Macnifying OS X: Introduction and working with NTFS Drives

Make Use Of’s Mac section has been growing steadily over the past couple of months and we’ve published a lot of articles about random topics i.e. productivity, music, plugins, etc. So I’ve decided to start a biweekly column dedicated to people who have just started using Macs, a.k.a “Switchers”, focusing on the issues they might face with the operating system during the early transition periods.

Hopefully this will ensure that your switch to Mac is a smooth process with minimal hiccups. So without further adieu, here is the first Make Use Of “Macnifying OS X” column.

NTFS Blues

When I first started using my Mac, the first problem I faced was NTFS drive compatibility issues. Macs run on a different file system called Hierarchical File System (HFS). Windows, on the other hand runs on a NT File System (NTFS). Because of this discrepancy, Macs can only read NTFS-formatted drives and are unable to write on them. This brought up a lot of fussing about when my friends had their portable hard disks over to copy stuff from my Mac, only to find that I can’t write (copy) files on it. They would throw up some unfriendly comments about Macs while I frantically looked for a spare USB thumb drive.

You would expect Apple to plug this miniscule problem by adding NTFS-write compatibility; that was what everyone hoped from OS X Leopard before it was launched. But they didn’t. This is one of Apple’s quirks. They seldom do what you’d expect them to.

Luckily, there were several groups of developers who got together and solved our simple but common problem. I’m going to write about two methods of solving it: one is free and the other isn’t.

How to write on NTFS drives with Mac (the free solution)

If you’ve ever done a search on Google on “How to write on NTFS with Mac”, you’d definitely come across NTFS-3G. NTFS-3G is a driver that is used with MacFUSE in order to create a fully-functional NT file system within OS X. Actually, NTFS-3G works on many other platforms as well but we shall focus on Mac for now.

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NTFS-3G is an ongoing effort and its latest update was July 12 so that’s pretty recent. There are 2 versions of the driver:

    – the stable one (which runs at around USB 1.1 speed so I wouldn’t recommend you use that),
    – and the UBLIO one (which is patched for improved performance).

I’ve tried using both and I can honestly tell you that the non-UBLIO one is truly, dreadfully slow. Also note that I’ve had some problems recognizing some particular unknown brands of hard disk enclosures. More reliable external hard disks like Maxtor and Western Digital read and write with no issues.

Installation is not very difficult. The first thing you need to do is install MacFUSE — get the latest version here (be aware that there are different versions for Tiger and Leopard). Then you’ll be asked to reboot your system. The next step would be to install NTFS-3G, reboot and you’re all set!

The paid solution

Although paying for software just in order to read and write on NTFS may sound grim, this piece of software might very well be worth your money. Paragon NTFS for Mac was very easy to install and use. It managed to detect and write to every NTFS-formatted hard disk I threw at it. If you would rather do away with the hassle of setting up MacFUSE and NTFS-3G, this is the next best thing. However, it comes with a price and $39.95 is hefty but arguably worth it. If you’re not convinced, try it for 10 days and see how it goes. You might find yourself missing it after that trial period is over.

The other solutions

If you still have external hard disks which you need to use back and forth between Windows and Mac systems, maybe you could consider formatting them in FAT32 instead. Macs write on FAT partitions just fine.

Another option is to install virtualization software which will enable you to run Windows on your Mac but you would have to deal with the reduced transfer speeds as the data passes through the USB interface into the virtualization program and back onto your Mac.

To sum up, NTFS-3G coupled with MacFUSE is a great and free way to write on NTFS-formatted hard disks. Paragon NTFS does the same thing, is more convenient but comes with a $40 price tag. These tools will help bring about the sorely-needed NTFS-write capability to your Mac.

(By) Jackson Chung is a full-time medical student attempting to perform a juggling act with relationship, studies and his future.

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