Mac backup options - An overview

Mac backup options FAQ: How can I backup my Mac (iMac, MacBook, MacBook Pro)? What are my options?

There are several different ways to create Mac backups. We can break all these approaches down into two main approaches:

  1. Automated Mac backup options
  2. Manual Mac backup options

As the name implies, automated Mac backup options back up your Mac data automatically. After an initial setup, the automated backups "just work", and if/when you need to restore from your Mac backups, they should work.

Also as the name implies, manual Mac backup options are handled manually. In short, you follow some sort of procedure on a regular basis to create your Mac backups. This typically involves the use of some form of external media, including CD, DVD, external hard drives, network drives, and USB thumb drives.

Let's take a look at automated Mac backup options, and then manual Mac backup options.

How to create automated Mac backups

We can break automated Mac backups into two primary approaches:

  1. Use an online Mac backup service
  2. Use Apple's Mac Time Machine technology

Online Mac backup solutions Online Mac backup solutions work by installing some software on your Mac, doing some initial configuration work, and then letting that software back up your Mac data to "the cloud", i.e., servers that are located somewhere on the internet. As you work every day, your data trickles out to those servers, and in theory, this should make for an excellent off-site, automated backup system.

I've already written a lot about online Mac backup solutions, so I'll just say if you're interested in learning more about these options, please see my Mac online backup solutions article.

Time Machine backups The second automated backup approach is to use Apple's Time Machine software, preferably with some sort of external hard drive. This approach also makes automated Mac backups, in this case to your external hard drive instead of to some place in the cloud. A benefit of this approach is that it doesn't constantly eat into your internet bandwidth, and a negative of this approach is that your data is not stored offsite. (Heaven forbid a disaster ever happens, it's much better to have your data backed up offsite.)

To create automated Mac backup options with Time Machine, the easiest thing I can recommend is:

  • Buy an Apple Time Capsule, which is an external hard drive that you can attached to your network.
  • Configure Time Machine to make automated backups to your Time Capsule device.

I'll write a tutorial about how to do this in the future, but in the meantime, when you buy a Time Capsule I'm pretty sure it includes instructions on how to set this up.

Finally, if you're more comfortable with technology, you don't have to buy a Time Capsule from Apple; you can buy an external hard drive from another vendor and set it up to work with Time Machine.

Now let's look at manual Mac backup approaches.

Manual Mac backups

Manual Mac backups typically involve you taking some time out every day, week, or month to make a backup to some sort of external media. For instance, let's say you decide you don't want to make a backup of your Mac every day, but you're willing to do it every weekend. (You're willing to lose one week's worth of data should a catastrophe ever happen.)

To do this, every Saturday morning you follow this procedure:

  • You connect an external hard drive to your computer
  • You create a new backup folder on that hard drive, naming it something like "20110219".
  • You drag your "home" folder on your Mac to that new folder on your external hard drive.
  • You go off and do something while that backup runs. Depending on the size of what you back up, this may take anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours.

While I just mentioned making backups to an external hard drive, you can actually make backups to several different types of external media, including:

  • CD
  • DVD
  • USB thumb drives
  • External hard drive
  • Storage systems on internet servers (perhaps via FTP)

The primary benefit of making manual Mac backups like this is that they are probably less expensive than any other approach. The primary drawback to this manual approach is that very few people actually do this on a regular basis, and it really leaves you susceptible to a fair amount of data loss.

That being said, if you're not making any form of Mac backups today, you're already extremely susceptible to data loss, so even making a Mac backup just once a month is better than making no Mac backups at all.

Mac backups overview - Summary

I hope this overview of Mac backups has been helpful. For more details on these approaches, I've written these related "Mac backup" tutorials:

On a related note, I've also written about how to use an Apple Time Capsule device as a Mac network share. I use my Time Capsule to make manual backups from time to time:

Once again, whether you have an iMac, MacBook, or MacBook Pro, I hope this Mac backups overview and my related Mac backup articles have been helpful.