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For many Mac owners, the built-in Disk Utility is all they’ll ever need. After all, Apple’s software handles the basic task of formatting HFS+, FAT32, and exFAT volumes and partitions, along with the occasional need for one-click verification and repair of native OS X disks. (And with macOS Sierra, the RAID tools make a return.)
However, there are plenty of valid reasons for wanting to do more with your drives, and not all are exclusive to technically inclined users. A few examples would be optimizing OS X, Windows, and Linux file systems, performing a secure wipe, or backing up data in a more effective manner than Time Machine.
If there’s anyone who knows what makes these file systems tick, it’s Paragon Software. Founded over two decades ago, the company makes it easy to format, read, and write NTFS or ExtFS volumes on a Mac with the simplicity and performance of native media. Now they’ve gone one step beyond those drivers with an all-in-one storage utility that makes Apple’s Disk Utility look positively feeble by comparison.
At your service
Making its debut on the Mac after years of services as a suite of Windows tools, Paragon Hard Disk Manager is an impressively solid OS X debut for a first version. Functionality is divided across two tabs: Disks and Partitions, where the majority of storage management tools reside, or Backup and Restore, used to create snapshot-based archives.
Hard Disk Manager is compatible with OS X Mavericks 10.9 and later, including support for the latest macOS Sierra courtesy of a free update. At first launch, HDM installs a few required under-the-hood “auxiliary components,” then displays a warning if System Integrity Protection (SIP) is enabled.
Introduced with OS X El Capitan 10.11, SIP prevents Mac software from gaining root privileges—great for combating potential malware, but a hindrance in the case of a utility like HDM. Senior contributor Glenn Fleishman explained how to manually disable SIP in a post last year, but HDM provides a one-click, Terminal-free method using bootable media that doubles as an OS X Recovery disk.
(A word of caution: SIP should only be disabled by advanced users who know what they’re doing and understand the risks associated with modifying system-level files. It’s not necessary or recommended for average Mac users.)
As a safeguard, HDM doesn’t immediately run most tasks, instead queuing them up awaiting further confirmation from the Apply Operations button before proceeding; there’s also an option to undo tasks from the queue. It’s great for preventing potential mistakes, but the extra clicks do tend to slow things down a bit.
Disks and partitions
Like Disk Utility, Hard Disk Manager’s Disks and Partitions tab displays a list of all mounted volumes. But unlike Apple’s dumbed-down approach, HDM provides more detailed disk maps, which represent partitions and logical disks as color-coded bars based on the file system in use: Purple for HFS+, light/dark blue for FAT16/32, aqua blue for NTFS, teal for exFAT, green for ExtFS, or orange for free space.
Needless to say, this approach is vastly superior to Disk Utility, which displays information by content type, like an iOS device. There are two ways to use the utility—you can wipe or copy an entire disk and edit sectors by clicking the gear in the upper right corner, or act upon individual partitions from their respective settings below.
Hard Disk Manager also displays partition information as a list at the bottom of the window, with available options only a contextual menu away. Oddly, this method doesn’t work from the graphical drive map, one of my few quibbles with an otherwise excellent utility.
Although HDM can format, partition, and otherwise work with non-native NTFS or ExFS volumes, you’ll still need Paragon’s replacement drivers installed to access files. Also, despite the name, HDM works equally well with solid-state storage (SSD), USB flash drives, and Apple’s hybrid Fusion Drives as it does with traditional platter-based disks.
Backup and restore
One of Paragon’s pride and joys is its Snapshot technology, which allows users to create an exact sector-level copy of the operating system and all user data. Compared to Time Machine and other Mac-native backup solutions, Snapshot offers improved performance, with system recovery times in minutes rather than hours.
The Backup and Restore options are laid out in a straightforward manner, and the Create New Archive wizard detects mounted OS X or Windows operating systems automatically, or you can manually select one or more partitions from the disk map. There’s currently no way to schedule backups as part of a regular routine, but Paragon plans to introduce this functionality in a future update.
HDM saves archives as Paragon Virtual Hard Drive (PVHD) images by default, which supports incremental imaging. This approach minimizes the time and storage space required for subsequent backups of the same volume(s). The installation also includes a VMDK mounter utility for those who prefer this format.
Paragon maintains a nice balance between ease of use and more advanced features, although novices will want to spend a little time getting accustomed to the unique UI before they start tinkering with existing volumes.
If you’re longing for the more robust features of earlier Disk Utility versions or want complete command over connected storage devices, Paragon Hard Disk Manager is the way to go.
Editor’s note: Updated 8/29/16 to add a disclaimer about SIP.