Easy Mac backups

If your computer is stolen, damaged, or incapacitated, you can always repair or replace the hardware and software. But what about your data—those photos and videos of your kids, the big proposal that’s due on Monday, or the half-finished epic poem you’ve been writing for years? Without good backups, you could lose your hard work and precious records forever.

The next version of Mac OS X will include the backup software Time Machine, but can you really afford to wait until then? And what if your backup needs go beyond what Apple’s program can handle? I’ll show you how to protect your data now . (More backup strategies and advice.)

Back up everything

If your hard drive suddenly dies, the quickest way to get up and running again is with a bootable backup (also known as a duplicate or clone ). You store this complete exact copy of your startup volume on another hard drive. If disaster strikes, start up from that drive, and you’re back in business. If your entire computer is kaput, move the drive to another Mac.

I recommend bootable backups for almost everyone, but they have some downsides. First, they can be expensive: you’ll need a second hard drive that can fit all the data that’s on your main drive. Second, this type of backup can take several hours to run. Because of this, you may choose to update the backup less frequently, which increases the likelihood that you won’t keep current with recently updated files. But even with these disadvantages, bootable backups are fabulously useful in the event of major hard-disk troubles.

What You Need If you have a desktop Mac with space for a second hard drive inside, you can add a new internal drive to store bootable backups. However, I recommend an external one. It’s easier to move between computers if necessary, and you can store an external drive in a secure off-site location for extra insurance. (See our review of FireWire drives.)

Creating the Backup Because OS X relies on many files that are ordinarily invisible or that have special ownership and permissions settings, you can’t create a bootable backup simply by dragging files from one hard disk onto another. You need special software to do the job for you. The best tool for making bootable duplicates is Shirt Pocket’s $28 SuperDuper (   ). SuperDuper is fast, accurate, and easy to use. A solid second choice is Mike Bombich’s free Carbon Copy Cloner (   ), which also does the job but has a trickier interface. Neither of these tools offers scheduled archives or network backups. If you want more than the basics, you’ll have to pony up for a full-featured backup program.

After Disaster Strikes When the time comes to start your Mac from the backup drive, make sure the drive is connected and powered up. Turn on your Mac and hold down the option key until icons of the available startup drives appear. Select the external drive’s icon and then press return.

Once you’re running the system from the external drive, use Apple’s Disk Utility (/Applications/Utilities) or a third-party utility to try to repair your main drive. Assuming your internal drive isn’t physically damaged, you can duplicate your external drive back onto the internal drive to restore it to a bootable state. (See Diagnose Hard-Drive Disaster for advice on dealing with faltering drives.)

Back up the essentials

Regardless of whether you create bootable backups, be sure to make copies of your important and frequently used files. The easiest and safest way to do this is to back up your entire user folder, which should contain most of the files you work with regularly. If this folder is very large, backing up the entire thing can take time and require a lot of storage space. At a minimum, back up your irreplaceable files (see “What to Back Up”).

What You Need You can back up your files on almost any medium, from recordable CDs and DVDs to network volumes. However, for ease and speed, I recommend an external hard drive. Hard drives provide the fastest possible backups, they don’t require that you manually swap and label optical discs, and they can typically hold several months’ worth of archived files.

Creating the Backup It’s best to back up all your important files and folders once a day. You can do this manually, but a backup tool will automate the entire process.

Each backup program has its own procedure for setting the source, destination, schedule, and other backup options. As with bootable backups, if a file is accidentally deleted, modified, or damaged, and you don’t notice until after the backup runs, you’re out of luck. To avoid these problems, make sure that your backup program creates archives—in other words, that it saves old copies of files when adding new ones. That’s standard practice with EMC Insignia’s $96 Retrospect Desktop and Apple’s Backup (included with a $100 .Mac membership). With Prosoft Engineering’s $59 Data Backup, use the Versioned Backup feature. With Tri-Edre’s $49 Tri-Backup, use the Evolutive Mirror Backup feature.

After Disaster Strikes The problem you’re likeliest to encounter is the discovery that you’ve unintentionally deleted or modified an important file. Most backup software lists all your backups by date, so you can choose to restore specific versions of individual files (or in some cases, all your backed-up files). I recommend restoring the file to a new location. That way, you can compare the two versions of the file and avoid accidentally overwriting a version containing newer data you still need.

If you lose your entire disk’s contents, your first step is to repair the disk (or replace the drive), reinstall OS X and your backup application, and then restore the most recent versions of all your backed-up files. In this case, since you’re restoring everything, put the files back in their original locations.

The last word

Without backups, you’re computing on borrowed time. But an effective backup strategy need not be time-consuming or costly. The most important thing is to pick a plan and put it into practice today.

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