Mac backup and data recovery

Anthony Caruana
25 June, 2014
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It’s every computer user’s worst nightmare – data loss. It can happen in a number of ways. Your Mac, iPhone or iPad could be stolen. Or they could be damaged or you could suffer a disk failure. After all, there are only two types of hard drives: those that have failed and those that will fail.

So, how do you ensure your data is safe and secure?

We’re going to suggest that the loss of a piece of hardware, while expensive, will be the least of your worries. It’s the data stored on your device that is truly valuable. Computers, tablets and smartphones can easily be replaced, but photos of your family, the presentation you spent all night preparing for the big meeting and the music collection you spent months ripping from your CD collection will cause you much more pain than a trip to your local reseller or Apple store and parting with some money.

The sad truth is that many people don’t learn the value of a robust data protection strategy until they’ve lost some data. At least, that’s how we learned the lesson!

Like all business processes – and backup and recovery are business problems, not strictly technical ones – this relies on three key elements. These are people, process and systems. Having the best backup hardware solution will count for nought if people bypass the process or if the backup process is too cumbersome.

While backing up your data is important, don’t forget the other side of that coin. Recovery of your data is just as critical.

Create an effective backup and recovery strategy

So, how do you go about putting together an effective backup and recovery plan? Our advice is to not start with the hardware and software that’s on the market. The place to begin this is with a plan of what you will back up. The data stored on your Mac or iOS device can be categorised into four main types.

  • the operating system
  • the applications
  • the settings and configuration, and
  • the data.

Each of these can be, potentially, handled in a different way in the event of a loss or data corruption.

It’s also important to think about what you’re trying to protect yourself against, as different scenarios will need to be handled in different ways. If you’re a sole trader or looking to protect your data at home, then this information can probably exist in your head. For a larger network, it’s a good idea to write all this down so that everyone involved in the plan knows what they’re responsible for.

Some of the scenarios you may want to consider are:

  • loss or theft of an entire device
  • component failure
  • accidental deletion or overwriting of data, and
  • corruption by malware or some other incident.

Having identified what needs to be backed up and the scenarios under which your data may become inaccessible, you also need to plan for the recovery. The big question with recovery is: ‘How long can I live without my data?’

For example, if you suffer the complete loss of a system through theft, then you’ll need to procure a new device. That’s likely to only take a few hours, as you get to a local store and buy a new computer. Even though you’ll be out of pocket, it’s possible that you could recover some or all of the cost through insurance.

Getting the operating system back is covered, as your new Mac, iPhone or iPad will have the latest version of the right operating system installed. The only problem will be if you were still running an older OS. That will mean a forced upgrade.

Recovering your apps will depend on the nature of your backup strategy. You can reinstall everything from scratch, assuming you have access to all the original disks or downloads.

Then you’ll need all of your personal customisations, such as templates, wallpapers and specific settings you’ve applied to the applications you use. Those can be a little trickier to restore depending on how you’ve backed them up.

Finally, there’s your precious data. Of everything on your Mac, iPhone or iPad, this is probably the most valuable thing you’re trying to protect. How long can you last without your address book or calendar? What about photos or work files? The amount of time you can live without this data will vary.

Once you go through this exercise, you can start to create a backup and recovery plan that matches your needs. How do you go about creating your plan?

The backup and recovery countdown

The generally accepted best practice for backups is the 3-2-1-0 approach. Here’s how it works.

Three – for the number of copies of your critical data you need to retain.

Two – for the number of different storage media you should use.

One – for the minimum number of copies you should keep off-site, away from your main work area.

Zero – for the number of errors your backups should contain.

Here’s how you can put that into practice.


Three copies of your critical data is reasonably easy to achieve. For a start, there’s the master copy of your data on your Mac or mobile device.  With your Mac, Time Machine is a very easy way to ensure you have a second copy of all your data. As it’s automated, once you have an external drive connected to your Mac, your entire system can be backed up without any intervention on your part.

One of the neat things about Time Machine is that it’s now supported on many NAS (network attached storage) devices. This means you can back up your portable Mac without having to tether to an external drive. If you’re planning to purchase a NAS, make sure it supports Time Machine backups before laying out your hard earned cash. Most of the NAS units we’ve seen recently do support Time Machine.

If you’re running an OS X server on your network, you can configure the server to be a networked Time Machine backup location. However, your data is being backed up locally even when you’re not connected, so you can recover deleted or overwritten files even when you’re away from your normal backup location. The amount of data that’s locally kept will depend on your available disk space.

Normally, as long as your new external hard drive is formatted correctly, all you have to do is plug it in to get started backing up with Time Machine.

