Mac Maintenance: Effective Backup Strategies

Everyone knows they need to backup their data, but most people don’t do so regularly (if at all). Backups are confusing and annoying. Besides, who has the time? Well, your perspective may change during a post-crash enlightenment: Most people become religious about backups after their first catastrophic loss of data.

The best Mac maintenance you can do is to have current backups of all your files.

The key is to develop a backup strategy before that major disk crash. Be sure to pick methods that are easy for you to do and repeat so it becomes a habit. Backup important personal data on a daily or weekly basis.

Choose Your Method

A basic data backup simply involves copying important files and folders to other media. You can use any of the following items as backup destinations:

  • copy to a second hard drive (internal or external)
  • copy to a networked hard drive or file server
  • copy to a removable storage drive (Zip, Jaz, SyQuest, flash drive, your iPod, etc.)
  • burn files to optical disc (CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-R, etc.)

What are these important files and folders? They’re anything that you use on a regular basis that would cause problems if you lost them. Under Mac OS X, most of your important files should be located inside your Home directory in one of these folders: Desktop, Documents, Movies, Music, or Pictures. Just copy these entire folders to a backup disk on a regular basis.

You may also wish to backup your Application Preference files; these are very useful to have if you need to reinstall any software. Preferences are also located in your Home directory, inside the Library folder. Copy the whole Preferences folder along with backups of your other files.

Incremental Backups

Once you have a backup of your data, you can use incremental backups to keep the data up to date. An incremental backup copies only new or changed files to your backup, leaving unchanged files alone. This is much faster than running a full backup and easy to do on a weekly basis.

Simple incremental backups can be done manually – just recopy to your clone any items you’ve worked on since the last backup. View folders containing your important files in List View in the Finder, and click on the Date column to sort by date; this makes it easy to find recent files. Or just drag the whole folder(s) full of your important files to your backup disk, that’s very simple and still much faster than a complete system copy.

For more complex needs (or for those of us with bad memory), utilities such as File Synchronization, SuperDuper, Carbon Copy Cloner 3, and Data Backup can help automate this process. These synchronization utilities allow you to specify one or more folders to copy, and the computer does the hard work of determining what files have changed since the last backup. For ultra-configurable incremental backups of multiple computers and across networks, the best choice is Retrospect.

Subscribers to Apple’s .mac [now iCloud] service can also use the Apple Backup application to save backups online, or to local and networked drives; see Apple’s .mac website for full details.

Bootable Backups

Bootable backups (or clones) are full backups of your entire startup drive that provide full redundancy for your data and the operating system. Once you make a clone of your hard drive, you can restore files from this drive when needed or boot from the clone in case the primary drive fails. With hard drive prices falling all the time, this is one of the fastest and most convenient ways to backup your system.

You need to use a second internal hard drive (IDE or SATA) or an external FireWire or USB 2.0 drive in order to make a clone. (Only Intel-based Macs can boot from an external USB 2.0 drive using Startup Disk in System Preferences.) My preference is to use external FireWire drives, since they can be stored on a shelf or offsite and are easily moved between computers.

Several utilities are available to help make the clone, including SuperDuper, Carbon Copy Cloner, and Data Backup. The process erases the destination drive, copies all files from the source drive, and then makes the cloned drive bootable. The procedure varies slightly among these programs, so read the instructions and/or help files before proceeding.

When complete, make sure to test that your cloned drive works to boot your Mac. It’s not fun to find out you have a bad backup months later when you need it most. Just go to System Preferences –> Startup Disk, select your clone as the boot drive, then restart your Mac. Once you’re sure it works, repeat the process to set your internal drive back as the startup disk. You now have a full bootable backup of your computer ready when needed.

Maintaining Bootable Backups

Once you have a working clone, incremental backups can be used to keep the clone’s data up to date. I like to use File Synchronization to keep my home directory current between the primary and backup drives; I run this once a week or as often as necessary after changes to my system. Programs such as SuperDuper and Carbon Copy Cloner 3 can do this automatically, but because they are designed to keep the entire clone drive synchronized, they can take a lot longer to do their work.

I suggest making full clones of your computer every 3 to 6 months and before you install any updates to Mac OS X or major applications. If something then goes wrong during an upgrade, you can use your clone to revert back to the older install and keep working – or just work off the clone itself.

Different backup strategies and media can be combined; there’s no harm in having too many copies of your data. Consider keeping a copy of important files offsite in a different location (at work, in a safety deposit box, with a friend, on your iPod) in case of fire or other damage to your home.

Whatever method(s) you choose, get started now and backup regularly.

Also, purchase the major applications you use regularly and keep copies of any downloaded installers. Besides being the right (legal) thing to do, if you have a hard drive crash or otherwise lose an important program, you can easily reinstall your software from the original disks or installers.

Remember, the best Mac maintenance you can do is to have current backups of all your files!

Maintaining Your Mac

This article was originally published on Adam’s Oakbog website. It has been adapted and reprinted here with his permission.

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