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Back up your Mac: the complete guide

You never forget the first time your hard drive dies and you realise that you haven’t backed up. The horrible, stomach-turning moment when you know you’ve just lost a whole bunch of stuff that’s irreplaceable. Photos. Music. Videos that you took at family events. All gone.

You’ll probably spend the next few hours sweating, downloading disk utilities and searching for boot disks to try and fix things. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and be able to kick your drive back into life. Or perhaps everything will be gone, completely, for good. And it could all have been avoided.

You could have been sitting back relaxing, sure in the knowledge that everything was safely backed up – on another disk, or online. You could simply have reformatted your drive, restored everything from your backup, and picked up where you’d left off.

Then you would have grabbed a cup of tea, put your feet up on the desk, and felt mildly inconvenienced – rather than manically swearing at your Mac.

Let’s face it – backup sounds particularly dull. But without it, that scenario of losing everything is a distinct possibility. In this feature we’re going to look at different ways to ensure you’re well backed up, without having to devote hours of time and effort to getting it sorted.

We’re going to take you beyond the basics, and ensure that no matter what happens to your Mac, you’re covered – and won’t be left losing files that you can never get back.

Why you need to back up

Time machine

Most of us use hard drives every day, without realising what an amazing piece of engineering they are. Inside every hard drive are a number of extremely thin circular platters, made from glass or ceramic material, spinning at 7200rpm or more.

Leave your hard drive on all day, every day, and each platter will spin 3,784 million times in a year. Floating just nanometers away from these platters is the read/write head, the part of the drive that (as the name suggests) reads and writes data to the drive.

As the head passes over the drive, it magnetises the surface of the platters in a series of zeros and ones. And the drive has to carry on working like this even when knocked, without crashing the head into the platter, which could easily kill the drive.

Given this, it’s perhaps no surprise that hard drives fail. Generally, though, catastrophic failure is relatively rare.

According to a study released by Google, based on the millions of drives it uses, there’s approximately a one-in-three chance that a drive will fail in five years of use. Figures like that sound reassuring to us – after all, one in three over five years doesn’t sound too bad. But figures like this can also give some false reassurance.

In Google’s study, nearly 3% of drives failed in less than three months. And if your drive is one of that 3%, without a backup you will have lost your precious data.

You might imagine that the answer to this is simple: solid-state disks (SSDs), as found in the current crop of MacBook Airs. These ‘disks’ aren’t disks at all, instead using memory chips to store your files. They have no moving parts: no platters to spin out of control or heads to scratch the disks, which suggests that they should be more reliable.

Yet according to a survey of hard drive failure rates by French tech site, SSDs were no less prone to failure – particularly in the first few months – than spinning disks.

Some people are occasionally worried about the lifetime of SSDs, because of a quirk in the way they’re rated. SSDs are rated in terms of write cycles, and a typical SSD might be rated at 100,000 cycles. Given that hard drives write thousands of times a day, this doesn’t sound much – but in fact it’s not quite that simple.

Through a process called ‘wear levelling’, the drive tries to ensure that no single storage element gets written to too often, making the entire drive more reliable. So there is no such thing as a drive that will last forever; this means that backup should be top of your agenda.

There are several kinds of backup, and which one (or more) will be right for you depends on your needs. The most complete kind of backup is also probably the most simple: a complete, working clone of your entire hard drive. This would include all of your documents, applications, and even the OS X system. The huge advantage of cloning your disk like this is you’ll lose absolutely nothing.

incremental backups

Of course, the disadvantage is that it’s time consuming, both to back up the whole thing and to restore it. The backup can be done incrementally, which means whatever backup application you’re using only backs up files that have changed, but even this can be frustratingly slow under some circumstances.

The question to ask yourself is simply this: if your Mac was lost, stolen or fell into a pit tomorrow, what would you be unable to replace?

Whatever the answer is, that’s precisely the stuff it’s most important to back up. Everything else falls under the ‘nice to have’ category. So for data that’s really, truly irreplaceable, you need to ensure that it’s backed up away from your home or office too – and that this backup copy isn’t too far out of date.

This is where online backup and other alternatives that move a copy of your data out of your home or office come in – and we’ll cover how to include online backup later in this feature. Importantly, you need to know where the ‘irreplaceable’ stuff lives, because not everything lives in your Documents folder, or even in your Home folder…

The next thing to consider is what the potential disasters are. For example, it’s no good having a complete, up-to-date backup of your Mac if it only exists on a drive sat next to your iMac and your house burns down. All you’ll have is two melted, unusable copies of your data instead of one.

