Apple's venerable yet flawed HFS+ file system has been criticized for years, and it finally received a replacement in 2017. The new file system is called APFS, and it has modernized technologies that address the shortcomings of HFS+ and includes new features to provide better support for all Apple products.
But is the latest Apple file system really the greatest, or is the remedy a step backwards?
We compare HFS+ and APFS to determine how the file systems stack up for end users. In particular, we focus on performance, usability, and which special features (if there are any) will benefit users the most.
SEE: Data backup policy (Tech Pro Research)
Mac OS Extended (HFS+) was introduced in 1998 for Mac OS 8.1, the previous iteration of the desktop operating system found on Apple's computers which ran on IBM's PowerPC processors. Marking the switch to Intel-based processors, Apple introduced OS X, a redesigned operating system based on UNIX that was capable of running on the new hardware.
HFS+ was initially retrofitted to support the transition to a UNIX-based OS and has been augmented throughout the years to add new features, including compression, journaling support, and whole disk encryption (FileVault 2) to name a few.
Pros of Apple's HFS+
- Supported on all versions of Mac OS X and macOS
- Encrypted volumes are accessible by any version of Mac OS X and macOS
- Supports Fusion drives
Cons of Apple's HFS+
- Concurrent access of the file system by a process is not allowed.
- No snapshots
- No support for dates beyond February 6, 2040
- Limited native file support for other file systems
- Timestamps do not use the nanosecond standard.
- Checksums for data integrity is missing.
The final code for Apple File System (APFS) was released to the public alongside macOS High Sierra in 2017. Apple's newest file system is the default for new installs and upgrades, unless otherwise specified by the user. APFS was designed for flash-based devices, making it a suitable solution that scales Apple's entire line of devices.
APFS has been known to increase read/write speeds on solid-state drives (SSDs), as well as increase storage space due to the way in which it calculates the available data on disk. Since it was written from the ground up, many of the newer technologies that have been implemented are not retrofits (unlike it was on its predecessor) but are native to the file system, which allows for better performance when using modern computers and mobile devices.
Pros of Apple's APFS
- Allows for clones or multiple copies of the same file, with only changes stored as deltas, which reduces storage space when making revisions or copying files
- Can create point-in-time snapshots
- Full-disk encryption with single or multi-key encryption for added security
- Uses checksums for data integrity of metadata
- Metadata corruption prevention due to creating new records instead of overwriting existing ones, which can become corrupt due to system crashes
- Increases performance on some devices by eliminating the need to write changes twice compared to HFS+ Journaled file systems
- More efficient management of storage typically yields additional free space.
Cons of Apple's APFS
- Checksums are only for metadata integrity—not user data
- Compression is not available.
- Encrypted volumes can only be accessible by other computers running macOS High Sierra
- Does not support Fusion drives
- Cannot utilize NVRAM for data storage
HFS+ has likely seen the sunset and will probably not have any future augmentations to its base; APFS is the future file system for Apple devices, and I expect it will be expanded upon to offer more features. When comparing the pros and cons of both file systems, APFS comes out ahead for newer devices moving forward.
- The Apple File System's killer features: clones and snapshots (ZDNet)
- How to set up and use Apple's APFS file system on macOS Sierra (TechRepublic)
- How to revert back to Apple's HFS+ from APFS (TechRepublic)
- Apple macOS High Sierra: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)
- Apple's first employee: The remarkable odyssey of Bill Fernandez (PDF download) (TechRepublic cover story)
If you have used APFS, do you prefer HFS+ or APFS for your enterprise and why? We'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments section.
Jesus Vigo is a Network Administrator by day and owner of Mac|Jesus, LLC, specializing in Mac and Windows integration and providing solutions to small- and medium-size businesses. He brings 19 years of experience and multiple certifications from several vendors, including Apple and CompTIA.