Running APFS File System On Rotational Hard Drives

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I am going to assume you are reading this article because you already know what an APFS file system is. That is why I am not going to explain what it is or how it works so I can concentrate on the main purpose of this blog post. I will point out that APFS is one of the newest file systems in use as part of macOS.

Should you format your hard drive to APFS and when?

Well, let me start with a small history lesson. APFS was created to be used with SSDs. However, that does not mean it cannot be used with regular rotational HDDs.

It will get formatted, no problem or questions asked, but will you see a difference?

Most definitely, you will. It will be very noticeable in slimmer 5400 RPM hard drives. While booting won’t show much of a difference, you will discover that at least one task is going to be a bit more time-consuming. That is the sorting through of folders and files, and the renaming of files or folders that already contain several other files or folders inside them. It will compare somewhat to operating as if the 5400 PRM hard drive had been formatted to HFS.

It all has to do with how the data is stored and accessed within rotational HDDs and SSDs.

APFS was created to work best at stirring and accessing data on NAND flash modules, and this is why when heads try to locate and access fragments of data, it slows them down. That you will notice. It won’t be as great a difference as comparing dial-up internet to high-speed fiber, but there will be enough of a difference that, depending on the type of work you are putting your hard drive through, it could be annoying. 

Will defragmentation help?

Ever since the APFS was introduced, Apple quietly added the “defragmentation” feature that is not enabled by default. According to analysis from Carbon Copy Cloner by Mike, it appears that the defragmentation feature doesn’t make much of a difference when used with regular rotational hard drives.

Is data recovery possible from the APFS file system?

There is good news here. It is not a problem at all to retrieve data from this file system. Although it is still considered to be rather new, the technology required for data recovery keeps evolving, and getting it off an APFS formatted hard drive is no more difficult than recovery from HFS.

However, you should be careful with fragmentation and severe file system damage typically is non-recoverable or will require a very highly skilled set of engineer hands. With that being said, it’s pretty much the same with every other well-known file system out there including NTFS, FAT or exFAT.

What if I’m just a regular guy or gal who likes to cruise around the internet, will it impact me at all?

Well, let’s look at it this way. If you are a casual internet user, you shouldn’t notice much of a difference at all. You probably have been using the APFS file system for some time and didn’t even know about it existing until you read the title to this article. 

So basically, if you are into some sort of PRO, working with massive volumes of files and folders, you will see a slightly slowed down operation. But that is not a huge issue when you consider that several great features come as part of the APFS file system. 

A few final thoughts on the subject…

If you have a Mac machine with SSD installed, it is a good idea to confirm that you are running APFS as it will be the most stable and durable combination you can use. Would you prefer to experiment and test the waters with regular or newer HHDs like the helium-based style to see if there is a difference? I would love to hear about your findings and results.

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About the author: Yevgeniy Kapishon is a hardcore techno enthusiast, a senior data recovery engineer, and a blogger at Aesonlabs® Data Recovery Systems, living in Toronto, Canada. In his free time, he likes to wander and explore the back alleys of his neighborhood or carve into his favorite sci-fi flicks.

Picture of Kokou Adzo

Kokou Adzo

Kokou Adzo is a stalwart in the tech journalism community, has been chronicling the ever-evolving world of Apple products and innovations for over a decade. As a Senior Author at Apple Gazette, Kokou combines a deep passion for technology with an innate ability to translate complex tech jargon into relatable insights for everyday users.

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