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Let'sTalk About Backups

? Eight Simple Rules For Protecting Your Mac |


| So I Have To Ask.... ?

May 11, 2006

Let'sTalk About Backups

Arik Hesseldahl

Okay let me start this post with a confession. I obsess about backing up my critical files. But the truth is I don't think I do it very well. I have lots of external hard drives, and have tried all sorts of methods to make it easy, but nothing I've tried really seems to take the pain out of what I've learned the hard way is an incredibly necessary chore.

So I want to know what you do. Tell me precisely what tools you use to get the job done, and how regularly you do it, and whether or not you think you've managed to take the pain and time out of the process. I'd also be curious to know if doing it it has saved you from certain disaster. The reader comments line is open.

06:00 AM

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I have work projects concentrated in one directory on my PowerBook and every day I archive it and store the archive on my Shuffle. Along with that I also archive my current work from my office PC. The shuffle is then is in my pocket where ever I am. I can do this because I am a software developer and can hold all my current work in about 300 Meg.

Weekly I back up all the families Mac's (3) to DVD with Retrospect. This backs up the user directories and Non-Apple application directory ( I try to put all non-Apple programs in a top level directory called LocalApps).


Posted by: Jim Schimpf at May 11, 2006 08:06 AM

I am sure there are better ways than what I do. I use a iBackup weekly on my document folder, which creates a ghost image on my external drive. Critical documents, those related to journal articles in progress and my dissertation, are also backed up nightly to my flash drive.

On Saturdays, I run Disk Warrior on both my internal and external hard drives. Since January 2006, my internal drive has crashed twice and my external once. Fun times.

Posted by: michael Levin at May 11, 2006 09:40 AM

First of all I am not a programmer.. the best way I found to backup my data is to create a workflow with Automator.. Get files from all the places they are including iTunes Music library xml file (not the songs that's stored on my iPod).. All my mailboxes, addresses, documents, iCals and pictures.. Then I create a zip file of all that on my desktop.. I then transfer the zip file to my iPod.. I have added this as a plug in to iCal so it happens by itself every week.. That's the easist way I have found to back up my data... I have tried other programs but don't like any of them ... Even though the Appble Back up program is good...

Posted by: Bill Rodriguez at May 11, 2006 10:36 AM

If you had ask me this question 2 weeks ago, I would have said: Impression from Babel Company.

Why Impression?

Because it does VERIFICATION. That is, it checks to make sure that the data were written to the backup correctly.

I looked at lots of backup software before finally selecting Impression.

Why not Impression?

Because on 01MAY2006 it became orphaned software. The developer dropped it.


Now, I get to start over again.


Posted by: Dave Barnes at May 11, 2006 10:50 AM

My backup solution revolves around my iDisk, the Backup application that also comes with .Mac, and a LaCie external hard drive. I have four backup plans that run on everything from a daily to a weekly to a monthly schedule. Additionally, I use Aperture for my photography which has its own, built in backup tools. After having used about a half-dozen different backup programs over the years I can finally say that I've found the best one.

Posted by: Gwynn Peabody at May 11, 2006 11:14 AM

I have two hard drives on my G-5 desktop. I use a little program called, "Super Duper" that backs one hard drive to the other every day. It is now set to only backup changes made during the day on drive #1. After it backs everything up, it makes drive #2 a boot drive also. It's painless and quick.

Posted by: Tom at May 11, 2006 11:25 AM

My only Mac is a Powerbook with a relatively small 40gb HD. Before I sent it into AppleCare to get something checked out, I popped a spare 60gb drive into a firewire enclosure and cloned my laptop with SuperDuper! (

I left it to run over night, but it took less than 2 hours.

Luckily I have not had to use it as my laptop came back fine from AppleCare.

Posted by: Andy at May 11, 2006 11:44 AM

Tom at May has beaten me to it - I was just about to recommend SuperDuper! I think, of all my non-Apple applications, I love this one the best.

SuperDuper! from from ShirtPocket Software ( has a great many advantages over other, similar products, including Retrospect, the biggest of which is the easy to use interface and the clearly defined back up options. You can

(1) clone the entire drive, including the OS, applications and all user directories

(2) back up only user directories

(3) back up specified directories

The program allows you to run shell scripts, so you can launch house-keeping tools, before or after the backup is completed.

You can also specify the actual nature of the backup:

(1) Incremental, adding only files that are new or replacing changed files since the last backup;

(2) Start from scratch, erasing the destination drive before each backup and writing a completely new copy

(3) "Smart Backup" which adds new files, updates changed files and removes deleted files

At the end of the backup process, if you've cloned your boot drive, you can have your Mac restarted from the cloned drive. There is also a repair permissions option for the post-backup process.

Scheduling backups is a snap - there is a button that takes you to a simple calendar interface (new in the latest version), and you can even schedule multiple backups of the same drive.

Since I keep my music on a separate drive, I have a separate backup drive for that as well.

The only thing that SD! doesn't do is back up onto optical media - which is a non-starter, given that even backing up onto DVDs is laborious and expensive when you've got dozens, if not hundreds of GB of data.

The Apple Backup program, even coupled with a .mac account, is just not sufficient for everyday. My mail files alone are 4 times greater than the alloted space on a .mac account. 1 GB of space is good for my address book and keychain, and a handful of docs. Apple Backup won't write to a hard drive unless you pay the $99 per year .mac fee, and frankly, it's got nearly none of the features that the SuperDuper! has, for $20.

