Preparing Your Mac for the Worst

Computers die. Laptops get dropped or stolen. Hard drives fail. You deleted a file or folder and now realize that you need it back. You need to use an app that’s not compatible with your current version of Mac OS X. Your system just crashes and now refuses to boot from your hard drive.

Given enough time, one or more of these will happen to you, and the older your equipment, the more likely a hardware failure becomes. Using Dropbox (or a similar service*) makes it easy to backup important documents, photos, etc., but it’s not enough space to back up everything.

It’s something most members of our staff have dealt with more than once, and we’ve each developed strategies that allow us to recover from disasters like these. We’re going to share what we’ve learned so you can be better prepared should it happen to you.

Dan Knight (Mac Musings): I’ve been a Mac user since 1986, and my first Mac, a Mac Plus, came with System 6. Working at the local ComputerLand store, I had the opportunity to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) with Apple and test the golden master version of System 7. I though long and hard before making the decision to try it – and that was the first time I partitioned my Mac’s 40 MB hard drive. One partition would boot familiar System 6; the other would let me test System 7.

Over the years, I’ve continued that strategy. With a second partition, you can boot into the other operating system when one has a problem. On all of my current work Macs, I have at least two version of OS X installed – plus Mac OS 9.2.2 on the Power Macs. The dual processor G4 Mirrored Drive Doors Power Macs both have OS X 10.4 Tiger and 10.5 Leopard installed, and when problems arise (and they do), I can quickly boot into the other OS, run Disk Utility and other fix-it apps, and get back to work. My 2007 Mac mini has OS X 10.5 Leopard and 10.6 Snow Leopard installed.

The other part of the equation is backup. Although I use Dropbox and have nearly 20 GB of space available, I use it primarily to sync files between my three production Macs. For backup, I use SuperDuper, which creates a fully bootable clone of your hard drive. I’ve been using it since 2004, and it’s never let me down. My Power Macs have at least two drives installed, so I can backup quickly and easily. For the Mac mini, I have an external 500 GB USB 2.0 drive with partitions for OS X 10.5 and 10.6 on the internal drive plus backup of an external 80 GB USB 2.0 drive.

The final item is a backup computer. I have two older G4 Power Macs and a 1.25 GHz eMac that can run Tiger or Leopard, and also a Blue & White Power Mac G3 that can run Tiger, so should one of my Power Macs fail, all I’ll have to do is swap drives. I do not yet have a backup for the Intel-based Mac mini, but I do have a lead on a Late 2006 iMac….

Austin Leeds (Apple Everywhere): iCloud is a wonderful thing for my iPad, as it has been maintaining my most important information since I first updated to iOS 5.

Charles W Moore (several columns): Like Dan, I use Dropbox to keep current and recent work synchronized on my three production Macs and my iPad, although that does essentially constitute a running backup of most stuff it would really hurt to lose.

I also have a 50 GB Cloud account and have been gradually archiving stuff to it as time and bandwidth permit, but I find it slow going. I’m not sold on the Cloud as being an archive and data retrieval panacea.

I haven’t bothered setting up an iCloud account, because of my four production machines, the iPad running iOS 5.1 is the only one iCloud currently supports. Still using Snow Leopard on the Aluminum Unibody MacBook and Tiger on the two Pismo PowerBooks.

Also like Dan, I’ve generally been a hard drive partitioner. I have both OS X 10.4.11 and OS 9.2 installed on separate partitions on the Pismos and theoretically would like to have two different versions of OS X on the MacBook, but currently Snow Leopard is installed on both partitions. I’m giving OS X 10.7 Lion a pass, but will probably install OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion on the second partition in the fullness of time.

For backups, I use four external hard drives – 500 GB Pininfarina SimpleDrive, a 1 TB SimpleTech PRO1000Q Pro Drive, a 2 TB G-Technology G-Drive, and a 500 GB Apricorn Aegis NetDock Laptop Docking Station. The 500 GB SimpleDrive is used for periodic Time Machine backups of the MacBook, while the other three drives get rolling Carbon Copy Cloner drive clone updates as triple-redundancy against drive failure or other catastrophe. The PRO1000Q and the G-Drive both also happily support FireWire, so they work with the Pismos without the latter’s USB 1.1 bottleneck slowing things down to a crawl.

