It is an upgrade from its predecessor, Hierarchical File System (HFS). It was released in 1998 for Mac and iPod. It increased the number of blocks available on a disk and reduced the minimum size of a file. This upgrade resulted in the optimisation of large disk drives. Maximizing space led to increasing the number of files that can be on a disk.

The Mac OS X uses this file system and there is no limit to the number of volumes you can create. There is also a 2.1 billion cap on the number of files that can be in a folder. The maximum volume and file size ranges from 2TB to 8EB depending on the OS version.

The block addresses it uses are 32 bits in length which is double the HFS. It replaces the Mac OS Roman with Unicode. The HFS+ is made up of none sectors. The first is classified into 0 and 1, there are the blocks allocated to the booting of the system.

The next block is sector 2 which has the volume header that stores a wide variety of data about the volume; time created, location of all volume structures. There is a block assigned to the allocation file which records the allocation blocks in use and the one that are not. It uses zero to indicate a free block and one to indicate an occupied block.

The catalog file (B-tree) contains records for all the files and directories in a volume. The next sector is the Extents Overflow file (B-tree) that records the allocation blocks of each file as extents. The Attributes file (B-tree) can store 3 different types of 4KB records (Inline Data Attribute records, Fork Data Attribute records and Extension Attribute records).

Another block is the Startup file which is designed for non-Mac OS systems that lack HFS or HFS+ support. Alternative volume header is the next sector and it is the penultimate sector on the disk. The final sector is reserved for Apple as it was the part used when the device was manufactured.

NTFS Window OS File Format

The NTFS is designed to ensure that your system can perform standard file operations. This design makes read, write, search, system recovery and another advanced task on a disk with a large capacity possible. The NTFS has different versions, with 3.0 as the newest version.

This new version has advantages over the previous ones, they include encrypting file system (file-level encryption), distributed link tracking, sparse file support, disk use quotas, and reparse points. It is a journaling file system ($LogFile) that records metadata changes to the volume.

The FAT does not have this journaling system and it is critical for ensuring that complex internal data structures remain consistent, if there is an incident of the system crashing or when data moves owing to defragmentation. This journaling system easily allows the rollback of uncommitted changes to critical data structures when the volume is mounted.

Let us look at the feature of this file system. The first is hard links, this allows different file names to directly refer to the same file contents. There is a limit of 1024 hard links on a file. An alternate Data System is a feature that allows more than one data stream to be associated with a filename.

File compress is an operation that enables the NTFS to compress files using an algorithm. These compressed algorithms support cluster sizes of up to 4KB and if the file size is bigger, the operation will not occur.

The NTFS uses B-tress like the HFS+, this is used to index file system data. For data storage and retrieval, it uses windows NT operating system. NFTS can format SSD.

Using a B-tree directory scheme to ensure organizational efficiency. It also supports many files and there is data security.

There is a high possibility that the HFS+ is better than the NTFS but this comparison might not be necessary as they both have their purpose. The truth is, they are both great and the best for the systems they are designed for.

NFTS is the best file system you can format your drive-in, this makes the drive compatible with any system including Mac OS.

Related Question

Where can I purchase HFS+ or NTFS?

You cannot purchase any of these two as they are built into whatever system you buy.