If you’re serious about not losing important files, then you’ll need to not only back up to something close at hand (for your convenience), but also to save to something away from your home or office, to ensure that your files would survive even something like a house fire or flood.

How to back up with Time Machine

Time machine

Time Machine is the default option for backup on every Mac running OS X since the introduction of Leopard (OS X 10.5) in 2007. Therefore, this means most Macs are probably running it.

Although Time Machine wasn’t the first backup software from Apple, it’s probably safe to say it’s the first serious application of its kind the company has produced. As you would expect, Time Machine is integrated into the OS itself, and is designed to be very easy to use.

Plug in a Mac-formatted external drive, and OS X will ask you if you want to set it up to be used with Time Machine. Using a drive with it doesn’t mean you can’t use that drive with anything else – you can still use the drive to store files using the Finder. Within a few clicks, you can be backing up your files, and every time you connect that drive Time Machine will, after a few seconds, start backing up anything that’s changed or new.

Once set up, Time Machine is designed to need as little intervention from you as possible, and to be almost invisible until the point when you need to restore a file.

Time Machine doesn’t simply ‘clone’ everything that’s on your hard drive. Instead, it creates incremental backups, and using a clever piece of interface design allows you to step ‘back in time’ to find a deleted file.

It’s not an archive programme, though: it’s designed to capture the most recent state of data on your disk, as well as files you’ve deleted, rather than archiving multiple versions of the same file in a reliable way. In this sense, Time Machine differs from the auto-save and versioning feature in OS X 10.7 Lion.

Great timing

Time machine incremental

By default, Time Machine will save backups hourly. However, as you would imagine, if it saved an hourly snapshot of every file then your backup drive would get filled up very quickly.

So instead, it saves the hourly backups for the past 24 hours; then consolidated daily backups for the last month; and a weekly backup for everything older, until your drive runs out of space. At that point, it will delete the oldest weekly backup.

How big a drive you need to use with Time Machine will, of course, depend on how big your hard drive is and how many old backups you want to store. Something double the size of your internal drive will allow you to have plenty of room for backups, but you can use Time Machine with something the same size too, if you don’t want to store many old files.

If you have a smaller drive you want to use, you can set Time Machine to exclude files or folders on your drive. For example, you might decide that you can live without having a backup of your applications folder, and – using the option in Time Machine’s preferences – exclude it. Once excluded, anything in that folder will no longer be backed up.

Total failure scenarios

Remember though, that what Time Machine won’t do is create a bootable version of your hard drive, which means that in the event of having a complete hard-drive failure you’ll need to wipe and reinstall OS X from an installation disc and then restore from your Time Machine backup.

Time Machine backups don’t have to be made to a drive connected directly to your Mac. Instead, you can use any network-attached storage drive formatted as ‘journaled HFS+’ that you’re connected to over a network, including (of course) Apple’s own dedicated Time Capsule device. This includes USB drives attached to Airport Express Base Stations, although this isn’t supported by Apple.

And Time Machine doesn’t enable you to back up over the internet – only your local network is supported.

Recovering a backup from Time Machine is simple. Select ‘Enter Time Machine’ (either from the Dock or the icon in your menu bar) and Time Machine appears to float the active Finder window above an astronomical background. Behind the current window is a ‘stack’ of older versions, and you simply scroll back through this stack to find whatever deleted file you wish to retrieve.

In addition, some OS X applications can work directly with Time Machine to recover information. For example, if you select ‘Enter Time Machine’ while using Apple Mail, you can step back through deleted emails, in the same way as you can with items in the Finder. Other apps that support this include Address Book, iPhoto (’08 and later) and GarageBand (’08 and later).

If you’re restoring a whole drive, you need to use an installation disc. When reinstalling OS X on a hard drive, the installation process gives you the option to restore the whole drive using Time Machine. Select this option, connect the drive with your Time Machine backup on it (or select a Time Capsule volume) and let the software do the rest.

How to set up Time Machine

01. Straight to Preferences

step 1

The first thing you’ll need to do when setting up your Mac’s Time Machine is open up its preferences from your menu bar. It will also offer to do this for you when you connect a new Mac-formatted drive.

02. Select your drive

step 2

The next step is to select the drive you want to use with Time Machine. This can be a local drive, or any correctly formatted shared drive on your network – it’s entirely up to you.

03. Choose what you back up

step 3

Finally, if there are any folders that you don’t want to back up, for any reason, then click on the options button to select them. In this case, we have opted not to back up our Dropbox folder.

