Time Machine: Not Quite What I Expected

Since returning from vacation earlier this month, my 2007 Mac mini began to have problems and then died. More precisely, it would no longer boot from the OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard partition on its internal 320 GB Seagate hard drive, which I’ve used for years. It would display a blue screen and continually try to complete the startup process, but to no avail.

dead hard drives

I also received an error message from the free SMARTReporter 2.7 utility that the drive was having a problem, although the issue was not SMART-related. So I knew I’d need a new hard drive. I’d also need a way to recover whatever was on my work drive, as the Mac mini has been my primary production machine for some years now.

Mac mini on Ministack driveI plan to replace the hard drive with a 240-256 GB SSD, most likely a Samsung 850 EVO, which currently sells for $99.95 at Amazon.com. But until I have funds for that, I dug out an old NewerTech miniStack enclosure with a 250 GB DeskStar hard drive. That should be big just big enough to restore my backup, let me pare some obsolete files, and be ready to clone everything to SSD when I can afford it.

Donations toward the cost of the SSD gladly accepted – click on the Donate button on the right. Thanks!

Using SuperDuper!

I have been backing up my Macs with SuperDuper! since 2004, and I love this app. It can create a bootable clone of your hard drive, and it was the first utility to do this as well as incremental updates, so your mirror of your work drive would be as current as your last backup.

Problem is, my last backup is months old. Everything has been so reliable for so long that I got lazy about doing month updates. Still, I was able to boot the Mini from the cloned partition and then clone that to the DeskStar, which worked perfectly. It was just very out of date.

Using Time Machine

Apple did everyone a solid when it included backup software with OS X 10.5 Leopard in late 2007. Time Machine can back up to a local  volume or over a network. The destination drive should be at least twice a big as the drives it’s backing up, because it backs up and stores older copies of files so you can recover a previous version of a document, image, etc.

I have a 3 TB external Seagate USB 2.0 drive connected to my Mac mini, and it’s been partitioned so I can have bootable clones of the Mini’s Leopard and Snow Leopard partitions, as well as a partition for Time Machine backups.

Until this weekend, I had never had a reason to use Time Machine, and I assumed it would work like Retrospect, which I used in my IT days and also used on the Low End Mac network a decade or so back, in both cases backing up to tape. With Retrospect, you had to have a bootable system on your hard drive, the Retrospect control panel installed with a valid serial number, and start the restoration process, which might involve several tape swaps. It was smart enough to only the copy files it needed to. I quit using it when I switched from Mac OS 9 to OS X.

Time Machine doesn’t work that way. It erases the destination drive and restores everything from your backup. It doesn’t care if there’s already a bootable version of OS X or even an earlier cloned version of the hard drive. It wipes the drive and starts from scratch.

Worse yet, if you’re using OS X Leopard or Snow Leopard, there’s no recovery partition. That didn’t come to Macs until OS X 10.7 Lion in 2011. You have to boot your Mac from an OS X 10.5 or 10.6 installation DVD, so I hope you have it and can find it – or have a source for a new disc. Booting from the optical drive is slow, but it works.

If anyone knows of a way to make a recovery disk or recovery partition, please share it so I can pass along that information to others still using Leopard and Snow Leopard.

Time Machine Works, But…

On Saturday, I took apart the Mac mini, removed the troublesome 320 GB drive, and reinstalled the 80 GB drive that came with it. I used Time Machine to restore OS X 10.5 Leopard to the drive, and it works perfectly. It’s not as fast as the 7200 RPM 320 GB drive, but it works.

I then restored my Snow Leopard backup from August 8 – the day before the Mini stopped booting from it – to the DeskStar drive, which is connected using FireWire, which is faster than USB 2.0. (I am still disappointed that Apple never supported FireWire on the old consumer MacBooks, but that’s another story.)

That took 4 hours, so I let it run overnight. I discovered Sunday morning that it had the same boot problems I first experienced on August 9. Next I restored the August 7 backup, but that failed the same way. The next time I went back to late July for the last backup before we went on vacation. Finally, the Mac mini is running Snow Leopard again – and with almost everything it had when it crashed.

Email and Dropbox are being synced as I write this.

Aluminum Unibody MacBookIt’s a good thing I have a Late 2008 Aluminum MacBook so I could get some work done over the past week, although its 1280 x 800 pixel display is cramped compared to the 1600 x 1200 screen connected to the Mac mini. I have Snow Leopard on the MacBook, but I almost always use OS X 10.9.5 Mavericks, since 10.10 Yosemite and later drop support for a few of my apps. I have Yosemite on a second internal drive that occupies the space formerly filled by the optical drive, which I rarely use and is now external.

Time Machine Tips

If you don’t use Time Machine, seriously consider doing so. I have my most important work files in Dropbox. I created and update bootable mirror images of my hard drive less often than I should. And I have Time Machine doing backup several times a day.

Apple calls for a backup drive with at least twice the capacity of all the drives and partitions that will be backed up to it. That’s good advice, but with a caveat. If you’re using OS X Leopard on a PowerPC G4 or G5 Mac, Apple’s old hard drive format – which they require for booting – doesn’t work with drives over 2 TB, whether attached directly or over a network. Don’t even think of backing them up to a drive larger than 2 TB. In my case, I have a separate Time Machine drive in my Power Mac G5 Dual and use a 3 TB external USB 2.0 drive for my Intel-based Macs.

You can share a Time Machine backup volume on a G4 or G5 Mac with Intel Macs on your network using Personal File Sharing.

The recovery partition is a good argument for putting OS X 10.7 Lion or later on Macs that support it. No need to dig out and boot from an optical drive. And if your Mac supports OS X 10.9 or later, you can update the OS for free!

Time Machine can be a nuisance when it kicks in while you’re working on something and everything slows to a crawl. You’ll be tempted to cancel that backup. Feel free to do so. It will try again in another hour, and another hour, and another hour, as long as your Mac is running. There are even apps that can override Apple’s fixed hourly backup regimen.

If you have a cloned drive connected to your Mac and powered up, be sure to tell Time Machine there’s no need to back it up. That will speed up Time Machine backups, since it can skip mirrored drives. (Speaking of cloned drives, SuperDuper! has improved its incremental backups, so there’s less reason to postpone those daily, weekly, monthly, or whatever backups that you should be performing. Maybe do them twice as often.)

You probably don’t need a high speed drive to do your backups to external or networked drives. You can’t write data any faster than you receive it from your drive, so USB 2.0, FireWire 400, 802.11n WiFi, or 100Base-T ethernet will become the bottleneck, not your backup drive. Gigabit ethernet and FireWire 800 are better, as is 802.11ac. USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt won’t slow you down at all: USB 3.0 almost matches SATA Rev. 3 for bandwidth, and Thunderbolt exceeds it.

The ideal for backup is a second internal drive, which iMacs and MacBooks and Mac minis aren’t designed for. (Thank you, OWC and others who make hard drive adapters for optical drive bays!) A Power Mac G5 or early Mac Pro will work with any SATA Rev. 1 hard drive, including 3.5” desktop drives that are less costly per gigabyte than 2.5” notebook drives. This is one reason I would love to replace my Mac mini with a Mac Pro running OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard someday – built-in room for additional drives, higher memory capacity, superior graphics engines, and 4-core and better CPUs make even a first-generation Mac Pro desirable.


Hard drives die. Be prepared. Use Time Machine. Look into other backup options. Redundancy is good. Don’t put off for tomorrow, because tomorrow morning your Mac may refuse to boot.

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