Back Up Your Mac


Hard drive failure. Not something creative people think about often. At least not until it’s happened to you. I went from not even considering a “backup solution” to being (probably) overly cautious and redundant about my backup setup for the Mac and all my creative files.

Yes, you need a backup.

The first step to getting a backup system in place is to realize you do need one. Many people have probably even used a Mac and bought a new one with no hard drive failures at all. Most likely you could go years never even needing a backup. Why spend all that money on something that may never happen? Precisely because it only needs to happen once for you to realize how important it is to do this. Save yourself the heartache and learn from my pain.

Oh, and keep in mind that dragging your files to your “backup” drive and then deleting them from your main hard drive is not a backup; the files are only in one place—there’s only one copy of them. You want a minimum of two copies of all your files.


The hardware side is pretty simple: either some internal hard drives (if your Mac supports them), or some external hard drives (FireWire or USB 2.0). Most (non-iMac) desktop Macs since the G4 lineup support up to 3 additional hard drives internally. Users with an iMac or a MacBook/Pro (or any Apple laptop) with need to go the external hard drive route.

As far as purchasing drives, if you go the internal route you only need to consider the connection interface—older Macs (and PCs) used the ATA interface; newer Macs use the higher-speed SATA (Serial ATA) connection. You can find tech specs for Apple products here. For external, I usually go with FireWire drives since they can be daisy-chained together. This means you only need one FireWire port as additional drives hook into the previous FireWire drive. FireWire drives also allow you to boot your Mac up from them, so they are my preferred external drive connection.

Where to buy

Seems many people have hard drive preferences, so the choice should be made by reviews on Amazon or my preferred geek/gadget supply store, Personally, I go with Western Digital drives after having too many problems with Maxtor and Seagate. Never had an issue with any Western Digital drives. However, other’s mileages definitely vary. The only real criteria is that the drives are reliable.

You’ll see a bunch of nerdy numbers for the specs: cache, RPM, etc. For the most part, a 16MB cache and a 7200 RPM should be more than sufficient and is mostly standard anymore. In reality you don’t really need a fast drive for backups. As far as storage size, I would go with drives that are twice as large as the drive you will be backing up (more on that later). At the very least, it should be the same size of the drive you’ll be backing up, for obvious reasons.


Hard drives are not PC/Mac specific—any compatible drive will work although you may need to reformat the drive. The hardware is all the same. PC-formatted drives will work on a Mac, but in general it’s recommended that you format for the Mac unless you have a specific reason for not doing so. And if you do, you are probably informed enough that you don’t need to read this post…

Drives are formatted using OS X’s built-in Disk Utility. Follow the drive manufacturer’s installation and setup instructions, and if they do not cover Mac formatting, check out this article for details. Also, this article on formatting and partitioning a hard drive is also useful.

Setting Up Your Backup

So now you have your new drive(s) installed. How does one back stuff up?

This is the real meat of the post. I’ve had many different systems in place, and feel the current setup is perfect for an individual user. I’m going to rough out the overall setup, then go into details:

  • “Failsafe” backups with OS X 10.5’s Time Machine
  • Bootable, differential “clone” backups of my startup hard drive
  • Differential “clone” backups of my other hard drives (I keep all my art on it’s own separate internal hard drive)
  • Offsite backup

Now lets go into details about each of these backup methods, and why I use multiple systems.

“Failsafe” backups with OS X 10.5’s Time Machine

OS X 10.5 and newer includes the “Time Machine” feature which essentially monitors your entire hard drive(s) and keeps as many versions of your files as it has hard drive space for. Time Machine is unique in that it saves multiple versions of your files, so you can revert back to and older version, say for example when you intended to save a Photoshop file using “Save As…” but instead did a regular save, overwriting the file unintentionally. With Time Machine you can easily go back to previous versions of the file and “restore” that earlier version. You can even save the newer version right alongside the older one (or replace it). Time Machine monitors your drives and performs the backups on the fly. No backup to “schedule”.

This is super handy for those small mistakes. If you were to only run one backup, I would recommend Time Machine as the software is free (it comes with any Mac running OS X 10.5) and it covers not only backups, but earlier versions of your files. In the case of Time Machine, since you are able to not only back up files but also save earlier versions of those files, the bigger the drive you use with Time Machine the better.

Time Machine also uses some code voodoo so you aren’t saving actual earlier copies of all your files, but references to just the changes (or something similar). In this way, far less disk space is needed. But the larger the hard drive, the more earlier versions you can have on hand.

Time Machine has saved my butt many times.

Bootable, differential “clone” backups of my startup hard drive

Differential? Clone? Wha…?

By “differential”, I just mean a rotating, ‘every/other’ backup. Here’s how it works: I have a startup drive of say 500GB. My backup drive for this drive is 1TB (terabyte, or 1,000 Gigabytes). My backup software runs a “cloned” (or “mirrored”) backup every morning to one of the two 500GB partitions on the 1TB backup drive. Then, once a week on Sunday my backup software runs another clone backup on the other 500GB partition.

Why do I do this? Because if some problem creeps into my boot drive, my backups will also contain that problem. By having a separate backup that lets me go back a week further, it’s insurance that I may be able to revert to a setup before the problem started. Sure, it might not be far enough back in time, but it’s just a bit of extra security that could really come in handy. I’m a bit paranoid, I know.

