iBasics

Simple Backup Strategies for Mac Users

- 2005.10.12

You use your Mac on a daily basis, whether for work or pleasure, but the thought of taking the time to make a backup horrifies you. You doubt it will be worth the effort - or you're simply too lazy to tackle the issue.

You should change your mind and get to work immediately, even if only to backup your most critical data.


Before we start making suggestions, let's destroy a myth that might bother some of you. Making a backup doesn't automatically mean using tape drives, at least for most of us. Tape drives are quite expensive, so unless you need to make large backups of new data on a regular basis, forget about tapes.

For most people, a backup means having a second place to store data so you can have it handy if the computer's main hard drive fails or a way to archive data permanently so you can take it off your hard drive.

I recommend removable storage in most cases, from the smallest backup to the largest. Removable media brings you the kind of versatility that you may need.

Make a Small Backup

Zip

One of the most flexible methods to put data on removable media is to use a Zip drive and Zip disks. These disks offer 100 MB, 250 MB, or 750 MB of space, and drives cost under US$200. And you may already have an external or internal Zip drive. Their reliability is generally good. There was a time when Iomega manufactured drives that would make "click" sounds and destroy the data, but that shouldn't be a problem nowadays.

Zip drives are easy to use with Macs and PCs, and the data can be saved, removed, or modified at any time, just like on a hard drive.

iPod

Do you own an iPod? If you do, it is a truly excellent method to back up data. It can be used with any Mac or PC, and you can use its free space to store files in addition to your music.

Recordable CDs

My favorite recommendation is good old compact discs. The CD stores up to 700 MB of data, which is enough room for many of us. If you use the CD-R variety, you can archive data permanently. If you use CD-RW (rewritable) discs, you can erase the disc and write files to it as many times as you want.

If you store your CDs in sleeves, they take little space, and any computer equipped with a CD or DVD drive will happily read them. Whether you chooser the permanence of rewritable discs or not, it's a nice way to make modest backups. The drives and discs are cheap, and most Macs shipped in the last few years came with a CD-RW, Combo, or DVD-RW drive (Apple calls them SuperDrives).

To set up a CD backup, all you need to do under Tiger is to set up a burnable folder, a feature that we have seen in a previous tutorial about Finder features.

If you're using an older version of OS X, open the Disk Utility. Pull down the File menu and create a new disk image. Select the right size and confirm the creation. After that, all you have to do is to fill the disk image when it is mounted on the desktop. When you want to burn its content, eject the disk image by dragging its icon to the Trash. Select the disk image in the Disk Utility application, and click on the Burn button.

Flash Drives

What about cool stuff such as portable drives with flash memory? They are nice gizmos and may be convenient for moving files from computer to computer, but they are expensive in comparison to blank CDs.

Make a Medium-sized Backup

Do you need to archive more than just a couple hundred megabytes? Maybe a couple of gigabytes?

I would go with another optical solution: DVDs. With a SuperDrive, which you may already have, you can write data on 4.7 GB discs. Make sure to use the more reliable DVD+R variety* and use the same method suggested for CD backups. Of course, there are rewritable DVDs available. If you don't have a DVD writer yet, you can get a good one for less than US$100. [Editor's note: Other World Computing currently has genuine 4x internal Apple SuperDrives for as little as US$45.]

* Only the most recent SuperDrives support DVD+R. Older SuperDrives would only write to DVD-R and DVD-RW media.

Make a Large Backup

You may be one of those Mac users who is into media creation, whether it's graphic design, music, digital video, or all of them. My first comment is this: You should already be making backups!

But if you are just catching up, read on.

You may need dozens or hundreds of gigabytes. An external FireWire drive is a nice solution. For a couple of  hundred dollars or so, you get a massive amount of storage, and the drive can be used on any Mac with FireWire. It gives you all the flexibility of an internal drive plus portability.

Today you can get 80 GB drives under US$100, and a full terabyte under US$1,000. That's decent value for storage-hungry users.

You can clone your whole hard drive to your FireWire drive if you want to. Just get Carbon Copy Cloner (free) and use it to make a bootable copy of your system. Another option is SuperDuper (shareware), which you can use for free to make a full bootable backup. A third option, Apple's Backup software, is free for .mac users.

If your hard disk fails, you can boot from the FireWire drive and restore everything in a short time without having to reinstall Mac OS X and all your software. That's a time and productivity saver.

Make a Huge Backup

Do you create hundreds of gigabytes or terabytes of data on a regular basis? If so, it may be time to think about investing in a tape backup drive and buy the tapes you need to archive the data.

But that's not the case for most of us.... LEM

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