Mac Time Machine: backup for the rest of us?

Mac Time Machine: backup for the rest of us?

Summary: Time Machine really works. But is it the best backup tool for you?


Time Machine really works. But is it the best backup tool for you? Perhaps not. Here's what you need to know.

Easiest backup on the planet One you are running OS X 10.5, setting up Time Machine couldn't be easier. Plug in a USB drive and the OS asks if you want to use it for Time Machine. Click "yes" and the rest is automatic.

Time Machine keeps backups

  • Hourly for the last 24 hours
  • Daily for the last month
  • Weekly until the backup disk is full

My 500 GB USB drive holds about 6 weeks of backups.

Management You manage TM from a clock icon in the menu bar. When the arrow is spinning counter-clockwise Time Machine is backing up. The USB drive activity light is flashing and the system slows down - even on a quad-core Mac Pro.

If you're right in the middle of disk-intensive work like ripping a DVD or ingesting video, click the TM icon and hit "stop backup" to get your machine back. Other than that minor annoyance Time Machine works great.

H. G. Wells approved Need to find an old file? Back to the icon and select "Enter Time Machine" to bring up the spacey UI. I usually have a couple of dozen windows open, so I really like the fact that TM puts them all aside just so I can find what I need.

Once you have the right file, click "Restore" and TM brings it forward. If the restored file has the same name as a current file a dialog box gives you the option to replace or rename. Simple and effective.

But the Time Machine disk isn't bootable. And that is a problem for power users.

The Storage Bits take TM is best thought of as a file recovery tool. Munge a presentation and you can quickly get the old version back.

But TM lacks grace handling more serious problems. If your system disk crashes you can “Restore System from Time Machine” using a utility on the OS X system disk.

Sounds good, but USB runs at about 400 MB/minute so if you have - like I do - 120 GB on the system disk, you'd be down for 5 hours. After installing new drive.

Much better - if you rely on a system as much as I do - is to back up to a bootable FireWire disk using either the donation-ware Carbon Copy Cloner or the inexpensive SuperDuper!. When your system disk crashes you can be back up in a minute and then use Time Machine to recover your latest work.

Time Machine is great for people who don't rely on their Mac for business. If you do it is helpful but not enough.

500 GB disk drives are cheap and getting cheaper. I use Time Machine and a daily backup utility to get the best local data protection.

It is cheap insurance for busy systems. You can afford no less.

Comments welcome, of course.

Topics: Apple, Data Management, Hardware, Storage

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  • I despise uneeded UIs

    There is no reason for a backup/restore utility to have a separate UI. Microsoft got this [b]just right[/b] by making restore as simple as:
    1. Right Click and choose "Restore previous versions" on whatever you want to restore.
    2. Double click on the date of the version you are interested in. Newer versions will be local, older versions will have been backed up to a network drive. You don't really need to know this information so having it all show up in one list, sorted by date, location independent is [b]perfect[/b] and [b]far[/b] better than the fragmented support that Apple offers where you need to know where you backed up before you can figure out how to restore.
    3. Browse that version using the built in Windows Explorer, the [b]exact[/b] same UI you use to navigate the file system normally. Copy old versions to new locations using the same copy/paste or drag-and-drop that you would to copy [b]any[/b] file from one location to another. There literally is nothing new to learn. If you can use Windows Explorer, you can use "Restore previous versions". With Time Machine, you have to learn a whole new UI.

    Take your laptop on the road? You will [b]hate[/b] Time Machine because it simply stops the incremental backups until you reconnect to your external drive. Take a Vista machine on the road for a week and a Leopard machine on the road for a week. 2 days into the trip, you realize that you need to go back to yesterday's version. With Vista, it's there. With Leopard, it isn't. With Leopard, you need to plug in your external drive (which won't, btw, fit in your manilla envelope :) ) and then your [b]only[/b] option will be to roll back to the version you had before you left for you trip. You've [b]lost[/b] the version that you created on your first day away. Not so with Vista. :)

    For the exact same reason I like TortoiseSVN as a front end to Subversion (no extra client, source control UI is added right into Windows Explorer), I really like Vista backup/restore. It absolutely blows Time Machine away in every possible metric other than perhaps the background to the UI (ooooo, space theme, oooooo!!) and a catchy name that makes the marketers happy.
    • Sometimes they make it Interesting

      Agree with you to a point because what makes Time Machine interesting is the cool effect and Apple has marketed it well.

      Shadow Copy started in Windows Server 2003 and was brought to Vista Ultimate (not sure, may be Business edition as well). Microsoft just hasn't highlighted on it that much.

      What I prefer on Shadow Copy is that it doesn't need an external drive to do it's job but that also has it's down sides. I bet you in Windows 7, Microsoft will highlight on it and many people will point hands that they are copying from elsewhere.
      • Once again

        It isn't what Apple does, it's how it does it. NZ's rant aside,
        Time Machine is a more intuitive backup and restore system
        with some seriously cool flexibility that Shadow Copy does not

        In addition, the paradigm of "entering" your restore mode is a
        good one from an interface standpoint. In UI terms, it's called
        space, which is a fancy was of saying that you should design
        your UI so that the user always knows here he's at in the
        interface. With the Time Machine UI, you KNOW you're looking
        at past files. It's one of those subtle differences that people
        can't quite ever put their thumb on but which makes them like
        the MacOS better because it just "feels more comfortable."

        Never forget the Windows motto:

        Windows - making the easy annoying.
    • It's obvious

      you've actually never used time machine.
    • You're wrong again, as usual...

