My Mac Mini HTPC saga: filesystem selection for external media drive


Quest: best filesystem for my external hard drive

I have a 750 GB Seagate FreeAgent drive, where I’ve kept most of my media (photos, music, video, backups) for the past couple of years.  Until now, I was operating in an all-Windows world of my own design, and NTFS was the best (most reliable, performant, flexible) filesystem for that drive.

Now that I’ve introduced a Mac into my life, and because I’m planning to plug it into the Mac Mini for the vast majority of the time (to host media I record from or wish to display via the Mini) I’m faced with what feels like an imperfect choice:

  • FAT32 doesn’t support > 4 GB filesize, which in this day and age of recorded/downloaded TV (not to mention the potential for virtualization in my future, in case I want to keep experimenting/developing) is damned easy to exceed.
  • NTFS isn’t natively supported in Mac OS X (at least, not for writes, though a read-only NTFS driver is available).
  • Mac-only filesystems (e.g. HFS+) feel like a bit *too* much commitment to a platform that isn’t the dominant in my lifestyle yet – e.g. what if I want to unplug that drive from the Mac mini and hook it to my Windows box to do some USB 2.0-speed backups or other file transfers?  I know that most of my file transfers will probably work fine with an SMB share over the Wifi network (it’s all 802.11 g or better, in a pretty confined space), but sometimes I just want to get something done quickly.  Not to mention I’m not yet familiar with what steps I would have to take if I were to hook up my external drives (the 750GB – cleaned off now – and my backup one – FAT32), format the 750 gigger and try to copy over all my FAT32 data into reasonable facsimiles of the data I replicated off the 750 (before I repartitioned it).

There’s some fairly predictable chatter about lower performance of 3rd-party (R/W) NTFS drivers when used within Mac OS X (, and I’d expect similar concerns about 3rd-party HFS+ drivers (R/W) running in Windows.  I’m not worried about booting from the external drive, so that limitation of NTFS-3g isn’t a concern for me (

However, after thinking about what my *majority* usage will be, it’s clear to me that I’ll end up leaving the drive mounted to the Mac Mini 95% of the time, so I should optimize it for that scenario and not the “just in case” fear-based scenario.  If it turns out that I’m using the drive directly attached to my Windows box *that* often, I can always use a one-time read-only HFS+ driver in Windows to get the data off the drive, then reformat with NTFS.  Getting the data off the drive isn’t a worry of mine (these drivers all seem good enough for at least the “disaster recovery – get my data off the drive *eventually*” scenarios); so I’d be an idiot not to optimize for the day-to-day performance issues I’d otherwise be facing with a non-native filesystem for the host where it’ll be plugged in 95% of the time.

Next time

  • Quest: a tuner I can “set and forget” (i.e. reliable, stable, robust performance)
  • Quest: improve the screen drawing response time in “Screen Sharing” (aka VNC)

4 thoughts on “My Mac Mini HTPC saga: filesystem selection for external media drive

  1. Why not just buy another drive and keep one in NTFS and the other HFS and regularly sync the two with rsync… gives you ready access to both formats and the extra benefit of a mirror.

    It's not like a second 750GB drive costs all that much nowadays.


  2. Hey there Conor, if I was looking for *easy* solutions I'd probably be in a different line of work. 😉 Yes, that'd probably have been the path of least resistance, but my inextinguishable curiosity drew me to find out what the *best* technology approach was given my current hardware. (Plus, with the amount of $$ I've dropped on this already, I was hoping to save a bit of $$ until such time as I run out of legitimate space.)

    But I'll likely end up with a second drive on here in the near future, and at that point it might make sense to diversify my risk.

    For the moment, however, I've copied back about 200 GB of the data off my FAT32 drive onto the HFS+ (with journaling! no less) volume and it's been pretty darned user-friendly (with no indication of any errors or issues). I'm more and more suitably impressed at how well Apple has been able to paper over the horrendous learning curve of BSD for a GUI-poisoned guy like me. 🙂

    Here's how rusty my *NIX is – is rsync a “set it and forget it” tool like cron, or just a command-line tool that I need to automate elsewise?


  3. *NIX likes it's to script things together rather than trying to put all features in a single tool.

    So, to do what you want, you would typically write a shell script that uses rsync to sync the drives and then use cron to run that script regularly.

    I use such a script to backup my windows drive over SSH (so I can backup to my server regardless of where I am).


  4. Hi Mike

    As an old time windows user all my drives are formatted in ntfs. Since going to mac for my plex mac mini media centre I've used Paragons NTFS for Mac OS X. Version 6.5 was a bit buggy, however version 7 is rock solid and allows me to read/write to anyone of my external hard disks, as well as run formatting and disk error checking tools using the OSX disk utility.

    Another option you could explore is to install VMware or Parallels and mount the drives within a virtual windows environment. This will allow you to read/write to and from a shared folder on your OSX machine. Another benefit is that you can use a windows dvd ripper like DVDfavb which I find has more options than Handbrake


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