The ultimate guide to backing up your Mac

Backup basics

When we’ve spent hours, days, months working on our Macs the last thing we want to do is redo it all because it’s been lost.

Neither do we want to put our photos at risk, see our music go up in digital smoke or trash the first draft of a book by accident.

Backup basics

When we’ve spent hours, days, months working on our Macs the last thing we want to do is redo it all because it’s been lost.

Neither do we want to put our photos at risk, see our music go up in digital smoke or trash the first draft of a book by accident.

Fortunately, none of these unfortunate scenarios need to happen if you take daily care of your data. Implementing a structured, mutliple-location backup system isn’t difficult. And a few hours spent setting it up can save you days or months in the long run, when you neatly sidestep having to recover – or recreate – your lost work. Quite apart from the practical benefits of a back-up routine, putting one in place now will save you the heartache of losing your digital memories later.

In this ultimate guide to backing up your Mac, we’ll show you just how easy backing up can be with a series of steps for home and business users.

Backup basics

The first rule of building a back-up routine is to make sure your original data and backups are not stored in the same place. Picture a scenario in which your house is flooded. How would you recover your photos if your Lightroom library and your backup were both on the same drive? You couldn’t.

Even the simplest setup needs to ensure two sets of data are kept far apart – at least in different parts of your house, but if you can, preferably in different buildings. You should also make a point of building back-up points into your weekly routine. Ideally you should back up every day, but this isn’t always practical and it’s easy to forget.

Add an event to the OS X Calendar or Reminders apps to pop up an alert at least once a week, prompting you to back things up manually. You don’t need any specific software to create a backup. You can simply connect an external drive or use the SD slot in the iMac or MacBook Pro to attach a removable storage device and drag across the folders you want to secure, using Finder.

Make sure the pointer icon bears a ‘+’ in a green arrow before dropping the copied files onto the destination media to ensure they are duplicated rather than moved. (If this doesn’t appear, hold the Options key while dragging.)

If you have space, copy across your whole User folder. But if not then at least copy your Documents, Desktop and media folders. It’s good practice to have more than one destination media and to rotate between them. So, if you can afford two or three inexpensive external drives label them so you can tell them apart and use them in sequence so you aren’t ever wiping out your only backup each week when you create a new one.

You will also have incremental backups, by working this way, allowing you to reinstate files from different points in time.

How to do a basic backup in Time Machine

1. Sort out your storage

Connect a large external drive to your Mac (the larger the better; buy the highest capacity you can afford). If it’s not formatted for the Mac, open Disk Utility, select the drive in the sidebar, click the Erase tab, select Mac OS Extended ‘(Case Sensitive, Journaled)’, then click the Erase button.

2. Decide on directories

Open System Preferences, click Time Machine, then click Options… Click the ‘+’ button adding your internal storage. You can include virtualised operating systems here, which create large files that change frequently. Use the VM’s snapshots tool to back these up.

3. Safety vs Battery life

If you’re using a notebook, decide whether you want to back up on battery or just when using mains power, bearing in mind that you need to balance file security with battery performance. Click Save to store your settings and step back to the main Time Machine preference pane.

Home backup

The built-in back-up tools in OS X – Versions and Time Machine – absolve you of all responsibility for securing your files, because once they’ve been set up they’ll keep running in the background whenever your Mac is on.

Versions saves incremental snapshots of any file you’re working on in a Versions-savvy application. Most better-supported productivity applications on the App Store do this, and you’ll know if yours does by looking for Revert to… on the File menu.

The fly-out linked from this entry shows a series of automatically generated versions for the document you’re working on.

Rolling back

If you take your edits one step too far, you can roll them back to a previous state by selecting the last-known good position from the menu or picking Browse All Versions… that lines up the current state alongside a series of previous editions, allowing you to roll back and revert as necessary.

However, even though Versions is useful, it still isn’t an adequate replacement for a dedicated back-up routine, as each version is saved on your Mac, along with the master, so a hardware problem could wipe you out entirely.

Time Machine, on the other hand, creates external backups of your data on an attached drive or a Network Attached Storage (NAS) drive, keeping the failsafes outside of the drive on which the masters were created. It requires a Mac- (not Windows-) formatted drive.

Connect the drive to your machine, use Disk Utility to format it as Mac OS Extended (Journaled), if it isn’t already, then open System Preferences. Here, click Time Machine, click the switch to enable it and select your drive as the backup destination. If you want to work with a network drive (NAS), check the packaging for compatibility as manufacturers routinely use this as a selling point.

Time Machine will now run permanently in the background, initially copying your system drive in its entirety and then creating hourly backups of any file that has changed in the previous 60 minutes.

