The novice's guide to excellent Mac backups

Time Machine App Icon

Do you have a backup of your Mac? No? Get one.

Wait, did I say one?

I meant three.

But one is a good place to start.

Everyone knows they are supposed to back up, but maybe you aren't sure what you should do or how you should do it. I'm here to help.

Step 1: The Bootable Backup (aka "clone")

What is it? A bootable backup is a second hard drive that you can use to boot your Mac when your primary hard drive dies.

Why do I want a bootable backup? Because when your primary hard drive dies, you can use it to boot up your computer and use it until you can replace your primary hard drive.

How do I make one? First: buy a second-hard drive which is at least the same size as your current, internal hard drive. Second: attach the hard drive and run software such as SuperDuper (free, or US$28 for additional features like scheduling) or Carbon Copy Cloner ($40). Third: Repeat step two periodically.

What are the problems with bootable backups? There are a few possible problems: If you don't update the "clone" often enough, you might lose new files that you have added to your computer. However, if you update the clone "too often" you might copy problems from your primary hard drive to your clone, or you might not realize that you accidentally deleted files from your primary hard drive and when you update the clone, those files will be deleted from your clone too. The biggest problem with bootable backups for people who use laptops is that you have to remember to connect the second hard drive to your computer and update the clone.

How do I use it if I need it? Or how do I verify that it is working? It is important to "verify" your clone occasionally (once a month would be a good idea). To do this, restart your Mac with the clone drive attached and hold down Option / Alt key on your Mac while it is starting up. You should see an option to choose your clone drive. Select it, and make sure that your computer starts up. Once it does, reboot it again the same way and choose your primary hard drive.

If you could only have one kind of backup, it should be a clone. But you should not, under any circumstances, only have one kind of backup. At the very least, you should have a clone and Time Machine.

Step 2: Time Machine

What is it? Time Machine is Apple's built-in backup solution. It is intended primary to help you retrieve a file (or folder) that you accidentally deleted, or revert to an earlier version of a file if you made changes to it that you no longer want.

Why do I want one? Time Machine is ideal for restoring a file or folder that you accidentally deleted, or if you made changes that you need to undo by going back to an earlier time.

How do I make a Time Machine backup? Buy a second-hard drive which is at least as large as your primary drive, and ideally twice the size. The larger the drive, the further back you will be able to go into the past. As soon as you plug it into your Mac, it will ask if you want to use it for Time Machine. Just say yes and it will go to work.

What are the problems with it? Time Machine requires that you have an external drive connected.[1] By default, Time Machine runs once per hour, and if you have made a lot of changes, it can take awhile to back up. Many people have noticed that Time Machine makes their computers slow down significantly when the backup is active (although this does seem to have gotten better in recent years). You can tell Time Machine to "skip" (or, more specifically, delay) a backup, but there are obvious risks to doing that too often. Also, it is important to note that Time Machine does not backup your entire drive, and you cannot boot from a Time Machine backup.

How do I use it? Once Time Machine has been running for awhile, go to an existing file and folder and launch Time to see previous versions of the file or folder.

Step 3: The Off-Site Backup

Two backups – a clone and Time Machine – is great, but you know what's better than two backups? I'll give you a hint: it's three.

What is it? An "off-site backup" is one that exists somewhere other than where your computer is.

Why do I want one? You want an off-site backup in case of theft or disaster (fire, flood, etc). If someone breaks into your apartment or house and takes your computer, they are very likely going to take any hard drives they see also. If your home burns down (or floods, or gets wiped out by a tornado or other natural disaster), your backup is going to be just as destroyed as your originals.

How do I make one? The easiest way is to sign up for an online backup service from a place like CrashPlan or Backblaze. For a fee, they will automatically backup your hard drive anytime it is connected to the Internet. I have used both of these services, and they are both excellent.

In my experience, CrashPlan was a bit cheaper, but Backblaze backs up not only your main hard drive but any other connected drives (other than Time Machine, etc. which would be a waste). CrashPlan is often criticized because it is a Java app instead of a native Mac app, and often seems to cause computers to slow down a great deal, although there are settings which can be adjusted to decrease the CPU usage when the computer is in active use.[2]

CrashPlan can also be used to backup to another computer (like to a friend or relative's computer in another state) at no charge. While setting that up is outside the scope of this article, it is an option for those who would like to avoid a recurring charge for this.

One of the other benefits of a paid CrashPlan or Backblaze account is that you can use an iPhone or iPad to get a copy of a file from your account even when you are not at home. Also, if you do lose your computer and backup, both companies will (for a fee) send you a hard drive with your entire backup on it, which can save a ton of time after a disaster.

What are the problems with an off-site backup? The biggest problem with an off-site backup is that "upload speeds" (that is, the speed at which your computer can send information to either CrashPlan or Backblaze) are usually pretty slow. A lot of that has to do with the generally terrible state of broadband Internet in the United States in general. It can take weeks (or longer) for your initial backup to be completed. However, once it is done, only changes have to be made, which are usually fairly small.

How do I use it? Both CrashPlan and Backblaze can be used simply by creating an account, downloading their app, installing it, and letting it run. Both offer a free trial period of at least a couple weeks (which is good since it will take quite awhile for your files to upload anyway). After that it's just a matter of leaving your computer turned on, even when you aren't using it, until the initial upload it completed.

