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Backing up your files using Time Machine
by M. Chris Stevens

I’m a big proponent of data backup. I’ve discussed it with customers. I’ve written articles about it. I’ve lectured my father ad nauseum about it.

So, given my heavy-handed stance on data backup, as soon as the Time Machine feature was announced for Leopard, it was determined that I’d be the one to really look into it and, of course, write up something on it.

But there’s one thing that’s a little embarrassing about this whole spiel. For as much as I keep myself informed about data backup, lecture others about the same, and as meticulous as I am about backing up my work machine daily, at home I really don’t practice what I preach.

So while this may help qualify me in case I ever want to go into politics, for now, it always makes me feel a little awkward when talking about data backup. However, with Time Machine, many of my needs for personal backup are addressed, making it that much easier to live by my own guidelines on data backup.

What are these needs?

  • Frequent backup.
    I’m a klutz. As Time Machine backs up changes hourly, and most of my projects take much longer to put together, frequent use of Command-S while I work will guarantee that at least some of my progress will be recoverable if I accidentally delete a file I need at a later date.
  • Ease of setup.
    Not only am I a klutz, I am a lazy klutz. So, once I’ve left the office, I don’t want to have to think too hard about the computer I’m using. As I’ll describe shortly, Time Machine’s simple, one-time setup fits this requirement nicely.
  • Automatic backup.
    Not only am I a lazy klutz, I’m a forgetful, lazy klutz. While this probably explains why I don’t date a whole lot, it definitely explains why many backup solutions do not work all that well for me: I’ll just plain forget to either run the software manually or (in the case of packages featuring scheduling) not having the necessary drive attached when it runs. This is especially true with a laptop. Time machine is extremely patient about its backups. It waits until you plug in your backup drive, and does its hourly backups from that point. Obviously, the more you keep it plugged in the better, but its nice to have that option of working “untethered” without worrying about angry dialog boxes popping up.

So, effectively, Time Machine has everything I've been looking for in a backup program.

Setting it up.

Setting up a drive to use with Time Machine is incredibly straight-forward. In most cases, you simply have to attach a new FireWire or USB hard drive to your computer and you’ll get a friendly pop-up window asking if you want to use said drive for Time Machine. Simply click "Use as Backup Disk" and go.

However, if you’ve hooked that drive up previously and declined the use of it (or if you have another drive that’s being used with it), you may have to go into the Time Machine preference panel and click either the “Choose Backup Disk…” button (if you haven’t set a backup drive yet up yet) or the “Change Disk…” icon. Either way, you’ll be presented with a list of available drives. Simply select one from the list and click “Use for Backup.”


Whether you had it automatically chosen, or you selected the drive manually, Time Machine will begin backing up your hard drive to the external. This can take a while, especially if you have a lot of data to transfer and/or you are hooked up via USB 2.0.

Once the initial data has been copied over, Time Machine will make hourly incremental backups until you disconnect the drive or shut down your computer.

Getting it back.

Retrieving files via Time Machine is a fairly painless process. Simply navigate to the last place you saved that file and click on the Time Machine icon in your Dock

You will be taken to the Time Machine interface. Simply navigate back to the last time the file was backed up, select the item and click the “Restore” button on the left.

But what if you don’t remember where that file was?

If you can’t recall which folder your file was saved in, you can still find it again. Time Machine integrates Spotlight functionality, so you can search both what’s on your drive now and what used to be on your drive. Just perform a new search in a Finder window, then activate Time Machine. Your search will be carried back through all the backups. Once you find where (or is that when?) it was, you can then select and restore it.

What if you need to restore your entire system?

This is possible, as well. Simply boot to your System Install Disk and Select “Restore System from Backup” from the Utilities menu. Once you have selected the Time Machine volume and backup date you wish to restore to, simply follow the onscreen instructions and you’re good to go.

Recommended rig configs.

While you could just make do with old external drives you have laying about the house, what better reason to justify to your boss (or spouse) dropping some extra cash on some hardware? So, without further ado, here are my recommendations, conveniently broken down by effectiveness/price range:


Use an OWC Mercury Elite-AL, an OWC Mercury On-The-Go (if you have a laptop), or a Newertech miniStack (for a mini or other Mac without FireWire 800).

Make sure the drive is at least half again as big as your internal hard drive (e.g.; if your computer has a 500GB HD, then get at least a 750GB external for Time Machine)

This is the least-expensive way to do this, and is also how Apple seems to think most people will have things set up.


Instead of a single hard drive, use a Newertech Guardian MAXimus with the same approximate recommended capacity. While still providing the same basic functionality as the previous rig, this solution also offers the extra security of the data mirroring feature of the drive, helping ensure data integrity in case of hardware failure.


Get a Guardian MAXimus in the above recommended capacity and a second, single drive the same size as your internal. Use the Guardian MAXimus as your Time Machine drive. Use the single drive to make a nightly clone to. This way, if your internal drive goes down, you still have a bootable backup, which also has access to your Time Machine files. Redundant? Yes, but so is any good backup system.


In the weeks leading up to Leopard’s release, there were a number of questions that kept popping up on various message boards or in conversations. So, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll cover them here.

Are Time Machine’s backups bootable?
Alas, no they are not. If you want to have a bootable backup, you will want to use a cloning utility such as Carbon Copy Cloner to make one.

Can I back up to another drive on my network?
Actually, you can, with one slight caveat: Time Machine can only back up to another Mac running Leopard with Personal File Sharing, Leopard Server, or Xsan storage devices.

They mention external FireWire and USB drives, but I have an eSATA drive I would like to use. Can I use it for my backup?
I tried this personally. Select your eSATA drive like you would any other device. A warning will come up asking if you want to back up onto the same disk as the original data. Simply Click "Use Selected Disk" and continue as normal.

Apparently, Apple wants us to think that the only place
you want to back up to is an external drive. Fortunately, we know better. :-)

I’ve read your articles for some time now, and know that you have a somewhat strange sense of humor. How come you avoided any blatant “Time Machine” puns in this article?
Well, the truth of the matter is, I really couldn’t think of any good ones. Not in words, anyway. However, as one of my computer-related hobbies is making icons, I figured I’d give you all a few special Time Machine icons.

Download the entire set HERE (908k)