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NTFS Options for Mac Expand

One of the irritating things about using Boot Camp, especially if you've formatted your Windows volume using NTFS (which is mandatory for Vista), is the awkwardness of transferring files between your Mac partition and your Windows partition. While running Windows, you can't see your Mac partition at all. While running Mac OS X, you can see your Windows partition, but you can make changes to files on it only if it uses the FAT32 format. If it uses NTFS, you have read-only access.

As a result, accessing files from one operating system while using the other requires you to jump through some hoops. One way is to use an intermediate volume that's visible to both Mac OS X and Windows, such as an external hard drive, an optical disc, or a server. If you have Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion installed, you can use either of them from within Mac OS X to access your Boot Camp partition (or any other NTFS volume), though this is a rather roundabout approach. Another option is to install MacDrive under Windows, which gives you seamless access to your Mac partitions but doesn't enable you to see your Windows volume when running Mac OS X.

Almost a year ago (see Chris Pepper's article "MacFUSE Explodes Options for Mac File Systems," 2007-01-29), Google released MacFuse, a system that lets developers create plug-ins supporting access to other file systems under Mac OS X. One of those plug-ins, NTFS-3G, provides read-write access to NTFS volumes, including those used by Boot Camp. As both of the required components are free, many people have been using them to get easier access to their NTFS volumes. Although the MacFUSE+NTFS-3G combo works reasonably well if your needs are modest, it has been criticized for problems such as inadequate transfer speeds, a lack of documentation, and difficulty getting support.

But now, an interesting new option has emerged that promises to solve these problems and more. Install Paragon Software's NTFS for Mac OS X, and your Mac acquires the capability of writing to any NTFS volume, including your Boot Camp partition, at respectable speeds and with complete transparency. In fact - and I never thought I'd say this - it may be too transparent for its own good.

Out of Sight -- NTFS for Mac OS X 6.0 (the first release for the Mac, despite the version number) is a low-level driver that does its thing invisibly in the background. When it's installed, your NTFS partitions switch from read-only to read-write - and that's pretty much that. There's nothing to configure. It works silently, and in normal circumstances you'll never notice it at all - you'll just notice that you can write to your NTFS volumes.

Well, you may notice a couple of other things too. Under Leopard, Disk Utility gains the capability to repair NTFS volumes as well as format new or existing volumes as NTFS (NTFS-3G can also do the latter). Or, if you prefer, you can use supplied command-line utilities for these tasks (under Tiger, only the command-line utilities are available). In any case, this integration, too, is as seamless as can be.

One of the interesting implications of being able to write to an NTFS volume is that you can, if you want, back up your Boot Camp volume using the Mac backup program of your choice (rather than backing up within Windows). Strictly speaking, you could always do that, but now you can easily restore backed-up files, too, which obviously makes those backups a little more useful!

Just One Problem -- Ordinarily, I'd say that the more transparent a piece of software is, the better. After all, Apple ought to have built full NTFS support directly into Mac OS X, as they did for FAT32; one could argue that with NTFS for Mac OS X installed, your Mac behaves the way it should have all along. And yet, in the weeks that I've been using NTFS for Mac OS X, I've found myself strangely uneasy. When random problems have occurred, one of my first thoughts has been, "Could this new driver possibly be the culprit?" Sure, I have all sorts of other third-party software on my computer with no explicit user interface, but for some reason, I've found myself unusually bothered by the fact that NTFS for Mac OS X has no on/off switch, no convenient way to check the version number, and no auto-update mechanism to tell me if a new version is available. The only way to know if it is in fact causing a problem is to uninstall it and see if the problem goes away.

As it turns out, when I did exactly that on one occasion, I learned that NTFS for Mac OS X had indeed been causing one of my problems. Last week I downloaded the FileMaker Pro 9.0v3 update, and when I ran the updater, it scanned all my mounted volumes looking for previous copies of FileMaker Pro. When it got to my Boot Camp volume, the updater hung - for several hours, until I force-quit it. I tried again a few more times, and each time, it hung in the same place. I then uninstalled NTFS for Mac OS X and the problem went away - the updater zipped right through the entire scanning process. (Paragon says they're looking into this problem.) In the absence of any user interface, a user might easily forget or overlook the existence of NTFS for Mac OS X, and thus have a harder time tracking down conflicts like this. Something along those lines of a simple preference pane would make me a happier user of NTFS for Mac OS X, especially if it included a way of disabling its functionality without having to completely uninstall it and restart.

Other than that single (and not-terribly-serious) issue, I haven't encountered any problems with the software; everything else has, so far, worked as advertised. Which is simply to say: I can add, delete, and modify files on my Boot Camp volume while I'm in Mac OS X, and thereby avoid some complicated workarounds for moving between my Mac and Windows environments. I've found read and write speeds to be entirely adequate, and the company has been responsive to my support inquiries. NTFS for Mac OS X has an introductory price of $29.95 (regularly $39.95). It runs for a 10-day trial period without a license, and is a 2.3 MB download.


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