Now you have a "3-legged" backup system

A clone/bootable backup plus Time Machine plus off-site backup gives you a very well-rounded backup system that should protect you well for the inevitable day when your hard drive dies. (Notice that I keep saying "when" your hard drive dies, not "if" because it's only a matter of time. Every hard drive dies eventually.)

Such a system will cover most of the eventualities, as long as you use them. Especially with MacBooks, it is difficult to remember to plug them in to update your clone and Time Machine. I recommend that when you get ready to go to bed, you simply get in the habit of plugging in your MacBook at night to update Time Machine and SuperDuper. It is also a good time to let your online backups update as well.

Dropbox - a 4th leg?

A three-legged table is far superior to a two- or one- legged table, but when it comes to backups, I recommend one more piece. The good news is that this is the easiest piece, and it is completely free: Dropbox.

If you have somehow managed to avoid hearing about Dropbox, here's what you need to know: it's a folder on your computer which syncs to "the cloud" (a/k/a "the Internet). The original idea behind Dropbox was sync, not backup, and you will still hear people who will say that "Dropbox is not a backup." To which I say: "Isn't it?"

Every time you save a file to your Dropbox (when you are online), Dropbox will upload that file to Dropbox's servers, and those changes will sync to any other computers which are currently on and linked to your Dropbox account. Now, people will often say that "sync is not a backup" but Dropbox isn't just sync. All Dropbox users can go to their accounts on to revert any change and un-delete files for up to 30 days, which sounds a lot like what Time Machine does. Now, Dropbox only gives you 2 GB for free (although it's easy to get up to 5 or 6 for free) so I wouldn't recommend using Dropbox instead of Time Machine, but there is one advantage that Dropbox has that Time Machine does not: Dropbox runs all the time.

If you are editing a new file at 12:05 p.m. and your hard drive explodes at 12:10 p.m., chances are very good that your Time Machine backup will not have it, because Time Machine only runs once an hour. Your clone almost certainly won't have it, because you probably only update that every day or so. Your off-site backup may have it, as long as your backup was up-to-date before you created that file. But if that file was saved in Dropbox (and you were online while editing the file), that file was almost certainly updated on Dropbox.

2 GB is not a lot of space. You aren't going to store your iTunes or iPhoto collection on there, but any time I am actively working on a file, I am saving it to Dropbox, because I know that if all else fails, I will still have that file on Dropbox.

If you don't like Dropbox, there are plenty of other choices out there: Google Drive, Box, Transporter, ownCloud, BitTorrent Sync and others. As long as the service syncs immediately (or reasonably soon – Transporter has been reported as being slow, I have not heard about the others) it can be an additional backup for you. It is not one that I would recommend instead of the three methods listed above, but it is one that I use in addition to them.

"Do I need a separate hard drive for my clone and Time Machine?"

Strictly speaking no, you don't, but with one important caveat.

Remember: all hard drives die, and that includes backup drives. When your Time Machine backup drive dies, you will lose all of your historical information and the ability to undo/undelete files. If you use one drive for both Time Machine and your clone and that drive has a hardware failure, you will have to recreate both your clone and your Time Machine backup.

So ideally you should have two separate drives. However, if you understand the trade-offs, it can be more convenient to only have to deal with one drive which can serve both purposes.

For example, let's say that you have a 500 GB drive in your MacBook. You could buy a 2 TB external drive and use Disk Utility to "partition" the drive into one 500 GB partition to be used for cloning, and one 1.5 TB drive used for Time Machine. The primary benefit here is convenience, especially when traveling, but also just for every-day usage. A "bus-powered" drive only needs to be plugged in to a USB port on your Mac, meaning that it does not need to be plugged in to A/C power and does not have another cord to go with it. These drives are also small enough to fit easily inside a laptop bag so you can take it with you wherever you go. SuperDuper can easily be configured to launch whenever the drive is attached, and Time Machine will start as soon as its drive is recognized. Therefore with one drive you can plug it in at the end of the day, check to make sure that the clone process starts, and then go to bed while you computer backs itself up. SuperDuper can also be configured to run every day, or every "X" days, at a certain time. I have it set to run at midnight, and when I see the app launch it is a good reminder for me to go to bed!

"TL;DR... just tell me what to do without all of the blah blah"

  1. Download SuperDuper, install it on your Mac, and register it for $28 to unlock all of its features.

  2. Get a hard drive (or two):

    • If you are going to use one drive for both SuperDuper and Time Machine, get one which is 3x or 4x the size of your hard drive (i.e. if your drive is 1 TB then you want a 3TB or 4TB drive). When it comes, partition it using Disk Utility to have two partitions: one the same size as your hard drive (for SuperDuper), and another the other for TimeMachine

    • If you are going to use two drives, buy one the same size as your hard drive, and another one which is at least 2x the size.

  3. Start a trial account with either CrashPlan or Backblaze and begin your initial upload.

  4. Create a Dropbox (or other) online account to use with your "currently active" files.

  5. Set a calendar reminder for at least weekly to remind you to connect the drive to your Mac.

  1. Actually, if Time Machine is enabled, it will continue to make backups even when your external drive is not connected, and when you reconnect it with your Time Machine drive, it will sync the changes over. This is called "local Time Machine backups." That is a great feature, but when your hard drive dies, any changes since the last time you actually connected to your Time Machine drive will be lost.

  2. CrashPlan's developers have said that a native Mac app is being developed, but it was originally supposed to be out in 2013, and we're mid-way through 2014 and it still has not seen the light of day, so I suggest not holding your breath. It might be tomorrow, it might be next year.