Posted by: Lita Kaufman at May 11, 2006 12:13 PM

I use Econ Technologies' inexpensive ChronoSync to backup to two external FireWire drives. ChronoSync supports incremental backup, has a built-in scheduler, has a very powerful file selector, and provides automatic e-mail notification.

It has been reliably--and automatically--backing up my system for over two years now. I never worry about it.

Posted by: Don at May 11, 2006 04:46 PM

In 15 years I've restored from backup at least 5 times. Each time it's saved me from utter disaster. One was corporate (awful but worked) 4 were personal. I've lost less than 6 hours work total, but the restores cost time.

I used to use tape, now I rotate removeable drives. I use Retrospect because I MUST have one solution for Mac and XP, it MUST work across the LAN, it MUST be completely automated and run while I sleep. I loathe and distrust Retrospect and would like something better. When I replace my last XP box with a Mac and XP virtual I won't need Retrospect any longer.

At work I backup with the approved corporate solution and my own completely separate solution.

I rotate home backups offsite every month or so. Fire is my main risk.

I'd like Google to take this over -- provide me a backup service.

Posted by: John Faughnan at May 11, 2006 05:18 PM

Superduper the one and only.

Posted by: coelomic at May 12, 2006 02:25 AM

Having worked with computers for a very long time and felt the pain of seeing several hard drives give up the ghost, I am an advocate of serious backups. Currently, both my professional and personal computing environments contain a LOT of data that I would be hard pressed to rebuild without a lot of time and effort.

I'm currently (18 months later) still in the slow process of reclassifying all of my music in my iTunes library after a nasty hard drive crash. All of the music was backed up, but I lost the Library settings and thus lost all of my classifications and anything external to the mp3 files themselves.

Anyway, back to the solution. I have a PC (although you can use a mac, for a single use machine, the PC was a better investment) running Retrospect that backs up all of my computers across my home network to firewire disk sets, retaining a number of snapshots in time limited by available disk space, currently 320Gb.

Retrospect allows me to automatically backup my main computer at the house, and backup my and my wife's portables when they appear on the home network.

The backup server is in another room hidden away from the office so that in the event of a burglary, even if everything in the office is taken, I'll still have a copy of everything ready to restore to new machines. Currently, I don't have a decent offsite backup for handling a truly catastrophic situation, but I'll be adding some external firewire drives which will be rotated in and out on a monthly basis something Retrospect handles elegantly by backing up to the available media, but I'm waiting on the prices of 500Gb drives to come down a little bit more.

Currently the issue with all of the online services is that the bandwidth just isn't there yet for handling complete backups, and the volume of data is growing faster than bandwidth advances can handle - my iTunes library is about 60Gb, and my iPhoto collections are about 100Gb - the drawback of todays high resolution cameras :-) Not to mention everything else like mail, documents, etc...

Posted by: Erik Ableson at May 12, 2006 03:22 AM

I have ChronoSync running on my Intel Mini. At 12:01 every night it synchronizes against select folders on my PowerBook (the PowerBook is the master for the files).

Simple, cheap, and effective.

Posted by: Scott Francis at May 12, 2006 12:41 PM

I use Carbon Copy Cloner. It is either free or donation-ware (can't remember for sure). It works great. I use it to make a bootable backup of my entire harddrive once a week. You can synchronize your backups as well. I usually test whether the backup will boot by restarting and holding the option key. Then chose the backup disc and continue the restart sequence. It hasn't failed yet.

It also comes in very handy when upgrading to a new version of OSX. You can erase your harddrive and use Apple's migration assistant to copy over all settings and data.

Posted by: Dave Rockafellow at May 13, 2006 11:07 AM

Keep things simple. No specific software, just burn all files to DVD that goes to safety deposit box, all files copied to 2 different external hard drives....

Posted by: Monco at May 15, 2006 08:03 PM

I bought SuperDuper and set the preferences to update any changes to my iMac's home folder with a single click to a 100GB FireLite hard drive. One cable, one click, one backup. And one problem: I can't fit everything in my computer on the external hard drive. I don't want an external drive that requires a power cord, so I will end up removing applications I don't use to fit everything to the backup. Then I'll switch to cloning.

Posted by: Kawika Holbrook at May 16, 2006 05:01 PM

Audio (290GB): Scheduled (cron) UNIX raync daily to external Firewire drive. Periodic (1x month) burn-to-DVD (via iTunes playlist) of iTMS-purchased music. 4AM daily. Audio data files, and iTunes xml/Library file.

Video: See "Audio". 6AM daily.

Work: Scheduled archive (tar), compress and encryption; rsync to (a) first external hard drive; (b) second external hard drive; (c) second internal hard drive and; (d) and (e) iDisk and my laptop over the network. Every 4 hours.

Whenever I think about it, same process for tar/encrypt, but burn to DVD, store in secure location... iDisk is the primary offsite backup mode. This really doesn't happen as frequently or rigorously as it should, to be honest.

E-mail: Something that's a cross between "Audio" and "Work". It gets rsync'ed to a few external hard disks. I use And of course Gmail is doing their backups ;)

Random remaining stuff (iTunes playlists, preference files, stuff that I'd sort of like to have if my boot disk crashed, but I'd just as likely never recover): Apple Backup 3.x, which as far as I can determine is worthless at performing any task other than offering a false sense of security. In other words, I back up this disposable data just so I can periodically go into Backup, attempt to recover something, and see if the product has evolved enough to actually recover data it backed up.


Posted by: Rick Shangle at May 17, 2006 11:23 PM

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