Going beyond Time Machine

Don’t fancy Time Machine? Other backup options are out there

Carbon copy cloner

There’s no doubt that Time Machine is an incredibly simple and efficient way of backing up your Mac. But it isn’t the only backup solution available, and it does have its limitations – and these limitations mean that it’s not suitable for everyone.

The first big limitation is that it doesn’t create a fully bootable duplicate of your drive. Why is this an issue? Because it means you have to restore everything before you can get back to work. You can’t just connect a drive, reboot, and have everything up and running in minutes.

The second issue with Time Machine is that the level of control you have over what’s backed up isn’t that high. You can exclude folders, but that’s as far as it goes. You can’t, for example, exclude all video files no matter where they are on your drive, or anything over a certain age.

You’re limited, too, to one backup destination, so you can’t have multiple backups on different drives, and the schedule is fixed. Without using third-party software or hacking Time Machine via the Terminal, you get hourly backups – and you can’t trigger a backup on demand.

And perhaps one of the most glaring issues with Time Machine is its lack of security, and in particular support for encrypted backups. Anyone who has access to your Time Machine backup effectively has access to everything on your hard drive – without password protection. Although individual files you’ve encrypted will be protected (just as they would be on your Mac’s internal drive), if someone walks away with your Time Machine backup, they’ve got all your data.

Ironically, Time Machine also doesn’t play that nicely with Apple’s FileVault encryption system. FileVault-encrypted drives are only backed up by Time Machine when you log out, and you can’t step through and restore individual files as you can with a regular volume. Instead, all that you can do is restore the backup in its entirety using the OS X Installer disk.

Carbon Copy Cloner

Carbon copy cloner 2

Although it doesn’t solve the third of these issues, Carbon Copy Cloner is a simple backup solution that can help with the first two, and can form a second layer of defence against losing your data.

Carbon Copy Cloner, as the name suggests, creates a clone of your entire hard drive, and it’s bootable. If your Mac’s drive fails, you can simply boot from the cloned drive and you’re back working immediately. It can even be used to create replacement drives, which can be physically swapped in to your Mac.

One key advantage of Carbon Copy Cloner is that the drive it creates uses an ordinary file system: there’s no undocumented archive formats involved. You can browse the cloned drive just like any normal volume in the Finder, so if you’re looking for a specific file it should be easy to find.

And it will happily use any drive attached to another Mac on your network. The one exception is a drive that’s already used for Time Machine backups – those can’t also be home to a ‘clone’ drive.

Carbon Copy Cloner includes a handy automatic scheduling system, so you can schedule it to backup on an hourly basis if you wish. Like Time Machine, it can also be set up to back up whenever you connect a specific drive.

You might think that a full bootable backup would be slow, but thankfully Carbon Copy Cloner uses incremental backups to make things a lot faster. Once it has completed its first ‘clone’, it copies only those files that have been changed, which means backups are fast.

If you’re working when a backup is due to take place, you can defer it to a later time, so the backup process doesn’t affect the performance of your Mac.

A couple of CCC catches

Carbon copy cloner 3

Carbon Copy Cloner does have a couple of small limitations, though. The first is it only supports HFS+ volumes. This means that if you have a partition on your Mac devoted to Boot Camp running Windows, the software won’t back it up – only your Mac volume is cloned.

The second limitation is to do with files that are open when you back up your computer. In most cases, Carbon Copy Cloner will work perfectly well if you have a file open when it’s being backed up. However, if the file is very large then there’s a small chance you will modify the file at exactly the same time CCC is copying it. In this case, the backed up version – but not the source file – might corrupt.

However, this is only a very small possibility, unless you regularly use files that are gigabytes in size.

How to restore from Carbon Copy Cloner

01. Choose your source disk

step 1

Carbon Copy Cloner has an extremely straightforward interface. To start with, select your source disk (you will usually find this on your internal drive) on the left, and destination on the right.

02. Select your files

step 2

Next, choose what files and folders you would like to back up and save. You’ll notice that the usual default option will be to clone everything, thus creating a bootable drive.

03. Set a schedule

step 3

To finish things off, click on Save task to create a schedule that will clone any changes to your drive at a regular time of day – in this case, we’ve opted for after midnight but you can choose your own.

Online Mac backup options

Recovering your data if your Mac and its backup drive are lost

Grab 1

So you’ve backed up with Time Machine and Carbon Copy Cloner. That’s more than enough, right? Not quite. You still don’t have total protection. Your data is always going to be vulnerable as long as both your Mac and your backup exist in a single physical location.

