How to back up your Mac – Time Machine

April 2, 2008

Easy and Secure Mac Backups

Time Machine

As I mentioned previously, Time Machine isn’t enough — you need a good clone backup first. But once you have that, Time Machine provides a safety net, as well as giving you the ability to go back and recover older versions of your files.

Materials Needed

Proper Hard Drive

As before, you want the hard drive with the fastest connection that will work on your Mac — Firewire is better than USB, Firewire 800 is better than Firewire 400. Unlike for your clone drive, however, this time buy the largest drive you can reasonably afford (hey, those 1TB drives are cheaper all the time). The reason why is that the larger the drive, the more old versions of your files Time Machine can keep around — if you have a lot of room, you can realistically look at going back and recovering files from months earlier.

Last but not least, check reviews or (if you’re buying in a store) try to listen to the drive — you really do want one that’s quiet, both while it’s just sitting there (fan noise) and while it’s updating (drive noise). Time Machine runs every hour, and there’s nothing worse than having a whisper-quiet Mac with something that sounds like a jet engine sitting next to it.

Time Capsule

Alternatively, there’s nothing at all wrong with Time Capsule, particularly if you don’t already have an 802.11n wi-fi router like a newer Airport Extreme. The price on Time Capsule runs about the same as the price for a similar sized hard drive and an Airport Extreme, but it’s all in one nice neat little package, with Applecare available.

The downside is that it’s slower than backing up to a local drive — a whole lot slower if you’re backing up wirelessly instead of over Ethernet (think potentially days, for the initial backup), but since you can use your machine while it’s happening, this isn’t that big a deal.

The upside is that it can be pretty easily located far enough away that you don’t hear it, and it may be far enough away to avoid localized disasters (spills, shelf collapses) that might affect both your computer and a local backup. Another positive factor is that multiple machines can back up to the network connected drive (at the same time, even).

Again, if you’re going to buy one, spring for the big one.

Time Machine

You are running Leopard , aren’t you? If not, it’s time to upgrade.


Again, there’s not much to set up. Once you install your hard drive (or Time Capsule), Time Machine will usually immediately ask you if you want to use the new drive for Time Machine. If it doesn’t, simply open Time Machine’s preferences, and select your drive.

One important tweak you’ll want to make while you’re still in Time Machine preferences is to click on Options and tell it not to back up your clone backup drive. Not that you could open a wormhole and destroy the time-space continuum or anything, just that there’s no reason to waste the space.

I usually go a little farther and tell it to ignore some of the more ephemeral stuff on my system — in my case, that’s things like my Movies folder, Downloads, etc. I’ve also had several application folders that Time Machine seemed to hiccup on (I’m looking at you, Adobe), and I’ve excluded them rather than hassle with it (after all, they’re on my clone backup).

At the more extreme end, you could make Time Machine backups much speedier and increase the storage of files that are most important to you by limiting Time Machine to just your most important files — perhaps your Documents folder, your Desktop, etc. After all, most of the rest can be recovered from your clone backup, or in the case of a bigger disaster, re-installed from CD/DVD, etc.

It’s up to you.

Are we done yet?

We’re getting there. The “lifeboat drill” idea of what documents are most important to you leads us into the last part of a good backup scheme, the remote backup. If you came into this in the middle, you may want to go back and read How to backup your Mac – Easily and Securely (Introduction) and How to back up your Mac – Clone Backup.

Still to come: How to back up your Mac – Remote Backup.

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2 Responses to “How to back up your Mac – Time Machine”

  1. Michael Tribone on May 2nd, 2008 8:57 am

    Could I just as easily add 2 additional drives to my tower instead of adding external drives? Is there a benefit in cost or performance either way? I’ve also been looking at Jungle Disk as a remote option, but not only do you pay per GB you also pay for upload/download transmission rates.

  2. Chuck Lawson on May 2nd, 2008 9:10 am

    Hi Michael!

    You could absolutely use additional drives in your tower (most of us Mac folk don’t have that option 🙂 ) — it might increase the odds slightly that something bad could happen to both the computer and drives (power supply failing catastrophically, perhaps?), but on the other hand, it should be way faster than an external USB or Firewire drive, and bare drives are cheaper to buy than external drives in an enclosure.

    I ran the numbers on Jungle Disk awhile back, and at my current rate of usage, it looks like it’d be a wash price-wise between it and Mozy — Amazon charges ala carte, but it’s cheap.

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