Mac 101: Back it Up

If you're like me, you probably spend a great deal of time using your Mac. From checking email, working with photos, surfing the web and paying bills to writing posts just like this, my Mac serves me well in so many ways. Using it every day as I do, I tend to create a massive amount of files, photos, emails and all of the other items that go along with daily Mac use.

The items that are created, modified and used every day are very important. So, to make sure I have access to them and that nothing bad happens to them, they need to be backed up so they're safe no matter what. But even though I know these files, folders and more need to be backed up, how do I do it in the most simple, effective and least time-consuming way?

Fortunately, there are several solutions available to Mac users to help ensure that their precious data is preserved. Most are simple to use and all provide an automated backup solution that once set up, doesn't rely on the user to make sure it works -- it all happens automatically on a particular schedule.

But which solution to choose? Here are the three simplest, cheapest and most reliable backup solutions for your consideration:

Time Machine
(free if you use OSX 10.5 aka Leopard) -- Time Machine has the virtue of being included with Leopard, being very simple to use and is probably adequate for most of your backup needs. You go to the Apple Menu in the top left corner of the screen, select System Prefs and then select Time Machine. Then, simply flip a switch to turn it on.

Once its on, it will ask you which drive you want to backup to and then, after you select one, Time Machine does its thing automatically. The next time you will need to interact with Time Machine is when the drive you've selected to back up to starts to get full. Then, it will ask you if you want to delete older backups. Until then, it will simply do its thing.

Like several of these other solutions, you will need a drive to backup to. Usually, an external Firewire or USB 2.0 drive works best. Its also best if the drive you are using is solely dedicated to backup and not used for anything else. For a good primer on external backup drives, take a look at our own Robert Palmer's recent post on the subject.

(free if you're a .Mac member) -- Apple's other backup solution is only available to .Mac members. With this software, you need to download and install it and then set it up to backup various files, folders or your entire Home Folder -- if that's what you want it to do. Its not as simple to use as Time Machine, but once you get the hang of it, it works fine and also functions automatically on a schedule you can set.

Backup is also the preferred solution for some users due to issues they have had with Time Machine. Its also a more mature program and offers a little more flexibility than Time Machine. However, the cost of it when purchased with a .Mac membership at $99.00, may cause more people to consider Time Machine -- especially if they're already upgrading to or running Leopard.

($27.95) -- Like Apple's Backup, this is also a piece of software you need to download and install. However, unlike Backup, you don't pick and choose which files, folders or whatever you want to backup. Instead, Superduper! simply makes an exact duplicate of your boot hard drive to another drive at an interval you can set yourself -- usually daily.

One of the best things about Superduper! is its simplicity. You don't have to decide what to back up so you won't ever forget to include something. Plus, as the program makes an exact copy of your hard drive, you can also start up from that copy should something ever go wrong with your main drive -- which makes troubleshooting that much easier. Also, this is not a feature available if you're using Time Machine and/or Backup.

Plus, once you set it you can forget it as the program is rock solid and compatible with the latest versions of OSX and can also work in tandem with Time Machine -- the solution I currently employ.


Obviously, backup is important and choosing a backup solution is an important decision. For many people, the simplicity of Time Machine and its interface will be a good choice. However, Time Machine does have its issues so others may turn to the reliability of Superduper! or the flexibility of Apple's Backup.

For my own Macs, a combination of both Time Machine and Superduper! is the backup method of choice -- with each backing up to a separate external Firewire drive. The nice thing about this setup is that you have the advantages of Time Machine and the ability to restore individual files, folders or other missing items and you also have the ability to boot from your Superduper! drive to help troubleshoot problems and in the event of a disaster -- such as the complete failure of your internal boot drive. For dealing with the possibility that your backup drive itself might become inaccessible or damaged (in a robbery or house fire), you could employ another drive that rotates to your office or another location -- or check out an online backup service like Mozy.

Whichever choice you end up making to satisfy your backup needs, be it one or more of the above solutions or something else, the important thing is to have a backup solution in place no matter what. You don't want to find out the hard way the consequences of not having one.

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