August 25, 2009

Backing Up Your Mac

Since Apple introduced Time Machine, backups have become quick and painless. Time Machine is a backup program built right into your Mac, assuming you have Leopard installed (10.5.x). There are other programs to backup your system and files that are also worth a look, whether you have Time Machine or are using an earlier system.

Time Machine: Let’s start with Time Machine. When you plug an external USB or Firewire drive into your Mac for the first time, Time Machine asks if you want to use it as your backup drive. I’d recommend devoting a drive or partition just to Time Machine. It will start by backing up your entire system, including programs, settings and documents. The beauty of Time Machine is that it backs up any modified files every hour and stores multiple versions of those files for you.

What is the advantage of having multiple versions of a file? Well let’s say you’re working on a very large MS Word document, updating it on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day. Those familiar with MS Word know that some times large files can become corrupt, making it impossible to work on or open them. If Time Machine is running you can just restore a previous version of the file, and lose no more than one hour of work. There are dozens of other examples of how useful this feature can be.

Cloning: There are other options you may want to consider even if you use Time Machine. The first is called Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC). It can create scheduled backups, just like Time Machine, and can save multiple versions of a file for you. It’s one of the few programs that will even wake your Mac to backup. However it also has a feature missing from Time Machine, it can create a bootable clone. A clone is an exact copy of your entire hard drive.

Why you should clone: Time Machine is excellent, but if your hard drive does crash, unless you have a spare drive or Mac handy, your work stops. Even with an extra hard drive it will take a minimum of three hours to install and restore your computer using Time Machine. However if you have a bootable external drive you can continue working right from your bootable drive, no down time. If your Mac’s hard drive doesn’t work, just plug the hard drive in while your Mac is off, then hold down the “option” key while it starts up.

Be aware, if you have a PowerPC Mac you can only use a Firewire external, newer Intel Macs can boot from USB or Firewire. There are two other handy and frequently used programs that can also create a bootable clone. They are SuperDuper! and ChronoSync. Both programs can schedule backups, although SuperDuper! is a bit easier to use, and both can create a bootable clone of your hard drive.

Whether you decide to use Time Machine alone, or in combination with a cloning program, I highly recommend scheduling regular backups. The initial investment in time and money can save you much more in the long run. Do you have another favorite backup program? Share it in the comments.

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