App backup

Time Machine also works natively with many OS X applications, such as iPhoto/Photos for OS X and Contacts, allowing you to reinstate individual records within their libraries without rolling back the whole database. Just make sure the application is running and has focus before stepping into the Time Machine archive.

How to duplicate a drive using Carbon Copy Cloner

1. Select your backups

Download Carbon Copy Cloner, unpack and launch it, then work your way from left to right across the opening screen. Start by clicking the Source box and select the drive (or folder) you want to copy.

Ideally this would be your internal hard drive (ours is Macintosh HD).

2. Set the destination

Click the Destination box and pick the backup destination. This should be an external drive attached to your Mac that you can move offsite when complete.

But you can use another folder or, if you select New Disk Image, a NAS drive attached to your network.

3. Get automated

Click in the Schedule box and decide when you want to run the backup. Scheduling makes it easier to remember, but if you’re happy to take responsibility for this yourself, leave it set to ‘Do not run this task on a schedule’ and simply click Clone to perform the backup.

Advanced home backup

Time Machine is simple and effective to use, but if you have more than one Mac, you’ll want to keep them all secure.

However, buying an external drive to host each Time Machine archive can quickly get expensive. The solution is to use OS X Server’s built-in Time Machine Server to share a single drive across your whole network. Granted, you’ll need to devote at least one Mac to run the server application, but as this is a background process that takes up few resources, you can simply pick the most powerful Mac in your home to act as the server and make sure it’s left switched on 24/7.

OS X Server costs £14.99 ($19.99, AU$30.99) from the Mac App Store and requires that the host machine is running the latest version of OS X. Once installed, it will make your Mac visible on your local network. It’s up to you how many of the Server services it opens up to other users, but you can also use it as a Software Update repository that downloads updates once and makes them available across the local network, a shared calendar service, messaging server and so on.

Once the Time Machine server is running you need to tell your local Macs to use it as the back-up destination. Open the Time Machine pane in System Preferences, click the switch to turn it on and select the server machine from the list of destinations in the roll-down window.

Click Use Disk to confirm and Time Machine will set about creating your first backup. Subsequent backups will then happen automatically.

How to use Time Machine in OS X Server

1. Set up your drive

Connect an external drive to your server, open the Server app and click Time Machine in the sidebar. Click ON at the top of the interface, then on the following screen click Choose… and select the drive to store the incoming backups.

2. Limit your liability

Optionally limit the amount of space each user’s backups can occupy on the server. If they exceed it, their oldest archives will be deleted to make space. (OS X versions older than Mavericks will ignore this restriction). Click Create to store your settings.

3. Restrict your users

By default, anyone on your network can back up to the server. To restrict access, click Edit… on the Permissions line, select ‘only some users’ on the ‘Allow connections from’ menu, then click ‘+’ and enter the names of the authorised accounts.

4. Start your backup

The Server side of the job is complete. Switch to the first of the local Macs you want to back up, open the Time Machine pane in System Preferences, click ‘Select Backup Disk…’ and wait for the list to populate. Pick the relevant drive, then click ‘Use Disk’.

Business backup

Backup is particularly important in the workplace, since the implications of losing your data are legal, as well as financial.

In many cases, this data – such as customer lists and any digital products you sell – will have accumulated over the years. Recreating those products can be time consuming, and rebuilding the contacts may be impossible. And so a weak back-up regime might cost you money.

However, the legal ramifications are more serious and come into play on a monthly basis as you use locally hosted accounts data to file RTI payroll returns to HMRC, and annually when you compile your end-of-year accounts. Lose the records that underpin either of these and you face a fine or prosecution.

That’s why business users need to step up to the next level, and why cutting corners by sticking with local backups or no backups is a false economy.

By outsourcing your back-up process to a remote service, such as CrashPlan, you’ll have peace of mind knowing your data is being passively and securely (it’s encrypted) moved off your premises the whole time your Mac is turned on.

It’s stored in one of CrashPlan’s remote data centres so even if your building burns down you can claim for a new Mac on your insurance, install the CrashPlan client and download a copy of your backups onto the new machine the following day.

Get a plan

If you’re a sole trader or you just have one Mac to back up, opt for the Individual plan. It starts at $5 per month (dropping to $3.96 if you sign up for four years). The Family plan costs $12.50 a month and covers up to 10 machines, but if you have a larger workplace you should take a look at the Business option, which covers an unlimited number of machines at $10 per month per Mac.

The CrashPlan client is lightweight and easy to set up, allowing you to choose when the system is running and what to include or exclude in the back-up set. There’s no limit on the amount of online storage you use, so you can back up everything unless you have a reason for excluding some folders.