The MacBook remains my anchor machine, but were something dire to befall it, the Pismos and iPad could take up the slack (with some inconvenience) until I secured another fairly current Mac. The plan is for a new – or at least newer – Mac to displace the MacBook as anchor machine probably sometime in the next 12 months, with the MacBook taking over the lead B-team role and one of the Pismos standing down as a reserve, the other remaining as my road warrior beater.

Simon Royal (Tech Spectrum): Despite being a computer user for over 17 years, I have very little in the way of important files.

Back in my PC days – 13+ years ago – I lost everything in a drive crash from which I couldn’t recover. I didn’t learn my lesson, as I had a Mac crash in 2006 and lost six months of pictures of my kids. I had been backing up to DVD every few months, but it just wasn’t good enough. It was then I started using Dropbox, and it has been a life saver ever since. I have moved from machine to machine – even with some of them dying suddenly – without losing any more family moments.

I now use it to back up the few other things that are important too. The only other backup media I have is a 120 GB hard drive that I keep my music collection on. It is kept in my MacBook bag, but it is only connected once a month just to back up whatever is new. I know it is not ideal; offsite online backup would be much better, but its not financially viable at present.

Allison Payne (The Budget Mac): I confess that I play it fast and loose when it comes to disaster recovery. I know it’s not the common wisdom, and at my day job doing IT support, I’m militant about backups for my servers and users. But at home, I’m just not a power user in the way that would require headaches if everything failed tomorrow.

That said, like many other LEM contributors, I consider Dropbox indispensable. My university recently rolled out (formerly accounts for storage and collaboration, so I intend to use those 15 GB in future.

For PowerPC Macs, which were my main machines for years and which still comprise the majority of machines my private clients use, I have an external drive with USB and FireWire connectivity partitioned with Tiger and Leopard.

I used to keep an updated clone of my productions machine, a 12″ Al Book, but I’ve fallen out of the habit. Now I just drag and drop new stuff to an external 320 GB SimpleDrive whenever I need space.

For my Intel Macs – MacBook aluminum, 11″ 2010 MacBook Air, and my husband’s new refurbished 2010 Mac Mini – I don’t have any disaster recovery in place other than periodic archiving of music, photos, and documents to DVD.Ê

Leaman Crews (Plays Well with Others): Fortunately, I have never myself experienced data loss. I took the sage advice about backups a long time ago, and that’s kept me insured ever since.

In my 28 years of computing, I have had exactly two hard drive failures. At the time, I was relying on backups to external hard drives. The first time, I was doing routine manual copies to the external drive occasionally, and by the time of the second event, I was using Retrospect to manage my backups.

These days, my main backups are done via Time Machine to a Time Capsule. I also rely on Dropbox to keep important and current files synced up across multiple machines, with the bonus of duplicate copies available via Dropbox’s web interface. I also place a premium on my iPhoto and iTunes libraries. The iPhoto library gets an extra backup to an external FireWire 800 drive, while the iTunes are stored on a LaCie RAID unit, running RAID 5, connected to a Mac mini via FireWire 800.

All of my music is also synced to my iPod classic, although I’m reaching the 160 GB limit on that particular device, and my lossless music is downgraded to 256 Kbps AAC in an effort to conserve space on the iPod. Similarly, iTunes Match, a part of iCloud, provides an online backup of my music, but the versions there are also 256 Kbps AAC – which is great for the songs I ripped years ago at 128 Kbps AAC, but not so good for the songs I’ve since ripped to Apple Lossless. If I had to restore music from my iPod or iTunes Match, I’d have the songs, but not the many lossless rips I’ve done in the past few years.

On the other hand, I feel pretty good about the RAID unit. RAID shouldn’t be considered a backup (it’s redundancy, not a backup), but I can withstand a single drive failure and not lose any of the data on the RAID.

Alan Zisman (Zis Mac): Sometimes it takes a data-disaster in order to goad us to set up a backup procedure.

I had a G4 iBook (800 MHz – the original G4 iBook model) that got three replacement hard drives while still on the warranty period. In one case, I was checking email in a lobby prior to going in for a meeting, with everything working fine – I put the laptop to sleep and moved to the meeting room, and by the time I’d got there, the drive had crashed. (The fourth hard drive is still working, years – and several owners – later).

