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Creating a Backup Plan for Your Mac: The Important Software and Drives You Should Use

written by: •edited by: Michael Dougherty•updated: 4/8/2010

In the first two articles in this series the concept of backups and backup media were reviewed. This final article in this series pulls the concepts together, talks about copying files, and about actual backup software.

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    My Personal Backup Plan

    The first article of this series introduced backup concepts and the second article examined what types of media you can use to create your backups. Now it's time to discuss backup plans and backup software. Bet you never thought we'd get there!

    In my case, I have a great deal of data that needs to be backed up. Photography, book revisions, vendor personal data is very important to me. So, what type of backup plan do I have?

    1. ITunes Library (music, movies, everything): This library grows and changes. I make incremental backups of the library as it grows to DVDs (ITunes helps me do this). I also backup the entire library to an external drive (500GiG). I’ve got two copies then. One on an easy to access backup drive, the other on a permanent set of DVDs.

    2. Photo Libraries: If you’ve followed my site for a while you know I take a lot of pictures. A LOT! My main photo library from August through today has 35.8 GBs of photos in it. Way too much to store on my regular hard drive since it has so many programs on it. My main photo library lives on the external drive “LaciePortable”. It is backed up once a week to the drive “500GiG”. Also, about once a month I copy the latest photo folders to DVDs as well. That way if I have a real disaster (2 drives dying….nearly impossible, but it could happen) I can always restore from my DVDs.

    3. The Mac Hard Drive: I have backed up my entire Macintosh hard drive to the external drive “500GiG”. Once a month I back it up again, that way any new files that have been added will also show up on my backup. All of my personal documents, financial stuff, etc., get caught in this backup.

    There’s my personal backup plan. In most cases, I copy incrementally to DVD. But mostly I use external hard drives to store backups. Having backups in more than one place is useful. Backing up to DVD is more of a pain, which is why I do it only when I’ve added enough data to make it worth my time. Backing up to the external hard drive is simple and easy. Copy from your main drive and paste to the backup drive. Done.

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    Backup Software

    Aren't there actual backup programs out there? What's all the talk about "Time Machine?"

    Yes, there are a great many backup programs out there for Macintosh. And the newest (and most amazing), is of course Time Machine. In order to have that program at your disposal you need to have the latest version of OS X. In my case, I don't!

    So, what’s up with backup software? Why the big deal? Why do people get paid tens of thousands of dollars to create complex backup plans for big companies??? Oh, I’m going to hyperventilate….

    Backup programs can help make life easier. I use one. I know, I just told you copy and paste, that simple. Backup software does the same thing. You tell them what to copy, and where to paste it. The nice thing about them is they can then do it automatically for you going forward.

    My LaCie external drive came with a wonderful program called Silver Keeper. The program asks me what I want to backup (copy), and where I want to back it up to (paste). It then asks me when I want to do it. Once a week. Once a month. Daily? Only when I tell it to…..etc.

    The program is pretty simple. The program screen has two sides. On the left side I select what I want to backup. On the right side I tell the program where to back up. Not so hard, right?

    The software does a few cool things beyond just copying. Instead of recopying everything it checks to see what’s already in the backup, and what’s new. It only copies the new stuff, never touching the original stuff. All that does is save me time.

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    Time Machine

    Apple's latest offering of OS X includes the best Macintosh backup software I've ever seen. Time Machine.

    This program is beyond simple to use. It's near impossible to mess up a backup plan. Why do I say that? Let's talk through how Time Machine works.

    A recent client bought a new Mac, and I was tasked to set it up. An external hard drive was purchased, and it was one of the last items we connected to his computer. The drive was easily connected, powered up, and it appeared on the Macintosh Desktop. Then an interesting thing happened.

    Time Machine's main window popped up and asked if the new hard drive should be used for the Time Machine backup program. Once you say yes to using an external drive as Time Machine's backup drive the program goes right to work. The entire system is selected for a full backup, and the program takes care of the copying!

    More amazing than Time Machine's ease of setup is what it does after the full backup. Incremental backups, as described in the previous section, are performed by Time Machine. The program doesn't go through and fully backup after it's initial backup. Instead it backs up new files, changed files, or it backs up the removal of files. Pretty amazing!

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    How to Start Backing Up Your Mac

    There really isn't much to backing up. The simplest view of backing up is copying files from one place and pasting them to another. You have copies in two independent places, and therefore you're less likely to lose something due to a single piece of equipment failing!

    So, what do you need to do to get your backups going?

    1. Determine what things you want to backup.

    2. Once you’ve picked the files and folders you want to backup, find out how much space they take (right click your files in the Finder and select Get Info). Total up your required backup space.

    3. Select the best storage media (file cabinet) for your needs. If you have under 8 GB of stuff to backup, a flash drive, DVD, or CD might work for you. If you need to backup more, check out an external hard drive at your local computer shop. Externals are cheap, run mostly on USB 2.0 connections (almost all new computers have USB connectors), and for under $200 you could backup your entire computer easily.

    Finally, if you have the latest version of OS X you're set. Get a good external hard drive, hook it to your computer, and let Time Machine take care of everything for you!