If, tomorrow, something goes wrong with your Mac or if it gets stolen or damaged, replacing the hardware itself is technically very easy to do; it just takes money. But the data that was on its hard disk or SSD—those precious photos, that carefully amassed iTunes library, that work, that novel? The best case scenario is that you pay hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars to a data recovery specialist to try to get some back, and the worst case is that it’s gone for good.
And that’s why, today, you should back up your Mac. We all know this, but understanding the different ways of backing up, and picking a backup strategy that’s right for you—so that you can rest easy knowing that it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll lose any of your files—can be tricky. At least, it would be, but for this guide!
Here we’re going to talk you through the pros and cons of different ways you can back up your Mac, giving you the information you need to make an informed decision about protecting your data in the way that suits you best.
But because that detailed information might be a bit intimidating, we’re going to start with two simple scenarios: the “if you do nothing else, do this” setup that is easy, cheap, and will give you some basic protection against data loss, and then our recommendation for a good mix of backup methods that should in most situations ensure your data can withstand almost any catastrophe.
If you do nothing else, do this!
Buy a hard disk, plug it into your Mac and then, when prompted to use it for Time Machine backup, accept. If you don’t see that prompt, just launch System Preferences and pick the hard disk in the Time Machine backup pane. (If it’s the wrong format, your Mac should offer to reformat it for you; if not, launch Disk Utility, repartition the drive as a single partition using the GUID map, and Mac OS X Extended format.)
We encourage you to read more—to adopt instead our recommended system immediately below, and to discover more about the limitations of this simple backup process in “Time Machine to a disk connected to your Mac” further below—but don’t be put off by all the text that follows. If you stop reading here and do this rather than nothing at all, you’ve done a good job.
Time Machine to a disk connected to your Mac
There are other apps that can back up your files to an external hard disk, but Time Machine is simple, built-in, sure to be supported, and offers file versioning as well as simple backup; that is, older copies of your files are stored alongside the current one so that you don’t have to restore the most recent version, but can step back through time to grab older drafts. For this reason it’s a good idea to buy a hard disk that’s two or more times the size of your internal drive—so you have space to store lots of versions. (It’s all handled automatically for you.) Hard disks are cheap—a little over a hundred bucks for a 4TB drive, at the time of writing—but if you have a laptop with an SD card slot you could also consider fitting an SD card (even a Micro SD card inside a Nifty MiniDrive so that it’s nice and flush) to use as your Time Machine drive for extra convenience.
And certainly, if you’re using Time Machine on a laptop with a physically connected disk, consider those smaller disks based on 2.5-inch mechanisms rather than 3.5-inch desktop drives; they’re usually more expensive per gigabyte, but they’re “bus-powered,” drawing the power they need through the USB port rather than requiring a separate power supply, all of which means you’re more likely to plug the disk in and actually back up.
Good because: Set-it-and-forget-it easy, cheap, built-in, likely to be supported for a long time. Takes a snapshot of your files every hour, and makes it easy to retrieve deleted and overwritten files with its versioning feature. Can also be used to restore an entire system.
But be aware that: You need to have the disk connected for back ups to happen (fine on a desktop, but not guaranteed with a laptop), it’s slow to restore from if you replace a failed internal hard disk (you can’t boot from it), and it offers no protection against theft or local disasters such as fire.