As a result, I now pay attention to backups (and keep SMARTreporter – also available in free and less fully featured lite version – in the menu bar of all my Macs to report on hard drive health). At the moment, I have three Macs in the house – my wife’s Core i5 iMac, my 13″ aluminum MacBook, and a 12″ G4 Powerbook.

I’m backing them all to a single 2 TB USB 2.0 drive attached to the iMac; I created multiple partitions on it to help keep the various backups separate and backup the MacBook and PowerBook across the network. Time Machine is easy to use and nice, because of the ability to restore from a Time Machine backup using Migration Assistant as part of installing Mac OS X onto a new drive (for instance, after a hard drive crash) – or afterwards if working with a new system.

There’s just one catch – if (as I’m doing with two of the three Macs) you’ve backed up across the network, you have to restore the same way, which is very slow. It would be much nicer if you could attach the drive using USB and restore that way, but that doesn’t seem to work.

So with the MacBook, which is my most-used system, I also do a separate backup, again across the network, using Carbon Copy Cloner. That gives me a bootable partition – so if needed, I can connect the backup drive, boot to the CCC partition, and restore from there.

While I have a Dropbox account, I use it either to share files with others or to store a relatively small number of files that I want to be able to access when I’m away from my Macs – for instance, travelling with my iPad.

Jason Schrader (Maximize Your Mac): I had a RAID drive fail once. I back up my RAID to an internal drive plus two external drives. I keep one in my safe and one in a safety deposit box. I try to back up once a week to at least one external drive.

Dan Bashur (Apple, Tech, and Gaming): I run dual equal partitions of the 750 GB drive in my MacBook Pro – one in Snow Leopard and the other in Lion.

Recently, I installed SwitchResX to try changing the resolution of the standard 1920 x 1200 17″ display to 1920 x 1080 in Snow Leopard. Needless to say, disaster struck when the 1920 x 1080 display setting was applied/saved and “bricked” my display. The display was solid black at 1920 x 1080 (obviously an unsupported resolution) and would not revert back to the default 1920 x 1200l even with a reset of the PRAM and NVRAM. Since I do not have any external display adapters for this machine yet, I was out of luck booting into the Snow Leopard partition at all and needed to boot into Lion to fix the problem.

The “King of the Jungle” is now my savior and allowed me to dig into the Snow Leopard partition and delete all of the bad display resolution .plst files SwitchResX created along with the SwitchResX preference pane itself. After booting back into Snow Leopard in Safe Mode, I was able to rid this machine of SwitchResX once and for all with a reinstall of SwitchResX followed by a full uninstall that removes all elements and traces of the program. I may try it again sometime, but not without a full backup and an external display adapter.

Had I not had Lion installed on a separate partition, I would have been forced to take other measures to recover the display back to its original state, as I didn’t have a recent Time Machine backup. I learned a valuable lesson in this situation:

Always have a backup drive (a recent Time Machine backup should be a no-brainer to us all since the arrival of Leopard) and always have an option of another partition to boot into to troubleshoot/recover your other partition when things go bad. Thankfully, I had one of those covered and was back in business within an hour or so of cleaning up that mess.

One piece of software that can prove valuable for older version of OS X such as Tiger that does not have the luxury of Time Machine is TechTool Pro. It’s a great utility that also creates a recovery partition and can really help you save your data on older Macs. Starting with Leopard we obviously have Time Machine, but with Lion, your Mac now also has a Recovery Partition that gives you yet another safe haven for a bailout to boot into when things go wrong.

For me, one more thing worth mentioning is a feature of the Mac that can never be forgotten: FireWire Target Disk Mode. As Dan Knight mentions, a back-up Mac is yet another plan to have in place to fix a situation gone awry. Had I not had a Lion partition in my scenario, I could have also taken care of the problem with any other Mac that has FireWire by holding the T key down during boot on my MacBook Pro to put it into FireWire Target Disk Mode. From there, I also could have deleted the problem preference files. That is why every Mac I own has FireWire as an option – all 8 of them.

The moral of the story is to always have a backup plan. If you don’t, your data could be permanently lost – clearly a tragedy of epic proportions in many cases. Cloud storage is becoming more affordable as well for yet another alternative. You can now have virtually unlimited backup storage space in the cloud for less than $10/month from

Dan Knight: All this discussion brings me back to my IT days, which I put behind me 11-1/2 years ago. I worked for a local publishing house for 8-1/2 years, starting out as a book designer using Quark and FrameMaker plus some Mac support on the side. Back then we had maybe a dozen Macs networked via PhoneNet, and we ran daily backup to a 44 MB SyQuest drive using Retrospect. I think we had two sets of three cartridges that we rotated daily, but that was so long ago….

