Back up now. Seriously. Do it.

Sorry for the lengthy post, but I just can’t stress how important it is to back up your devices. How much are the projects, photos, music and contacts on your computer worth to you? If your computer is necessary for your primary source of income, I’ll bet it’s worth many thousands of dollars. Maybe tens of thousands. Investing $100 in the security of your data is a no-brainer. Even if your computer is nothing more than an email and Facebook machine having a proper backup can save many hours of reconfiguring and reinstalling. Hard drive reliability is unpredictable; just because it’s new doesn’t mean that you’re safe. I know people who have had hard drive failures within weeks. And probably about half of the people I know have had data loss that could have been mitigated with a proper backup. But not only do you have to worry about a hard drive crash. A backup will reduce your losses from theft, accidental overwriting of files, and even from pets and children.

Backing up OS X

Since Mac OS X Leopard (10.5), Apple has included Time Machine, which is perhaps the easiest to use backup system ever created. Let me clear up a little misunderstanding that a lot of people have because of Apple’s marketing department: Time Machine is not a ploy to get you to buy more expensive Apple hardware. Many people confuse Time Machine with Time Capsule, which is Apple’s network hard drive that is designed to work well with Time Machine. The truth is, Time Machine is supported on virtually any hard drive such is this great 2 terabyte (2,000 gigabyte) drive for $119.

Here is how Time Machine works. While your backup hard drive is connected (by a cable or over the air), your Mac will run an hourly backup which copies all modified files to your drive. After 24 hours, your hourly backups get consolidated into a daily backup. And then into weekly backups. When the backup drive gets filled up your oldest backups are deleted. Then if your computer hard drive crashes, if you lose your computer, if you accidentally delete a file, or you accidentally make a change to a file, you can just fire up Time Machine and get things back the way they were. Many programs such as Apple Mail, Address Book and iPhoto even integrate with Time Machine so that you can browse through the app in the past and pull items into the present.

Here is how to set up Time Machine. First, you’ll need a secondary hard drive that’s at least as large as the one you’re backing up. Double it if you can. USB hard drives work great. If you have a Mac Pro, you can even use a secondary internal drive. If you have an AirPort extreme, you can make your Time Machine drive wireless just like the Time Capsule (my recommended configuration for portable computers since it means you don’t have to remember to plug your drive in all the time). Second, plug in your hard drive and confirm that you want to use it as a Time Machine backup. That’s it! If you are using a drive connected to your AirPort Extreme you’ll need to be sure to run the Time Machine configuration in System Preferences, which is a couple of extra steps but still very easy. The first backup might take several hours to finish, but subsequent backups will be quick since it will only back up what you change.

If you want to read Apple’s own overview of Time Machine, check out this article.

Check your backups periodically. The backup process is usually very reliable, but for extra peace of mind you can easily check when the last backup took place by clicking the Time Machine icon in your menu bar, near the clock. It looks like an analog clock face with the counterclockwise arrow.

Time Machine can’t back up itself. I recommend not using your time machine hard drive for auxiliary storage. Time Machine can’t back itself up. Even if it could it would be like photocopying a page and printing it out on the back side of the same sheet. It’s no more safe than just having the one copy.

Alternatives to Time machine. There are several online services such as Backblaze and Mozy that charge a small monthly fee for backup. A program is installed on your computer, and during your computer’s idle time your files are packaged up and sent over the internet to their servers. This is a great option for people who are very mobile and can’t plug in at home as often as they want, or for people who are concerned with theft or with damage such as fire.

Backing up iOS

Beginning with iOS 5 and iCloud, Apple has provided everyone with a new, easier way to back up your iOS device. Before iCloud your iPhone would only back up when you connected it to your computer, and most people rarely or never did this. Your iPhone is a portable device which is prone to loss and breakage, so many people lost their data because their backups were non-existent or too old.

iCloud Backup

This is my preferred backup method because you don’t have to even own a computer to use this and because when you restore your backup to a new phone all you have to do is put in your Apple ID username and password and it will pull all your old data down from Apple’s servers. This backup runs each night if your phone is plugged into power, is on WiFi, and is in sleep mode. This is to make sure you don’t drain your battery, you don’t use up your data plan, and that your phone doesn’t get slow while you’re using it. The disadvantage is that you need to be sure to have enough storage with your iCloud plan. Apple gives each user 5 GB but you can pay to get more. Unless you’re a heavy user, the free plan should give you enough space to back up an iPad and an iPhone. Your music, videos, and apps don’t count because they don’t need to be backed up: your computer (or iTunes Match) already has your music and videos, and Apple lets you download another copy of your apps any time you want. The only thing that gets backed up is your app settings, system settings, and (the usual suspect if you’re low on iCloud storage) your photos and videos.

To set up or manage your iCloud backup you can fire up the Settings app and locate the “iCloud” item in the menu. Then go to the bottom to find the Backup section. From there you can turn on iCloud backup, manage which apps’ data gets backed up in case some apps takes up too much space, and to see when the last backup was completed.

For Apple’s overview of iCloud Backup, read their article.

iTunes Backup
This is where iOS traditionally did its backup. Previously you would need to plug into your computer by USB to back up, but as of iOS 5 you can do this over WiFi. The advantages here are that you don’t have to worry about backup sizes if you have a big hard drive on your computer and if you are a serious tinkerer you can modify the backups or extract things from the backups. Most people however don’t fall into these categories. Unless you turned on iCloud backups, this is how your device is currently backing up. You can check the status of your backups in the iTunes Preferences screen under the Devices tab.