My Backup Strategy for OS X

We’ve all been there, or know someone who has: Whether it be a document you forgot to save, a USB stick you misplaced or even a whole corrupted computer drive – it’s far too easy to lose digital files that are important to us.

Backing up our data – whether it be precious family photos or important work documents – is so easy, but yet so few of us actually ever get round to doing anything about it until it’s too late. You might even think you are good at looking after your files, but are you prepared for fire, theft or natural disaster?

The Apple ecosystem makes backing up your files relatively simple, and with only a little technological knowledge and a couple of small purchases you can ensure you are protected against virtually any scenario.

Here’s a look at my full backup strategy, which can be broken into three parts:

1. Local Backup

Time Machine

Luckily for Mac users, the simplest way to backup your data is built right in the operating system. There’s no doubt that Time Machine is one of the great features of OS X. It’s unobtrusive backup software, integrated right into your Mac’s day-to-day workflow.

The easiest (and fastest way) to set-up a Time Machine backup is to connect an external drive directly to your Mac via USB, FireWire or Thunderbolt. You can also use an Apple Time Capsule, designed specifically for Time Machine, via Ethernet or Wi-Fi.

Once the initial backup is complete Time Machine will then create hourly backups

Whichever you choose, the set-up process is simple via the System Preferences panel in OS X. One thing to note is that Time Machine will use the entire space available on a drive over time, so if you want to limit that it’s best to partition the drive before you start. Also make sure you choose the option to encrypt your backups, it’s a extra level of security that’s invaluable in case of theft.

As Time Machine saves multiple versions of files it’s good to use a drive that’s at least double the size of your internal hard drive to allow plenty of space – so, for example, if your hard drive capacity is 1TB (and you plan to fill most of it), use an external drive for Time Machine with at least 2TB of space.

On first launch Time Machine will backup your entire drive – this may take some time depending on connection speed, it could even be days. It’s also not uncommon for it to say ‘Preparing Backup…’ for a long period of time before beginning. Once the initial backup is complete Time Machine will then create hourly backups of just the data that has changed.

The structuring of backups is fairly straight-forward: Hourly backups are stored for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups for all previous months. Once the disk is full the oldest backups are replaced.

Retrieving an old version of a file is also a simple process – just find the file in the Finder and hit ‘Enter Time Machine’ and you can scroll through the dates of all your backups. You can also manually find a deleted file this way.

In a worst case scenario, you can also use a Time Machine backup to completely restore a Mac, albeit not as efficiently as with a cloned drive (see below).

On the whole Time Machine just works, but some users have run into problems. In the past I’ve had the most issues using it via Wi-Fi with a Time Capsule – hogging the bandwidth, overloading the connection and being generally slow – so now stick to wired drives which generally work seamlessly. Older Time Capsules also had a fairly limited lifespan, which has now allegedly been solved.

For more information on using Time Machine, visit Apple’s excellent guide.


Although not technically local backup, Dropbox is an absolute must-have. All my important files that I’m currently working on live in my Dropbox folder on my Mac, which then syncs automatically to Dropbox’s servers.

The benefit is two-fold: Your files are backed to the cloud, and, even better, it’s done instantly each time you save, creating document versioning. Whereas Time Machine only backups every hour, Dropbox keeps each version of a file, all retrievable from its web platform. This means if you even need to roll-back to an earlier incarnation of a file, the process is simple and not time-limited.

2. Cloned Drives

SuperDuper! / Carbon Clone Copier

While having a Time Machine backup is great, it doesn’t cover all bases of a complete backup strategy, particularly in terms of a whole system malfunction. The simplest way to ensure your data is fully backed-up and easily accessible is to make a exact cloned and bootable copy of your hard drive.

If your whole system fails, you can boot your machine from the backup drive

Even though this is a relatively common need for many users, there’s still only two decent Mac apps available to assist you: Superduper! (£20) and Carbon Copy Cloner (£27.50). Both have almost identical features, and there’s little to choose between them. Superduper! is my preference, but simply because I have used it for many years.

Both apps are easy to use and can quickly create a full clone of your entire hard drive, and crucially one that is bootable. This means that if your whole system fails, you can boot your machine from the backup drive (hold down the ‘alt/option’ hey at startup) and be up and running again instantly. You can then use OS X’s Disk Utility to erase your corrupted drive and replace with the working cloned backup.

Both Superduper! and Carbon Clone Copier support ‘smart updates’ as well – finding only files that have changed – meaning after the initial run future backups will be much quicker. Many people schedule these backups to run nightly in order to have a full clone of the previous day at any one time.

As with Time Machine, it is always a good idea to encrypt your backup drives, otherwise someone could steal your external drive and have easy access to all your data. Similarly you should be using account passwords and FileVault 2 for extra security on your Mac.

Offsite Backup

Of course, the real beauty of having a full cloned backup drive though is that you don’t just have to keep it at home with your Mac. In order to be fully prepared for disaster in the form of theft, fire or other natural disaster, it’s good practice to keep a backup offsite.

In my backup system this works as simply as having two portable external drives that I rotate, one onsite and one in a secure offsite place, swapping them at fortnightly intervals. So in a worse case scenario of a complete meltdown at home the most you would have to rewind is a couple of weeks. And more importantly all your precious photos and documents are safe.

3. Cloud Backup

There’s one final backup measure that’s becoming increasing popular, both through ease of use and ultimate disaster avoidance – cloud-based backup. There are several Mac apps that allow you to do this, but as I’ve previously written, my choice is CrashPlan.

With all your files stored externally on someone else’s server, it adds an extra level of security, knowing that even in the very worst scenario your files are safe (and encrypted) on a large company’s system. Of course, this is option incurs an on-going subscription fee, but is well worth it for the piece of mind that your files are protected.