Article: Backup Your Mac with Time Machine

by on January 5, 2010

It’s a new year, and as a result, there’s probably a number of New Year’s resolutions already being broken around the world. Backing up your Mac should not be one of those. With any extra hard drive and a Mac equipped with Mac OS X 10.5 or 10.6, you can use Time Machine to easily back up your data automatically.

Most people know what Time Machine is—you’ve seen it in Apple’s various marking pages and have likely stumbled across the icons in your Applications folder or System Preferences. For those of you who already use it, great. This article is designed for those who are unsure of what they need or how to get started. In order to set up Time Machine, there is only one thing you’ll need to buy—an internal hard drive (only if you have a Mac Pro or Power Mac), or an external hard drive (all models)*. If you have a Mac Pro or Power Mac, consult your system’s manual as to which type of internal drive (parallel ATA or serial ATA) and how to install it. If you’d rather not mess with digging inside of your computer, external hard drives are also an option.

Select a Drive

If you have an older Mac, you’ll probably want to go with a FireWire drive (due to the lower-speed USB 1.1 ports on your computer). For the category that this falls under, this really only includes some older iMac G4s, Power Mac G4s, and PowerBook G4s. Everyone else can choose either FireWire or USB external hard drives. Chances are, if you hit up your local big-box retailer or electronics store, they’ll only have USB-based drives for sale. FireWire options usually will be marketed as special “Mac compatible” versions with a pricetag to match. For a backup drive on a recent Mac, USB is fine. Many will argue that FireWire is a better choice, and it is for tasks such as media, quick access, and more, but for incremental backups it is not as critical.

Now that you’ve selected the interface to use, the next step is to select the physical size of the drive and the capacity. For the physical size, it really depends on personal preference. 3 1/2 inch drives are larger and are designed to sit at a desk and be plugged into a wall to operate. These are typically found inside desktop computers and offer you more space for the money. 2 1/2 inch drives are smaller, usually found inside laptops, only require power from your computer, and are more portable. The downside is that you get less space for the money. Selecting the size is the easy part—buy as much as you can. Even though your computer may only hold 80GB, you can use the drive later to back up any external hard drives you may purchase. The additional benefit is that Time Machine saves your backups in a way that you can pull up changes to files over time. In other words, if you have more space, the further back in time you can go.

Prepare Your Drive

Chances are the drive you bought is formatted for use with a Windows-based PC. This makes sense for the drive manufacturers, and you can use the drive this way, but for Time Machine, you do not want to. The problem with this is that the Windows file system does not support many things that are Mac-specific. Therefore, you’ll want to erase it as HFS+, the standard file system for the Mac. Follow these steps:

1. Connect your drive. Your computer may ask you the drive with Time Machine now. Don’t do it.

2. Open Disk Utility (it’s in Applications > Utilities).

Step 1

3. Select your new drive (it’s usually orange).

Step 2

4. Select the Partition tab.

Step 3

5. Choose the number of volumes from the Volume Scheme dropdown. This is the number of “drives” that appear on your computer. While partitioning a disk is a great idea for keeping files separate, you don’t want to use your backup drive for anything else.

Step 4

6. Click Options…

Step 5

7. Choose GUID Partition Table or Apple Partition Map (this is up to you, mostly because this drive will not be used to boot from) and hit OK.

Step 6

8. Click Apply and let your Mac prepare the drive.

If your computer asks you to use the drive with Time Machine, you can allow it. If it does not ask you, go to System Preferences > Time Machine and turn it on.

That’s all you have to do to set up Time Machine with your Mac. Whenever the drive is connected to the Mac (which would be always if you have an internal drive), any changes to your Mac will be backed up hourly. Restoring individual files is as simple as clicking the Time Machine icon in the Applications folder and navigating to how far back you want. To restore a computer completely, follow the steps on your Mac OS X install DVD.

Hopefully keeping your files backed up will be a New Year’s resolution you can keep. For anywhere between $70 and $150, you can buy a good drive and have a safe extra copy of your files.

* If you have the skills to build your own external hard drive, you can buy an external enclosure and internal drive. Usually these are pretty simple to put together (two of our drives are this type), but may be a bit much for those who want an “appliance” experience.

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