Mac Time Machine: backup for the rest of us?

Time Machine really works. But is it the best backup tool for you?
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

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.

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