A fire, for example, would be just as likely to destroy both backup and Mac as it would be just your computer. And there are plenty of slightly less disastrous scenarios you could easily imagine that might result in you losing both backup and computer – from an electrical surge that destroys both, through to a child accidentally wiping everything.

Thanks to fast, always-on connectivity though, there is a simple solution: back up your machine over the internet to a server away from your house or office. There are many services that do this automatically and at low cost.

There are two kinds of online service that let you store files safely and securely online. The first kind consists of proper apps designed to back up your files in the same way that Time Machine does. These online backup services, such as Crashplan, BackBlaze or Carbonite run periodically and send a copy of changed files to a server online, usually compressed to save bandwidth and encrypted so they are secure. If you need to restore either a single file or your entire backup, you run the software and it does it all for you.


The second approach is to use a service such as SugarSync or Dropbox, which are designed to synchronise some or all of the files on your drive across different machines. These services aren’t designed to store system files or applications, but they do effectively back up the most irreplaceable data you have: your documents.

Although Dropbox only works with a dedicated single folder, SugarSync can be set up to synchronise any set of folders on your hard drive, which means you don’t have to change the places you store your data.

Sync services like these are convenient, especially if you have multiple Macs, but they do have some inherent drawbacks. Because they are constantly syncing files as soon as they are changed, they can use up more bandwidth than dedicated backup services, which might only look for changes once a day. And they tend to perform poorly with large single files, such as an Aperture library, where the file is often changed quicker than it can be backed up.

However, all online services have a few disadvantages. First, and probably the most annoying, is that no matter how fast your computer and connection are, the initial backup will take a very long time. If you’re backing up an entire hard drive with a few hundred gigabytes of data, that first backup might take a couple of days or longer to complete. Your machine will need to be online all that time, and if you have any kind of cap on the amount of data you can use, you’re probably going to bust right through it.

The speed issue doesn’t just affect backing up, of course – if your Mac goes down, then you’ll need to wait for your data to be restored too. Because most internet connections are asynchronous – faster pulling data down from the net than sending it – it will be a lot quicker than your initial backup, but might still take a day or longer to complete.

But, of course, you can be absolutely sure that you will have a copy of your data to restore, which isn’t the case if you only have a local backup. And some services will make a copy of your backup and ship it to you on a hard drive or DVD.

One other interesting option is to use a service that integrates with Time Machine to provide an online version of your regular backup. Dolly Drive integrates with Time Machine to allow you to back up to the internet rather than a local hard drive, and, through its own application, create a fully bootable clone of your drive at the same time.

While this fixes two of the limitations of Time Machine, it’s not cheap compared to other online backup services: while Dolly Drive will cost $20 per month for a 500GB drive, Crashplan would do the same job for $5 per month.

web based backup

What’s more, most online backup services also allow you to access your files using a web-based interface – something that Dolly Drive can’t, at present, do.

How to set up Crashplan

01. Install the app

step 1

Go to Once you’ve installed Crashplan, you will need to register for your own Crashplan account. This lets you backup online, once you’ve paid for a subscription.

02. Choose your files

step 2

The next step is to decide what files and folders you want to back up. Although you could back up your entire drive, if you wanted, it’s quicker to select a subset, such as your Home folder.

03. Get backing up

step 3

All you need to do now is simply hit the Start button, and Crashplan will begin backing up online and to any other destinations you have chosen. You can now relax and consider yourself fully backed up.

Back up your backup!

Time capsule

The longer you use your Mac, the more files you’ll have that are completely irreplaceable, and, therefore, it will be even more important to back up your hard drive regularly. Even if so far you’ve been lucky, there’s no guarantee that at some point in the future – maybe even today – you’ll have some kind of drive problem which means you lose some of those all-important files.

As we’ve seen, although Time Machine offers some of the solution to this problem, it’s not the perfect backup software and should only really form the first layer of protection for your Mac. It’s great when all you want to do is retrieve the occasional lost file, or restore a backup from scratch using the installer disk. But it doesn’t do everything.

Software that creates a bootable clone, such as Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper!, offers a second layer of protection and speeds up the process of getting your Mac up and running by letting you boot from your backup. But neither of these will prevent you losing everything should something catastrophic happen to both Mac and backup drive.

So, the final layer of protection is some form of online backup, either using backup or sync software, which ensures your files will survive pretty much anything. And while the backup system that would protect you from this hasn’t been invented yet, it will be worth looking into when it is.

Here’s some more articles you might like:

Back up your Mac: the complete guide


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