Mac and Windows users have looked at each other for nearly 20 years across a raging river of uncertain compatibility as they exchange files...

Mac and Windows users have looked at each other for nearly 20 years across a raging river of uncertain compatibility as they exchange files, discs and drives. The river has become calmer and lost its rapids as Mac OS X has included more and better support for Windows formats, as developers have almost universally adopted document formats identical on both platforms, and as the idea of a Mac-only or Windows-only storage device has become absurd.

It’s not just more common for users in work groups or at different firms working together to exchange files created on a Mac or under Windows, but it’s now routine for a Mac user to also be a Windows user — either with a second computer at home or work, or by running Windows on a new Intel-based Mac.

As the need has increased for cross-platform conversions and compatibility, so, too, have new tools appeared or old tools continued their development.

Opening files from the other platform: Many file formats are identical under Mac OS X and Windows XP, including most image files, Adobe Acrobat PDFs (Portable Document Format), and Microsoft Office files. Use the same program on each platform, and the document’s contents appear the same.

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If you are missing a particular program on the Mac that you use under Windows, or there’s no Mac version or analog, try DataViz’s hoary MacLinkPlus Deluxe (, $79.99, download or CD), now at version 15. It can convert dozens of Windows file formats, and a variety of Mac formats, too. (It’s been around for so long that the Plus and Deluxe names have no meaning: it’s now the only version.)

DataViz has an equivalent for Windows users called Conversions Plus ($69.99), which supports somewhat fewer document types.

Exchanging files between Mac OS X and Windows: You can move files between platforms via a local network, e-mail, Internet-based file transfer, and portable or USB thumb drives.

Over a local network, you can use Windows’ native file-sharing format, commonly called Samba. Mac OS X has had Samba support built in for several versions. While Samba can be used over the Internet, it’s typically used among computers on the same local network.

In Mac OS X, launch System Preferences, click the Internet preference pane, and click the Sharing tab. Check the Windows Sharing box to start sharing files. Click Accounts to choose which Mac OS X accounts may remotely access the system. (I prefer using Hornware’s SharePoints for any sophisticated Samba configuration; see, donationware.)

Under Windows XP, select a folder or volume you want to share and use the Sharing wizard to configure access.

Mac volumes shared via Samba show up in the Network Neighborhood under XP; Windows’ shared items appear in the Network volumes list (in the Finder, choose Network from the Go menu).

For e-mail, sending files as attachments among platforms just works these days, as often as it just failed only a few years ago. If you run into trouble, try using Base64 encoding — if presented with “encoding” as an option — rather than AppleDouble or uuencoding.

With Internet file transfer, one way to avoid e-mail troubles and skirt size limits on attachments is to use services like Pando (, Civil Netizen (, or Dropload (, which let you upload files to a central repository, turn your computer into a server for just those files, or act as a combination of both.

Mounting disks: FAT is phat, let’s just say that. FAT32 is an older disk format used by Windows that offers the best compatibility in plugging in portable or thumb drives because both Windows and Mac OS X can read a drive in that format. (Mac OS X uses special folders to hide its files’ special attributes.)

Windows users are presented with a choice between FAT32 and the newer NTFS flavor when formatting a drive. Mac users need to run Disk Utility (in the Applications folder’s Utilities folder), select the disk, click the Erase tab, and choose MS-DOS File System from the Volume Format menu.

Mac OS X can also mount drives in NTFS format, a far-superior disk structure offered by Microsoft, when a disk is connected via FireWire or USB, or mounted from a special Boot Camp partition on an Intel-based Mac if you’re using that software to run Windows. However, Apple can only read — not create or modify — files from NTFS-formatted drives due to proprietary constraints by Microsoft.

To make CD and DVDs more easily readable under Windows, on a Mac, and on platforms like Linux and FreeBSD, choose ISO9660, a very plain format.

Mac OS X users need third-party software, such as Roxio Toast 7 (, $79.99 with rebate, download or CD), to burn ISO9660 discs. Toast lets you write in many formats, including a hybrid format that allows Mac files to retain icons and such while creating an ISO9660 section for Windows and other platforms.

You can also choose to keep all your drives in a format favored by the Mac by purchasing MediaFour’s MacDrive 6 (, $49.95, download or CD). This software lets Windows — XP and every other version since 98SE — mount almost any Mac-formatted drive, whether via FireWire or USB, a directly connected hard drive, a Zip or a floppy disk, or a CD or DVD disc.

There’s not quite a lingua franca for Mac OS X and Windows users, but rickety walkways across the chasm that divides the platforms have been replaced with something akin to concrete bridges.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to More columns at