      You're wrong again, as usual. First of all, there is no new
      GUI with Time Machine. They're just Finder windows.

      Secondly, backup can't be "location independent." There
      [i]has[/i] to be a place where a copy of a file is stored and
      you [i]have[/i] to specify the location. Sometimes that is
      automated, sometimes it requires user intervention. In the
      case of Windows, it creates a partition on boot drive and
      shadow copies your files. You can do the exact same
      thing with Time Machine, however, it is not a good idea. If
      you don't have a secondary location with your backup, the
      one on your main HDD is useless if said HDD kicks it.

      I would agree that Windows [i]Vista[/i] backup is better
      (not superior), but it is not as user friendly as Apple's.
      [i]That[/i] is the key. Your average computer user doesn't
      use Windows backup (or nearly any other backup software)
      because it's intimidating.

      Before you even reply, STOP. NO they don't. People do not
      use backup, especially with your beloved Windows backup.
      I've been working in schools for over 10 years and backup
      is one thing people do [i]not[/i] do. Even if it's as simple
      as sticking in a thumb drive and just copy 2 or 3 important
      files, they don't do it. We're talking about people who,
      after 3 reminders a [i]day[/i] for a [i]week[/i] to set a new
      password, call help desk the following Monday
      complaining they can't log into their computer.

      Time Machine is the first backup system I've ever seen
      where the average person (in this case, teachers who are
      notorious for making things more complicated than they
      need to be) are actually backing up their files! You don't
      have to hold peoples' hands or prod them insistently with
      sticks just to make them back up. It's easy to use, and,
      arguably, fun to use. That makes all the difference in the

      In case you haven't notice, that's how Apple sells products.
      Do you think the iPod and the iPhone were huge hits
      because they brought something [i]new[/i] to the market?
      As you constantly point out, no, they don't. However,
      Apple makes them cool looking, easy to use, and fun to
      use. When you do that, people are comfortable with the
      product and use it more effectively.
      • Well said. You'd have to be a complete moron

        not to be able to use and look after a Mac, but I'm
        constantly discovering my friends don't know how to use
        their Windows machines properly, never mind look after
        them so that software doesn't go sour. Yesterday I had to
        upload photos to the Web for a friend selling his house
        because he hadn't been able to do it himself!
      • You present some valid points here

        While I wouldn't say NonZealot is "wrong again" (he makes his share of good points), you present some valid points of your own, particularly in regards to the negligence of consistent off-disk backups by far too many computer users (including many who should know better). Your characterization of Apple's read of the buying public at large, and product branding in particular, is on the button as well.
        • I'm interested to hear..

          what good points you think the Zealot made.

          He was completely incorrect in the functioning of Time
          Machine; every point he makes is based on that.
          • In general

            No I mean in general. NZ produces his share of good reads, and you got to admit he's a rather clever fellow (dastardly from the Mac view). I've seen more than one Macster spill their cereal while reading his pokes. Truth is, every one of us could stand a poke or two in the rump to bring us back to earth, lest we get too carried away with our platform prejudices and preferences, and start taking computing (+ fencing) >> too << seriously, which strangely enough is easy to do. As enthusiasts, we're all subject to this strange phenomena to some extent [shades of the great Ford vs Chevy debates].

            Besides, you guys hold your own quite well in bringing it back, so it's all good in the end. At least that's how I see it, from my humble vantage point here in the smog of SoCal. ;)
  • Um, you can use a firewire drive for your time

    machine disk, too, so I don't get your point.
  • Microsoft....

    Microsoft hasn't even dreamed of this concept yet! It may be years before they "borrow" it and give it a snappier name, like "Windows Vista File Recovery Tool for End-Users".

    Just look at their new pride-and-joy, Windows Home Server. Forgetting the fact that it has been plagued with a data-corrupting bug since its release, file backups of PCs in the home are now simple. File restores, however, are cumbersome. Users cannot restore files themselves without having the admin password to the Home Server!! Read that last sentence again to understand how badly MS misjudges the home market.

    So, any time little Johnny needs to restore a file he accidentally deleted, he must either wait for Daddy or he must be given an admin password to the server. Amazing! I *still* do not understand how MS just cannot hire people who "get it".
  • Point well taken...

    If it were a "proper" backup system, it would generate a bootable copy.

    I periodically back up my Windows machine to a second hard drive as a bootable copy using Copy Commander. If the main drive fails, I'll be up and running again in a few minutes.
  • Time Machine is bootable

    If you get a Firewire drive you CAN boot from it and it is
    way faster. It amazes me that so many people use USB2.0
    when they really need Firewire. USB is burst and needs a
    CPU like a hub whereas FW is streaming and doesn't need
    a CPU so it is more like a switch. I have a 750G Seagate
    that formats to 698G and I still have 400G left even though
    it has been running TM since Nov 5. I only have 17G of
    music and 25G of photos. Most of the stuff is PDFs or
    downloads I keep in case I have to reinstall an app or a
    friend likes it and wants a copy (mostly shareware).
  • RE: Mac Time Machine: backup for the rest of us?

    I have a USB drive. The first thing I did was Carbon Copy to
    make a bootable backup and then turned on Time machine. I
    have at least a bootable starting point and then can backup
    from there in time machine. I seems to be able to work. If I'm
    wrong somebody please say so. One thing Carbon Copy if
    you do a new bootable option completely erases the hard
    drive so you have to start with it and you can loose any older
    Phil Justis