How to Back Up Your Mac

My backup plan: Dan Frakes

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We’ve published many articles over the years about ways to back up your data. (It can’t be said enough: If you don’t have a solid backup strategy, get one. If you have one, make sure it’s working properly by regularly testing your backups.) But readers often ask how we, personally, back up. I can’t speak for all Macworld editors, but I can tell you the steps and procedures I use.

Step 1: Time Machine

Mac OS X’s built-in Time Machine backup feature works well within its limited scope. It backs up all your personal data and, depending on how you’ve configured it, your system files and applications, as well. Even better, Time Machine makes it easy to restore not only a particular file, but a particular version of that file—at a minimum, Time Machine stores one version per hour for the past 24 hours, as well as several versions from the past few days and weeks. So as long as the backup drive you use for Time Machine is of sufficient size to hold the current versions of your important data, as well as enough older versions of that data to provide you with “just in case” peace of mind, Time Machine is an easy-to-use and reliable safeguard.

I’ve got a 1TB hard drive connected to my iMac and configured for use as a Time Machine volume. However, I've configured Time Machine to back up only my documents, not system files—the latter are handled by the next step.

Step 2a: Clones

Unfortunately, as Joe Kissell recently explained, if you want a robust backup system, Time Machine isn’t enough. You can’t boot off of a Time Machine backup, and if, for example, your startup drive fails, restoring your system to its prior state from a Time Machine backup takes hours—or longer. So I also need a complete, bootable backup, and for this I turn to clone backups.

A clone is an exact, bit-for-bit copy of a hard drive. There are a couple things that make a clone especially useful as part of your backup repertoire. The first is that it’s bootable. The second is that it doesn’t require any sort of restore procedure to use—connect a clone backup, or replace your internal hard drive with a clone, and you can boot your Mac from it and be exactly where you were at the time the clone was last updated.

Although you can use OS X’s Disk Utility to create a clone, I instead use SuperDuper, which can create a clone and then automatically update it on a regular basis to reflect the current state of my drive. (You can also use Carbon Copy Cloner for this task.) Specifically, I have SuperDuper configured to update my clone every evening.

I also have SuperDuper set to automatically update this clone-backup drive whenever I connect the drive to my Mac. This option means that if the backup drive isn’t connected during its regularly scheduled backup time (say, if it's been off-site—see Step 2b, below), it’s immediately updated the next time it’s connected.

Of course, like many people, I have data on drives other than my iMac’s internal drive—I’ve got a couple FireWire drives I use for storing media, downloads, and the like. Because this data is also valuable to me, I clone these drives, as well. But instead of using a bunch of different external hard drives for all my clone backups, I use an Other World Computing Mercury Elite-AL Pro Dual Bay enclosure that holds two high-capacity SATA hard drives. One drive mirrors my iMac’s internal hard disk; the other is partitioned to hold clone backups of each of my FireWire drives. In other words, the OWC enclosure is a multi-clone backup box.

(I should point out that the main drawback of a clone is that it’s by definition a snapshot of your hard drive—a snapshot taken the last time you updated the clone. So any data that's new since the last update will be “missing” if you lose your main hard drive and are forced to switch to its clone. To get around this limitation, you could schedule SuperDuper to update your clone, say, every hour, but that’s overkill—not to mention a lot of unnecessary wear and tear on your drives. Rather, this is a compelling argument for using a combination of clone backups and Time Machine. If you ever have to boot from your clone, you can use Time Machine to restore just the data that’s new since the most-recent clone update.)

Step 2b: Multiple clones

Having all your backups in the same location as your computer means that if a non-tech disaster—a lightning strike, a fire, an earthquake, a robbery—should occur, you could lose your original drives and your backups. So a good backup plan requires off-site backups, as well.

My approach here is to have a second, identical, OWC enclosure containing the same drive sizes and partitions. The only difference is that the hard drives inside each of the two OWC enclosures are of different brands—I never rely on a single brand of hard drives for my backups, just in case a particular vendor has a run of bad drives.

I rotate these two OWC enclosures every few days, and I make sure that one of them is always offsite whenever I am. In other words, I never have all my backups together in my office with my computer unless I’m there with them, updating them. (I’ve been known to bring one of my backup enclosures with me to lunch to avoid having everything in one place while I’m out of the office. I’ve got a nice, padded carrying case that holds the OWC enclosure and a couple portable hard drives—my family members affectionately call this case “the football.”)

What if I happened to be in my office with both sets of backups and someone were to break in and rob me at gunpoint? Well, that would suck. The correct answer, of course, is that I should never have all my backups in the same location—ideally, I'd always have one enclosure off-site, moving the on-site enclosure off-site before returning with the previous off-site enclosure. Indeed, I used to do just that, using a safety-deposit box as the off-site repository. But we recently closed our safety-deposit box, so I'm temporarily being riskier than I'd like. That said, I do keep copies of most of my important data at a relative’s house. I update that “worst-case-scenario archive” every few months.

One thing I don’t yet use for off-site backups is a full-featured online backup service. It's something I’m considering, but until then…

Step 3: Dropbox

Since my Time Machine backup doesn’t leave the office, and my clones don’t include documents I’ve worked on since the most-recent scheduled backup (likely from the prior evening), I turn to Dropbox. Dropbox is an amazingly useful combination of Web service and Mac OS X program that syncs the contents of a special Dropbox folder on your Mac. Anything you place in that folder is automatically copied, securely, to the Dropbox servers and then to any other of your Macs configured for Dropbox. I keep all my in-progress documents and folders in my Dropbox folder, so I know that as long as I have an Internet connection, a copy of the latest version of each document is always stored safely "in the cloud."

In addition to its backup uses, Dropbox has a couple other benefits when used for in-progress data. The first is that Dropbox stores both the current and previous versions of each document; you can restore any previous version using your account on the Dropbox Website. The second is that, because my Dropbox folder is synced between all my Macs, I can work on any of my in-progress documents from any of my computers. I can also access those documents—and, with the right app, even edit them—from my iPhone and iPad.

“Data safety in 3 easy steps!”

The end result of this diversified backup plan is that at any given time, I’ve got a complete clone of each of my drives that’s never more than 24 hours old, Time Machine backups of modified files for each hour of that day, and both onsite and cloud versions of all the documents I’m actively working on. And those in-progress articles are accessible from any of my Macs, as well as from my iOS devices.

Of course, as a tech writer and editor, my data is especially important to me, and I'm admittedly a bit paranoid about losing it. So my backup system may be overkill for some people. But the most important thing in setting up a good backup plan is knowing how to think about your data and backups. I hope reading about the lengths I go to to safeguard my data has spurred you to take a good look at how well you safeguard your own.

[Dan Frakes is a Macworld senior editor.]

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