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Back Up Your Mac Data with the Time Machine

The feature on the Mac that generated most of the excitement when Apple announced Leopard in 2007 was Time Machine — and rightfully so. Here, finally, is a relatively effortless way to back up everything on your system. You can gracefully float back in time to retrieve a file that was lost, damaged, or subsequently changed. Why, it’s almost science fiction.

To exploit Time Machine, you need to supply a big-enough extra drive to store what’s on your computer. Time Machine pretty much takes over from there. It automatically keeps backups every hour on the hour for the past 24 hours, as well as daily backups for the past month. Beyond that, Time Machine goes weekly. When you have no more room, Time Machine starts deleting old backups.

In Time Machine Preferences, you can choose to be notified after these old backups are removed. (This is a darn good reason why you ought to devote an empty drive to your Time Machine backup.) If you’re using Time Machine to back up a laptop, you can determine whether backups should continue while you’re using the machine on battery power.

Time travel is way cool. I’m betting that you’ll hunt for files from a moment in time just because Apple makes this historical journey such a visually intoxicating experience. Click the Time Machine Dock icon, and your current Desktop slides out of view.

You and whichever Finderlike window was active or frontmost at the time you clicked the icon are now floating in space. So if you know that the particular item you’re looking for used to reside in a given folder, open that window before embarking on your journey. Or enter its name in the search box in the Finder window.

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Now you can venture across the sands of time to discover the lost or altered file. Say that you unintentionally wiped out a critical document several weeks ago and now hope to recover it.

Use the timeline along the right edge of the screen or the navigational arrows toward the lower-right corner to go back to the time of the deed. When you click, the windows fly forward or backward for a second or two until landing on the day you chose.

If your search-and-rescue mission doesn’t immediately uncover the lost file, try typing its name again in the Finder search box. You’re searching for the file on that particular date. When you encounter the wayward file, highlight it and click Restore. It’s transported back to the present, with Time Machine conveniently dropping the file in its original location. Click Cancel to return to the present.

If the main hard drive or SSD on your Mac bites the dust, you can use Time Machine to restore your entire computer:

  • On an older computer that came with an OS X Install or Restore DVD, and of course the requisite optical drive, insert the disk, and select Restore from Time Machine. In the case of the MacBook Air, which has a USB install drive, insert that USB drive. You’ll have an option to choose the date from which you want to restore your system.

  • On the many machines that don’t have an optical drive, connect a backup drive and start up your Mac from the recovery system. Then select the Restore from Time Machine Backup utility.

You can also use Time Machine to transfer important settings, applications, and files to another Mac. Open Migration Assistant (in the Utilities folder inside the Applications folder), and choose From a Time Machine Backup when you’re asked how you’d like to transfer your information.

Time Machine is unquestionably a great feature, but you still may want to consider backing up your data in the cloud — typically, through third-party services such as Carbonite and Mozy. How come? If your Mac and the drive you’re using for Time Machine are stolen or damaged, your data is still protected on the Internet. But these services are slow and potentially (depending on how much you’re backing up) pricey.

Take some comfort as well that some of your digital jewels are backed up in cyberspace through iCloud.

A nice complement to Time Machine is a clone backup on yet another external drive. Try such programs as SuperDuper! and Carbon Copy Cloner. Having a clone gives you a fuss-free way to boot up after a disaster.

A couple of additional Time Machine security notes:

  • You can make sure that a given file isn’t backed up by highlighting it in Time Machine, clicking the Action icon in the Finder window, and then choosing Delete All Backups of the file in question. If you chose to encrypt files in FileVault, the files remain encrypted as part of your Time Machine backup.

  • If you have a Time Capsule and are running Mountain Lion or Mavericks, you can also store encrypted backups there.

So even in Time Machine, you need a password to get at Aunt Minnie’s pudding recipe. What can possibly be more secure than that?

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