So, that’s two copies – your master copy and Time Machine. For copy number three, consider a cloud service like Carbonite or CrashPlan. Although they’re not free, they will provide you with an off-site copy of your data. Many of these services even make your data available from other devices. So, if your Mac is lost, stolen or destroyed, you’ll be able to access your files from your iPhone or iPad.

Where cloud backup services differ from file sync services like Google Drive and Dropbox is that they are system-wide. Most file-sync services are limited to the data that’s stored in a specific folder and its sub-folders.

Backup services will store data from your entire system. So, you can tell them to protect files from your documents, iTunes and iPhoto libraries, videos and other locations.

If you’re still using an older version of OS X, then we’d suggest using a disk cloning tool as well as Time Machine. Carbon Copy Cloner and Super Duper are our favourites.

These tools will copy the entire contents of your hard drive to external storage. That’s every file and setting completely duplicated.

Cloning your system offers a couple of great benefits. If you apply the right settings when cloning your drive, the external storage you’ve chosen will be bootable. That means you can connect the drive to another Mac and boot your system. This can be a quick way to get back to normal operations if your Mac is no longer operating or available.


If you’ve followed our advice so far, you’ll notice that by using a cloud service we’ve achieved our ‘two different media’ rule in the countdown and even have an off-site copy for data.

If you’re not keen on putting important business data in the cloud, you can employ a different approach.

Portable hard drives are widely available and inexpensive. If you’re using Time Machine, you can use two different drives for your backups. At the end of each workday, simply take one drive off-site. The next morning, bring the second drive and use that for the day.

You can apply the same approach with cloned drives. Close your system to a different drive each night and take the ‘spare’ to an alternative location.

Another approach is to strike up an accord with a friend. If you both have enough storage capacity and bandwidth, you can back up your files to each other. This can work well with some NAS devices, as they support file synchronisation over the internet.


All the backups in the world aren’t worth a thing if they’re broken. One of the often missed steps in backup processes is testing the recovery process.

If you’ve followed the advice so far, you should have three copies of your main data – the master and two copies or backups. They should be stored on two different media, such as an external or networked drive and a cloud service with one of those copies away from your main workplace.

Each of those copies needs to be tested regularly. An easy way to do this is to simply try to restore a random file each week. Put the task in Calendar or Reminders and don’t skip it. Plenty of people have thought they had robust backup and restoration processes in place only to find that a critical file was missed or that something was awry.

If you’re cloning your system regularly, make sure that the copy is actually bootable on another Mac.


Like good comedy, the secret to a robust recovery plan is timing.

If you lost your computer, how long would it take for you to get up and running again? If a critical file was deleted or overwritten, could you recover quickly enough to avoid disappointing a customer?

If you’re using Time Machine, recovering a few files takes just a few minutes. Launch the Time Machine application, browse through the folders on your screen until you find the file you need and restore it. Our advice when doing this is to recover the file to a new location and not overwrite your existing file, even if that file is damaged.

If you suffer a massive catastrophe and lose access to your office and all your equipment, you’ll need to ensure your off-site copies are safe as well. During the Christchurch earthquake in early 2011, many businesses were crippled. Even though they could get access to new computers, their backups were inaccessible because they were kept on-site.

Although the cloud may seem like a risky proposition, it’s worth doing a thorough analysis before ruling it out as a backup solution.


Now that you’ve got the building blocks of your backup and recovery strategy in place, it’s time to look at some of the specific solutions that are out there to help you along.


Lacie Little Big Disk


Lacie has been a favourite of Mac users for many years. Its emphasis on solid materials and elegant styling makes it an attractive companion for your Mac.

The Little Big Disk comes with a 4TB capacity. It connects to your Mac over Thunderbolt and there’s no need for an external power supply as it gets its juice from your Mac. This makes it ideal for backups while you’re travelling.


Western Digital My Book Studio

$219 for 2TB; $279 for 3TB

The My Book Studio is an elegant drive that resembles a hardcover book with an aluminium cover. It connects to your Mac via USB 3.0 and, as it’s a desktop drive, requires mains power as well.

It comes in capacities of 2TB and 3TB. If you want to save a few dollars, the My Book for Mac desktop drive, which is functionally similar, but uses a plastic case rather than aluminium, is about $70 cheaper.


Seagate Expansion Desktop

$98 for 2TB

Seagate has been one of the leaders in storage for many years. The Expansion Desktop is a quick and easy way to plug a backup drive into your Mac. It connects over USB 3.0 and requires an external power supply.

Capacities vary between 1TB and 5TB. Despite the relatively low price, Seagate offers a three-year warranty on the Expansion Desktop, indicating it’s made to a solid standard unlike some other, lower cost devices we’ve seen.



Seagate Central

$249 for 3TB

The Seagate Central is a wireless storage device that hooks up to your network, making it a convenient backup device. It supports Time Machine out of the box, making it handy for MacBook Pro users looking for the convenience of Time Machine without the hassle of connecting an external drive.

