How to Back Up Your Mac

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How to back up using MobileMe's Backup utility

When it comes to Mac backup, most Mac users think of Time Machine. But as part of a backup plan, it's a good idea to supplement Time Machine with another backup method, such as disk cloning, using an online service, or running a third-party backup program. Apple actually has another backup application called Backup that’s available to MobileMe users. This program is short on features and lacks the flexibility found in other third-party backup programs, which is why you wouldn't want to use it as your primary backup strategy. Backup saves only data that's in your home folder—it will not save system files (thus you can't make a bootable backup). Read more about Backup's limitations.

In this article, I’ll show how to use Backup to save your home folder. You need a MobileMe account to download the disk image of Backup. You can also download Backup from Apple's Website, but if you use the software on a Mac that's not connected to your MobileMe account, the application imposes a backup limit of 100MB. Backup requires Mac OS X 10.5.8 or later, or 10.6.2 or later; and a PowerPC G4 or later processor, or an Intel Core or later processor.

(The rumor mill has recently been churning furiously with speculation including new features and a possible revamp of MobileMe. I don’t have any information regarding MobileMe’s future, but if MobileMe is changing, the future availablity of Backup is in question. Whether Apple will continue to support Backup remains to be seen.)

Step 1: Download and install Backup

Log in to your MobileMe iDisk account, either through the Finder (select Go -> iDisk -> My iDisk, or press Shift-Command-I) or through the me.com Website. In iDisk is a folder called Software; when you open this folder, you’ll find a folder called Backup, which contains a disk image for Backup (the current version is 3.2 and takes up 7.1MB). Copy/download the Backup disk image to your hard drive.

Locate and download Backup

After downloading the disk image, double-click it to mount it to the desktop. (You can mount the disk image to your desktop without downloading it first, but this can significantly slow down the installation.) Open the Backup 3 icon on your desktop, and peruse the Read Before You Install Backup 3.2 file. When you’re ready, you can install Backup by double-clicking the Backup.pkg file. The Backup software will take up about 21MB of storage space.

Backup's backup plans

Step 2: Pick a plan

Backup resides in your Applications folder. When you open Backup for the first time, the software guides you through the creation of a backup plan. The software presents four different backup plans, each describing the types of files that are backed up. In this tutorial, I’ll set up a plan for my Home Folder. The process for the other four listed plans is very similar.

In the Choose Your Backup Plans window, select Home Folder. This will back up the contents of your home folder. Click Continue.

Step 3: Make adjustments

After you click Continue, a new window appears. This window has the details of your backup plan. When this window is open to the Back Up tab, the program figures out what files to back up; you’ll see a progress bar labeled Scanning, which will be replaced by a total of the files' sizes. The History tab lists the date and time a backup was performed. And the Restore tab is where you go when you want to restore data.

Plan overview window

When you first set up the plan for your home folder, it’s set to the default settings: a daily backup to your Mac’s internal hard drive, and a monthly backup to a CD or DVD. You can edit these settings to your liking.

One setting you’ll definitely want to change is the destination of your daily backup. You don’t want it to reside on your Mac’s internal drive—keep it on an external drive. So let’s change this setting. (If you have enough space on your iDisk, you can use it for your backup, but saving to cloud storage can be time consuming.)

Under the Destination And Schedule section, you’ll see entries for the daily and monthly backup. To change the daily backup location, double-click the daily entry. Under Choose A Destination, click on the pop-up menu for Destination, and you can select another storage device, such as an external hard drive, or even your iDisk. Click on the Folder pop-up menu, and you can create a new folder on your destination drive that will be the location for the actual backup data.

Modify plan settings

Under Choose A Schedule, click the Back Up  pop-up menu, and select how frequently the back up should occur. The Keep pop-up menu tells the software how long it should keep older backups.

Under Choose A Day And Time, you can designate the days and time a backup should occur. (Since I want to perform a daily backup, the On pop-up menu is blank.)

Click OK when you’ve finished customizing the settings. If you want to add another destination, click on the plus-sign (+) button under the Destination And Schedule section. If you want to delete a destination, select it and click on the minus-sign (-) button.

Step 4: Perform a backup

If you still have the backup-plan window open, you can click Back Up Now to perform a backup immediately. Subsequent backups will occur at the scheduled times.

You can also perform a backup in the Backup window, which is the window that appears whenever you launch the software. Select the backup plan in the window, and click on Back Up to start a back up. The first backup will take a while, because it needs to copy all the designated files over.

If you quit the Backup application, the backup will be cancelled. The software doesn’t have to be open to perform scheduled backups; it will automatically launch at the designated time.

There is one major quirk with the Backup software that you’ll want to look out for, especially if you've scheduled an automatic backup. The Backup application will continue to look for a designated destination even if it’s not connected to your Mac. For example, I use a MacBook Pro as my desktop computer, and I've set a 1TB external desktop hard drive as a Backup destination. When I’m on the road, I don’t have my 1TB hard drive connected; nevertheless, Backup will still launch and look for the external drive. I have to cancel that backup manually. This is a minor annoyance, but it would be nice if the software could stop looking for the drive after a certain amount of time.

Other backups with Backup

There are other plans you can use in Backup.

  • Personal Data & Settings This specifically backs up data in Address Book, Stickies, iCal, Safari, and Keychain. The default destination is iDisk, but you can change this to a different destination.
  • iLife Saves the iLife data in your home folder. The default destination is CD or DVD; consider saving to an external hard drive.
  • iTunes Library Backs up your iTunes media. You’ll want to change the destination to an external hard drive, especially if you have a gigantic library.
  • Custom Select the files you want.

If you use Time Machine and Backup, you’ll have two easy ways to protect your data. Time Machine offers a quick and easy way to retrieve specific files, while Backup can protect you in case your Time Machine data goes bad. If possible, keep your Time Machine and Backup data on separate drives.

[Roman Loyola is a Macworld senior editor.]

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