Even if you don’t want to back up remotely, we’d urge you to download the CrashPlan client and take advantage of its free local network back-up tools that let you create a secondary copy of your system (or a part of it) on any other machine on your network with automatic backups once a day. CrashPlan is far from the only remote back-up service open to Mac users, though.

Carbonite offers a similar service with its $60 (£39) a year Basic package. (Its Plus and Prime packages that add external hard-drive backups are Windows-only.) iDrive backs up PCs, Macs and mobile devices, including iPads and iPhones, for free if you need less than 5GB storage, or $44.62 (£28) a year for 1TB.

It will even send you a physical copy of your data should you prefer not to download it in the event of a disaster. If you prefer to keep your backups closer to home, Retrospect runs a local back-up service across your network that aims to minimise the amount of time it takes to create an archive of your data (see above).

The latest version of its client – version 12 – has cut back-up times by as much as 50%, yet remains compatible with earlier editions, going back to Retrospect 6.1, so your backups remain accessible for a very long time. It looks out for duplicate files to reduce the amount of data it needs to process, maintains multiple independent back-up sets and supports external media, including NAS drives, cloud storage, tape drives and flash drives.

It is a little more complicated to buy and install than the flatter services from the likes of CrashPlan and Carbonite, but a helpful configurator walks you through the process of choosing the appropriate application, with a series of common sense questions. The basic option, which costs £84, lets you back up five regular Macs. Add a Mac acting as a server into the mix increases the price to £396.

How to set up online backup using Crashplan

1. Pick a destination

Go to the Crashplan website then download, unpack and run the client. Create an account and run through the simple instructions.

2. Build a back-up set

Click ‘Backup and check Files’. CrashPlan will back up everything, but to remove files or folders from the back-up set, click Change… and uncheck.

3. Now or never…

Click Settings, then Backup. ‘Backup will run’ is set to ‘Always’. If your broadband is capped at certain times, you can set backups to run when you like.

4. Check your backup

Click the General tab in Settings and ‘Launch menu bar’. Click the menu bar icon to monitor the backup – you can pause it if your connection gets sluggish.

The ultimate solution

Building a back-up system isn’t a case of picking one option and ignoring the others. The more processes you have running together, the better, as a greater number of them will need to fail in sequence before you risk losing all of your data.

At a bare minimum we recommend running both a Time Machine backup and some form of remote storage system simultaneously. Our preference for the latter would be an internet-based service such as CrashPlan that runs the whole time your Mac is switched on and connected to the net.

Do it yourself

if you prefer not to pay a subscription you can simulate the effect of the aformentioned services – albeit with less convenience and a little less security – by performing manual backups to a series of external drives that you then store in a different building to your Mac.

If you’re a home user, then so long as your employer has no objections the solution could be as simple as storing those drives in your desk drawer at work.

When you have a range of simultaneous backups you can stagger the intervals at which they’re performed, with the more cumbersome options conducted less frequently than the automated systems. So, if you’re using Carbon Copy Cloner to duplicate the contents of your internal storage on an external drive you might only perform this weekly or fortnightly, while running Time Machine and online backup continuously.

It’s easy to become complacent, but it’s imperative you monitor each backup. External drives have a finite life, called the Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF) that acts as a guide to how long is can be expected to run before it develops a fault. Make sure you know what the MTBF is as using the drive for continuous backup will eat into the hours more quickly than occasional use.

Calculate how far through the allocation you are and swap it out before you hit the limit, even if it appears to be working properly.

iOS backup options

With iOS apps getting more able, we’re storing ever-larger amounts of data on iPads and iPhones. If your Mac’s running Yosemite and logged into iCloud, anything you store there from an iCloud-ready app on an iOS device will be backed up to Time Machine. But what about everything else?

iTunes handily makes a backup of your iOS device every time you sync it. You can set it to store this locally or on iCloud through the iTunes interface (click the iOS device in the bar below the playback progress panel, then pick either iCloud or This Computer in the Summary page’s Backups panel).

But remember, iCloud accounts only include 5GB of free storage. After that, it’s between 79p and £14.99 a month for 20GB to 1TB of additional storage. Photos don’t count against your quota.

If you’re anything like us, though, you’ll rarely connect your device to your Mac, instead downloading apps and content directly. If so, set your device to back up over Wi-Fi every time it’s plugged in, switched on and your Mac’s running iTunes. Do so by connecting it to your Mac (for the last time), starting iTunes and clicking the iPhone or iPad icon.

Scroll to the Options panel at the bottom of the device settings page and check the box beside ‘Sync with this iPhone / iPad over Wi-Fi’.

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