Capacities range from 2TB to 4TB and there’s an iOS app, so you can access the data stored on the Central remotely.


Apple AirPort Time Capsule

$349 for 2TB; $449 for 3TB

The Time Capsule has been significantly revised since its initial release in early 2008. It integrates a wireless router with three Gigabit Ethernet ports so that it acts as the core of your network as well as a backup device.

It comes in 2TB and 3TB capacities and can be used to back up multiple Macs. Although it’s priced at the higher end of the market, by integrating the storage with the router, it does reduce the number of devices you need on your network.


QNAP HS-210 Silent NAS

$370 plus drives

QNAP has been making great improvements to its storage products over recent years. The HS-210 is a NAS device that supports Time Machine and can be even used to stream your media via AirPlay – something we haven’t seen other NAS makers achieve.

The HS-210 is fan-less, so it can run far more quietly than other NAS devices. This is handy if you need to keep it on your desk. As it ships without drives, you’ll need to add those to the total cost. Figure on adding about $250 for a pair of 2TB WD Red Drives – which are optimised for NAS use.




From $60 per year

If you’re serious about your backups, then having a backup stored off-site is critical. Carbonite gives you a cloud-based option, so your backup can automatically be shipped to a location that’s far from your office, but still easily accessible.

All data that is sent to Carbonite’s servers is encrypted. Pricing plans are based on the number of computers you back up. For example, the entry-level plan for individuals allows you to back up an unlimited amount of data. Carbonite backs up all of your files – operating system and application files need to be managed with a different tool.

Carbonite’s plans also offer local backup solutions that complement its cloud-based services.



From $70 per year

CrashPlan’s offer of unlimited storage for backups looks pretty good, particularly as it’s complemented with a local backup solution, so that you have three copies of your data. Its pricing plans also include a family option that can cover up to 10 systems for $165. This includes Windows and Linux systems as well as Macs.

All backups are encrypted, both as they travel to CrashPlan’s servers and when stored. If the initial backup will take too long over the internet, there is also the ability to send a hard drive for the first backup for a one-time charge of $165. Backups can also be shipped to you the same way. This offers some flexibility if your bandwidth is constrained and you need to either back up or restore a large amount of data.

With CrashPlan, you can configure multiple destinations for your backups. For example, you may set it up to put one copy on a local hard drive and another on CrashPlan’s servers or a friend’s Mac.



$5 per month

Backblaze is a great way to provide you with a ‘belts and braces’ backup solution. As well as backing up the data on your Mac’s hard drive, it can be used, at no extra charge, to back up data from externally connected drives using USB, Thunderbolt and Firewire. All of this is managed through a small application you install to your Mac.

The restore process is straightforward and can be carried out from a Mac or iPhone. They will also ship your data to you using a flash drive or external hard drive for an extra fee. Your data is encrypted both when stored and while in transit.



Super Duper

Free; $27.95 for extra features

Super Duper creates a bootable copy of your entire drive. It sounds simple, but it can be an absolute lifesaver if you suffer a complete loss of your entire system. Super Duper not only copies all your data to an external drive or disk image, but also allows you to boot from it. That means if your Mac is lost, you can connect the drive to another Mac and resume working from your last backup.

If you choose to pay for extra features, you can schedule this to happen automatically. Among the extra features is also the capability for subsequent backups to be incremental rather than complete. That means only changes are copied to the backup rather than repeating the entire process. This can save time, making it possible to back up more frequently.


Carbon Copy Cloner

Free for 30 days, then $44.95

Carbon Copy Cloner has been one of the ‘go to’ backup and disk cloning apps for Mac users for many years. It can create a bootable duplicate of your entire Mac, either to an external drive or to another device on your network.

Backup tasks can be scheduled and even wake your Mac from sleep and shut it down again once the job is done. As well as being a great backup tool, Carbon Copy Cloner is useful for migrating to a new Mac or when you upgrade to a new hard drive. And, for peace of mind, your backups can be encrypted so that they’re kept away from prying eyes.


Carbon Copy Cloner lets you copy your startup disk to an external drive, so that you can boot your Mac from the duplicate.

Acronis True Image for Mac

$69.99 for one user or $99.99 for three users. Acronis Cloud storage options start at $59.99/year or $5.99/month for 250GB.

Acronis is well-known for its market-leading personal backup and recovery solution; Acronis True Image for Mac has just been added to the product portfolio.

Acronis True Image for Mac is a full system image backup solution that supports both backup locally and to Acronis’ cloud service so you can recover files from anywhere. There’s a free 500GB trial for one month. After the trial expires, you can purchase an annual or monthly subscription for 250GB, 500GB or 1TB.

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