At least two backups for your Mac, and no, iCloud is not a backup

As much as I hate to admit it, when it comes to losing data, the question is not “if,” but “when.” If you rely on your Mac for your job, or if your Mac contains valuable information—and whose Mac doesn’t have at least irreplaceable photos?—you must back up regularly or risk data loss. Seriously, full backups of your entire Mac are not optional. If I had to take a guess based on my experience, about one half of hard drives fail before your computer is obsolete. It’s like wearing a seatbelt: you are probably fine statistically each time you get in the car if you don’t wear one. I’ve been on probably 50,000 to 100,000 car rides in my life and never needed a seatbelt. But there is a really good chance that it will save my life or reduce an injury at some point so I do it. Every. Time.

Backups protect your data and help you get back to work more quickly if your Mac is lost, stolen, dropped on the floor, caught in a fire, soaked by a broken pipe, or compromised by malicious hackers. They also save the day if your drive crashes, if an important file develops corruption, and even when you make a mistake and delete essential data from a file without realizing until Undo can no longer help.

Why at least two backups? Backups fail, too. If they didn’t then we would use that technology for our original files. And sometimes you don’t find out that the backup has a problem until you try restoring from it. It’s also wise to keep your files in multiple physical locations.

Backup #1: Time Machine

I always recommend Time Machine as your primary backup. It’s the fastest, easiest, and most versatile. Set it and forget it.

Apple has been making backups easier since 2007 by including the Time Machine backup software with their Mac system software. It will create versionedbackups every hour, which contain multiple copies of each file as it changes over time. With versioned backups, you can restore a lost or damaged file to its most recent state, or to a previous state. That’s essential if corruption crept in unnoticed and you’ve been backing up a corrupt file for some time, or if you accidentally made a change you want to undo. Time Machine also enables you to restore an entire drive, which you might do if you have to reformat or replace your drive or if a system upgrade breaks your computer.

Do not confuse Time Machine with Time Capsule. Time Machine is the software on your Mac that will back up to any drive. Time Capsule is an all-in-one router, wifi, and backup drive that Apple sells to make backing up portable computers easier.

To set up a Time Machine backup you will need either

  • an external hard drive that is at least twice as spacious as the computer you are backing up (cheapest option but requires manually connecting to back up–good option for a desktop computer but tedious for a MacBook)
  • an AirPort Time Capsule (an expensive but reliable way to back up wirelessly and automatically)
  • a networked hard drive with Time Machine support (difficult to set up but pretty affordable),
  • a router with Time Machine support with an attached USB hard drive (also very difficult to set up depending on the brand but affordable–a little easier if you use an AirPort Extreme)
  • A second Mac, a desktop running High Sierra with an shared external hard drive.

There are too many of these Time Machine methods to go into specific details in this article, but search the web to see what others say. If I create my own articles about these methods in the future I’ll be sure to update this article with links.

Time Machine backups, useful as they are, can’t help you should you be so unlucky as to experience a burglary, fire, or flood that affects your Mac, it’s likely that your Time Machine drive—and your bootable duplicate—will suffer the same fate and thus be useless as a backup. To protect against that unhappy possibility, you need an offsite backup.

Backup #2: Offsite Backup

If disaster strikes both your Mac and its attached backup drive, you’ll be ecstatic that you stored a backup elsewhere. When it comes to offsite backups, you have two basic choices:

  • Set up two or three backup drives with Time Machine, and store one of them in another location, such as a trusted friend’s house or your office across town. A safe deposit box also works well. If you’re storing it where someone else could access it, make sure to encrypt the Time Machine backup. Then, on a regular basis, swap the drives such that you’re backing up to one, and keeping another off-site.
  • Use a cloud backup service, which you can back up to and restore from over the Internet. My favorite is Backblaze. Plans start at about $5 per month or $50 per year for one computer. These apps back up constantly in the background, so you’re always protected. Their main downside is that they’re slow in both directions, but in the event of a four-alarm fire that melts your Mac, retrieving your data slowly is better than not getting it back at all. Also they do not back up applications and settings, just files. So if you do need to restore from Backblaze you have to reinstall your applications, configure your computer manually, and put all of your files back where they belong which can be a very tedious process.

Backup #3: Bootable Clone

This is a bit more of a specialty backup so it’s not something I recommend for everyone, but if you really want to minimize downtime this is an excellent choice. You can use a cloning backup program like Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper. They both create an exact copy of your computer’s hard drive on an external disk. If something happens to the original hard drive or computer, you just plug the backup into a working Mac, turn the Mac on and immediately hold the Option key, then you can boot your computer with the cloned drive so you are back up and running in minutes. The drawbacks to this are that their ability to retain older files is more limited than Time Machines, so it’s not great protection for deleted or changed files. And it’s not an offsite backup, so in case of a real physical disaster it will offer no more protection than Time Machine.

Not Backup #4: iCloud, Dropbox, etc.

I’ve heard many people say that they don’t use Time Machine because they have iCloud or Dropbox or some other cloud syncing service. This may be all very well and good if you are sure that your important files are in fact in there, but these services only grab items from a few key locations in your computer. Just having iCloud or having Dropbox doesn’t mean that your computer is backed up. It means that a few select folders are synced–if you have that option turned on. The biggest problem with these systems is that they are syncing services, not backup services. So if you change a file or delete a file, these alterations are synchronized immediately. In certain circumstances you can recover these changes for up to 30 days, but not necessarily. It also means that if someone gets into your account, either on purpose or accidentally, changes that they make could affect your original files.

As an example I know someone who had iCloud Photo Library enabled, which is a great service for syncing your Photos Library across your devices and something I recommend for most clients. But again, it is not a backup service. She got a new iPhone and gave her old iPhone to her son without wiping the device clean. Her son went through and deleted all of his mom’s photos because he didn’t need them, and then he emptied the “deleted photos” folder which was iCloud’s failsafe. The images were instantly removed from all of her devices. We managed to recover many but not all of her photos using some undelete software on her Mac. Let’s just say she’s a believer in Time Machine now.

So in short, more backups are better, especially if they are in different physical locations.