The “clone” backups are what they sounds like: your hard drive is cloned to the backup hard drive. Just copying the files isn’t good enough if you want to actually start your computer from your backup drive—you need to clone it to do so, so that all the hidden system files are also copied.

Why would one need to boot up their Mac from their backup drive? Picture yourself wrapping up the final tweaks to an 80-page magazine, and having your hard drive fail. All your files are safe with Time Machine, but you can’t start up your Mac without reinstalling the System software, and then reinstalling all your graphics software, entering license codes, etc. We’re talking potential hours of work, just to get back up and running.

With your clone backup, this is an exact copy of the drive you were just using (and just failed on you). Since hard drive failures are typically physical in nature (i.e. something broke), the bootable backup is exactly what you need here. You can boot a Mac right from an external FireWire drive. Boom, you’re back in business to meet the deadline, and you can sort out getting things back to normal later when you have more time to do so.

As a minimum, I would suggest a combo backup of both Time Machine and this differential cloned backup method. This should cover almost all situations you could run into, and will get you either back to the old file or get your Mac back up and running in almost no time at all.

Differential “clone” backups

Same as above, but no need for these drives to be bootable. Again the differential approach allows for one further step backwards in case something got really screwed up. Technically these do not need to be “clones”, but it’s not going to hurt anything to back up this way. Typically the backup method you want to use in all of these situations is an incremental backup, which means that during the backup process, only the files which have changed will be backed up (or deleted), saving huge time for all backups after the initial backup.

One thing to consider with the “clone” backups: deleted files on the main drive will also be deleted on the backup drive. This is referred to as mirroring. Most backup software has settings to allow the “backup” drive to keep files even if deleted on the main drive, but keep in mind that since there is now only one copy of them, they are not actually “backed up”. For me, hard drives are cheap enough that I never throw any files out unless I am totally sure I will never need them ever again. It’s just safer overall that way.

If you only have one hard drive to back up, then this step is optional. Another use here would be to back up your backup drive for an added level of security. However if it is also your startup drive, you’ll want to make sure the backup is also bootable.

Offsite backup

There are two ways to go about offsite backups: either an upload method like, or the “sneakernet” version where you have yet another cloned backup hard drive which you physically move to a location outside your home/studio/etc. to another location. Some even go as far as renting a bank deposit box for this, but your parent’s house will work fine as well. The idea here is fire or other disasters. All the backups in the world will not mean a thing if they are all at your location and there’s a fire.

Backup Software & Services

There are lots of backup software applications for the Mac, and I have purchased quite a few. My recommendations are purely the ones I have found to be easy to use and reliable, with features I like. I am sure there is other great backup software out there, but these are the ones I use currently for my backups.

SuperDuper!: SuperDuper! entered my arsenal when I learned about the need for bootable clone backup drives. This is it’s primary function, and it does it well. On the plus side, it will mount your backup drives (and unmount them when done backing up) as long as they are plugged in and have power. Also, backups can be scheduled. The downside: scheduled backups only run if the Mac is awake, so you’ll need to set a wake timer in the System Preferences (Energy Saver -> Schedule… button) so it can do it’s thing.

ChronoSync: I started using ChronoSync to synchronize files from my MacPro to my MacBook, and back before version 4.0 there was no bootable backup option which it now has. However ChronoSync works great for syncing files, so I am sure the new bootable clone drive features lives up to the quality. Honestly I have yet to use the bootable clone in ChronoSync since I already had SuperDuper set up, but it might be a nice all-in-one solution of you need both backup and sync features. ChronoSync has a feature to wake your Mac for scheduled backups.

Apple’s Backup (part of the MobileMe service): I use Backup & MobileMe for some rudimentary offsite backups of main data files—Address Book, iTunes library (the database, not the music—the music files get their own backup locally) and other system files such as preferences and such. Mostly I backup databases and other small-ish files that won’t take forever to upload to a remote server. Mozy is one of many offsite backup services available to Mac users. A free account is available, but with limited drive space offered. Paid accounts can get more storage space at reasonable costs. The downside to any online offsite backup is bandwidth—it’s going to take not only a very long time to upload everything, but downloading of your backed up files will also take some time. However these backups are not about speed, but about security.

Other Mac-friendly offsite backup services include BackJack, Carbonite and Crashplan. I have only used Mozy, and while it worked sufficiently well overall it wasn’t something I felt a need for, especially to pay a monthly fee. For now I use Backup/MobileMe for my basic offsite backups since I am already paying for the service and storage space.

You’re Covered

Following all the steps above should protect you from just about any type of catastrophe that could affect your files, whether a hard drive failure or some sort of fire or natural disaster.

Most people have never dealt with a hard drive failure, and therefore a backup system is not on their mind. Let me tell you, eventually it will happen to you. Backing up is only helpful if you do so before you need it.

If I had to recommend one solution for most Mac users, I would suggest running Time Machine. That has the broadest protection and the least amount of setup and technical knowledge needed. Most users have one hard drive, so one additional drive for Time Machine will suffice.

The next step would be to run the scheduled bootable clone of that same drive — that way you have two backups of your hard drive, and can boot from the backup in an emergency. Throw in Time Machine and you have the added bonus of accessing earlier versions of files.

Users with additional drives beyond the hard drive that shipped with their Mac will want to look into backing up those drives as explained above.

The added bonus of having a robust backup system in place? You can work with an eased mind that pretty much nothing you do can screw things up too bad. Think of it as the ultimate “Undo” for your entire digital life.