File Systems: Mac vs. Windows vs. Linux


The debate over operating systems has had tech-fans engaged in a full-blown war ever since the PC era began. Programming geeks with an interest in open source customizability may prefer Linux to satisfy their system and file handling needs, while a copy of Windows may be suitable for those who prefer gaming. And of course, no one has ever gone wrong with a copy of macOS - MacInfo is a Mac-centric site, after all!

For this article, we will dive into the file systems of each of the Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems and see how they compare in terms of speed, GUI, compatibility, efficiency, and more.

What are File Systems?

Have you ever wondered where the files in your Mac get stored? How are they accessed? How are they retrieved?

Well, for every file, there are paths and directories that lead to that specific file. These paths and directories are called File Systems.

If you are on a Windows device, and you want to find a file you just downloaded, you go to "This PC," from where you click on "Documents" and there you find yet another folder called "Downloads" that has the downloaded files stored.

Meanwhile, all that you need to do on your Mac to get the same result is click on "Downloads." Whether you do it from the menu bar or anywhere else, it’s going to get you to exactly where you need to go.

Doing the same task on Linux, however, could take a lot more time.

These methods to access data, to know where it is stored or how it is stored, depends on the filing structure of the operating system. A filing structure stores information about specific files in a manner in which it can access and organize them for later use.

But since there are a number of methods to get to a specific file, is one approach better than the other? Which one is faster? What about the users who are concerned about their data's security? How do file systems even work? Which file system is superior? Here we talk in detail about three of the most popular file systems around.

Windows

The file system of Windows is complex. To get a glimpse of how files work in Windows, you need to click on the "This PC" icon. Here you will see different partitions called "C" and "D." All the data is saved in these partitions.

Open any of these partitions and you find folders and files which you have saved onto your computer. Even if you save something on your desktop, it will get saved into one of these partitions.

FAT-32 and ExFAT

Microsoft has two principal methods of maintaining their file systems. The classic is called FAT ("file allocation table"). The first iteration of the FAT system was called the FAT12 system, with the 12 representing the number of bits inside a file system block. As nature took its course, FAT12 got outdated and replaced by FAT16 which had support for larger files (due to the larger number of bits). FAT16 was succeeded by FAT32, which is currently the modern standard for the Windows file system. FAT32 can use up to 4294967296 blocks of data (or 232) as compared to the modest 4096 blocks (or 212) supported on the original FAT12.

Looking at the aforementioned numbers in a practical sense, FAT32 is able to store 2TB of data in a single partition and a single file cannot be larger than 4GB. Hence, despite being one of the most commonly used filing systems within devices such as flash drives and DVDs, the FAT32 system is getting outdated as we move towards blu-ray disks and 1TB memory card sticks. To keep up with moderns standards, FAT32 is being replaced by the exFAT filing system, which stands for "Extended File Allocation Table".

Importantly, exFAT data has no real file size limit. Microsoft has, however, decided to concentrate on the NTFS filing system.

Compatibility

FAT32 is not compatible with macOS devices. Linux systems can access FAT32 drives, but special software is required. exFAT is compatible with macOS devices however, such as Macbooks. You will still need specialized software to use exFAT on Linux systems though.

NTFS

Another file system that Microsoft has implemented is called NTFS – New Technology File System. Microsoft has attempted to set NTFS as the standard for file handling across devices such as external hard drives and USB flash drives. As of yet, there are no specific limitations in terms of size for the NTFS, and Microsoft has done its best to ensure that the NTFS stays on par with modern-day requirements.

Compatibility

While you can read NTFS file systems on a Mac and also Linux-based computer systems, you will not be able to write to them.

Linux

Linux functions very differently to every other operating system. It offers a tree-like structure to save files and folders in a hard disk. The tree-structure is the most popular in the Linux user base, and Linux also supports over a thousand other file systems, including some which are relatively ancient. When it comes to offering freedom and control, a Linux enabled device is your best option. The trade-off for that freedom and control is the fact that getting used to Linux is insanely tough. It is, without a doubt, the most complicated operating system of the three in this guide.

Ext

Linux has many options to choose from. Primarily it uses the Ext file system, which is a native Linux file system (this also means it is exclusive to Linux users). Similar to the FAT file system, the Ext file system has seen many revisions during its time, including ext2, ext3, and the most recent ext4 filing system.

This filing system goes all the way to the root and creates branches of files that are all, one way or the other, linked to the root. Imagine a tree, all the branches of the tree are connected to the root, this is exactly how Linux goes about its filing system. Although it is simple and efficient, it may not be for everyone, which is clearly why it is not implemented across many platforms that are readily available in the market at the moment.

If you do manage to master Linux, it can potentially enable you to reach the epitome in programming and tech. If you’re someone who uses their device for work purposes or some leisure activities such as watching Netflix or gaming, Linux is probably not for you.

Compatibility

The Ext file systems - Ext2, Ext3 and Ext4 cannot be read on either Windows or Mac machines without special software.

macOS

Apple is known to design the most sophisticated and elegant machines. That also holds true for its file system. There is no going into a partition to find a folder to find another folder buried within that folder, that contains another folder, like there is on Windows. And there are definitely no complicated codes to remember like you would if you were a Linux user (or unrefined GUIs).

macOS is as simple as it gets. To retrieve files, all you need to do is open your hard drive. Here you find all your apps placed in a single folder for easy access. You can also find all the system software and technical files reasonably easily. If you click "Users" and open the folder with your name on it, you see all your downloads and documents stored.

APFS

The file system Apple uses is called the Apple File System (APFS). Similar to NTFS, Apple stores the metadata of information on files - including file descriptors, file starting pointers, etc. APFS also contains a filing technique called "copy on write" (or COW) which ensures maximum security and heavy compression. APFS uses superblocks to store certain elements of data to ensure speed and efficiency.

Compatibility

APFS files can be read on both Windows and Linux machines, but you will need specialised software.

Muaz Ashrafi

Hi! I am Muaz, a Mass Communication major. I like to think I am a free urban spirit. I write blogs with a focus on tech and gadgets. When I'm not writing, you can find me with my headphones on, relaxing to some good house EDM music. I'm also a hobbyist photographer, you can find me on Instagram @mzwithacamera.

2 Comments

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  1. I don’t like NTFS at all. Linux has some great filesystems though! Ext4 is tried and true, XFS is blazing fast and btrfs is very advanced with it’s snapshotting capabilities. Mac does NTFS better than Windows, APFS has proved itself to be very reliable and have great performance. I wonder if it’s possible to use something different.

  2. Why doesn’t Windows, Mac and Linux all collaborate on a file system? I’m guessing there are disagreements about how they should function. I don’t know a whole lot about these anyway, I just know that some are faster than others or have better features. I just think we could combine the best of everything into one.