We graduated from PhoneNet to 10Base-T ethernet and later to 100 Mbps ethernet. We moved from 44 MB SyQuest cartridges to DAT tape and later to AIT. And we grew from a dozen or so Macs to over 80 by the time I left there in early 2001 – before OS X and when our most powerful Macs were G4 Power Macs in the art and design departments.

One of the big drawbacks of network backup is that while Macs have had Gigabit Ethernet for a decade now, when Comcast, AT&T, or pretty much any other Internet Service Provider (ISP) installs a WiFi router, it only supports 100 Mbps ethernet (1/10 the speed of Gigabit) and often tops out with 54 Mbps 802.1g WiFi, which is a bottleneck for 802.11n WiFi, which supports up to four 150 Mbps data streams. Sure, 100 Mbps ethernet and 802.11g are better than the 10 Mbps ethernet/802.11b (11 Mbps bandwidth) WiFi routers that preceded them, but they are far from state of the art.

Apple’s AirPort Base Stations and Time Machine support the faster Gigabit and 802.11n protocols, making them a great choice if you want maximum backup speed. There are also a lot of good third-party WiFi routers that support both these protocols, but odds are that your ISP will not provide anything that fast – which is why back and restoration over a network often seems so slow.

I even used Retrospect for backup of the home network once upon a time, but between SuperDuper (or Carbon Copy Cloner) for creating bootable clones of your hard drive and Time Machine and cloud services providing backup as you go, I abandoned Retrospect ages ago.

I really should look into adding a Time Machine drive or using one of the cloud services to do Time Machine backups, since I don’t clone my hard drives very often. As Dan Bashur points out above, some of the cloud backup services are incredibly affordable, and all my Macs combined don’t have even 1 TB of storage.

Update: Just this morning I had a drive failure. My dual 1.25 GHz Power Mac G4 locked up due to overheating, and when I tried to reboot, it didn’t see the 80 GB drive I run OS X 10.4 Tiger and 9.2.2 Classic from. (Why 80 GB? Because some older Power Macs don’t support drives over 120 GB, so in a worst case situation, I can simply transfer this drive to another Mac with no worries.) I had to shut down, let things cool down, turn on the air conditioning, and then hold down the Option key during startup to choose another bootable partition.

Booting into OS X 10.5 Leopard from a partition on another drive (I have two partitioned 400 GB drives in addition to the 80), Disk Utility didn’t even recognize the drive. I was able to run Alsoft DiskWarrior and recover the Classic partition, but it reported way too many problems with the Tiger partition to recover it. Rebooting from Tiger on a 400 GB drive, Disk Utility was unable to even mount the Classic partition on the 80 but did mount the Tiger one, which I then ran DiskWarrior on.

Everything is looking good now. I’ve propped open the empty optical drive bay, which I hope will help keep it cool, and also put a 8-10″ fan below the desk to help circulate air, which should also help with the heat.

My dual 1 GHz MDD has an 80 GB drive with OS X 10.5 Leopard and a 60 GB partitioned for 10.4 Tiger and Classic plus a minimal 10.5 Leopard emergency install as well.

* Similar services for Mac users – and they all seem to work a bit differently – include Amazon Cloud Drive (requires OS X 10.6 or newer; 5 GB), (10.6 for app; 5 GB free; no automatic sync unless you become a paying user; also supports iOS, Windows, Android, iOS, and BlackBerry), Google Drive (10.6; 5 GB; iOS, Windows, Android, and Chrome OS), Microsoft SkyDrive (10.7; 7 GB; iOS, Windows, Windows Phone), and SugarSync (10.5; 5 GB; iOS, Windows, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile). Dropbox stands apart for supporting OS X 10.4 and Linux, being Mac simple, and giving away additional storage space for free when a friend signs up (SugarSync also gives free space for certain actions). For a more detailed comparison of these and other services, see Google Drive vs. Dropbox, SkyDrive, SugarSync, and Others: A Cloud Sync Storage Face-off on The Verge.

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