The Power of Time Machine

I hear this phrase all too often: “I love technology... when it works”. Believe me when I say I sympathize with you.

Computers are great, until they don’t do what you tell them to do. Unfortunately, hard drives crash, files are accidentally deleted, and computers are lost and stolen. We all hope it will never happen to us, but the truth is, it very likely will at some point. I read a stat once that said 19% of all consumer-based hard drives fail (mechanically) in the first 12 months. That’s scary, especially considering how much we rely on them to store our precious data.

Have no fear, there are plenty of ways to protect ourselves from data loss. In addition to a variety of cloud-based backup services (Mozy, Carbonite, Crash Plan, etc.), there are still some very good ways to backup your data locally. Time Machine (a free backup utility built-in to every Mac) is one of those. In fact, it’s actually my favorite local backup utility.

All you need for Time Machine to work is a Mac and an external hard drive (I recommend that your external drive is at least twice the size of your internal drive... preferably larger). When you connect the external drive to your Mac for the first time, you will be asked if you want to use that drive as a Time Machine backup drive. Click yes. That’s all the setup needed to enable and start using Time Machine.

Now that Time Machine is enabled, how does it work? Simple: the first time it backs up your system, it takes a full “snapshot” of your internal drive (including applications, settings, data, etc). That first backup can take a little while, so you’re better to let it run overnight. Once the first backup is complete, Time Machine will automatically perform an incremental backup (meaning only backing up the files that have changed since the last backup) every hour. The incremental backups are very quick (usually less then a couple minutes), and have no noticeable impact on system performance. In other words, you don’t realize they’re happening. Given the frequency of the backups, you will never experience more than an hour of data loss if your drive crashes... as long as your Time Machine drive is connected (obviously, it can’t backup your system if the drive isn’t connected).

In addition to backing up your data, another really cool feature of Time Machine is “versioning”. It automatically saves a copy of all your files (in increments of 1 hour), even when you make changes. This is great for rolling back files to a previous version when needed. So if I create a file now, it will be part of my next backup. If I make changes to that file next week, those changes will also be backed up. If I decide I want to roll the document back to the original version, I simply open Time Machine, browse to the version of the file I want to keep, and click “Restore”. From there, Time Machine does the rest, and you’re left with the version of the file that you want (in this case, the original).

In short... using Time Machine is a no-brainer for those of you using Macs. If you don’t have a spare external hard drive accessible right now, you can pick one up for your local Best Buy (or other computer stores) for less than $100. If you’re willing to spend a little more, I recommend the Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt drive. It supports USB 3 and Thunderbolt.

If you aren’t backing up now, stop what you’re doing and create a backup plan NOW! DId I mention that it will do you no good to put this plan in motion AFTER your drive is lost, stolen or fails? It has to be done BEFORE.

Posted on March 24, 2013 and filed under How To, Mac.