Low End Mac's Online Tech Journal

Backing Up Your Mac

Dan Knight - 2002.10.01

Everyone knows about backup, but not everyone does it. And that's a dangerous thing.

Sure, we're Mac users, so we don't have as many problems with system crashes that require wiping the whole hard drive as Windows users, but that's no reason for complacency.

Reasons To Backup

  • Your hard drive might die.
  • Someone may delete an important file.
  • A crucial file could get damaged.
  • You might really mess up that document you've been working on. See Ellen Feiss.
  • Your computer could be stolen or lost in a disaster.

Reasons Not to Backup

  • Don't have the time.
  • Don't have the right hardware.
  • Don't have a backup program.
  • Don't remember to do it.

Backup Tales

I've been backing up computers since the days of 5.25" 360K floppy disks and a 20 MB hard drive on my 8 MHz Zenith PC. It was slow and time consuming. I didn't do it very often, but I did backup every few months.

Mac PlusDitto with my Mac Plus. It had 800K floppy drives (two of 'em - one external!) and a 40 MB hard drive. It took a lot of floppies, but I tried to backup every couple months. It took forever.

And then I got a 44 MB Syquest drive - one quick pass could duplicate my entire hard drive! Nirvana - until one of the kids stuck a floppy in the Syquest drive and sheared off a head. Beyond economic repair.

I moved to a Centris 610 4/80. I bumped RAM to 8 MB, then 12, and later 20. I backed up to a whole bunch of 1.4 MB floppies. Then I got a 270 MB hard drive, which was the end of the road for floppy backups.

I bought a Zip drive. Its 100 MB capacity was perfect for backup - three Zips could hold everything on my 270 MB drive. And when I moved to a 540 MB drive, a couple more Zips were all I needed. It wasn't particularly fast, but it beat the heck out of floppies.

Umax J700Then came the SuperMac J700 with its 2.1 GB hard drive. Suddenly 100 MB Zip disks didn't cut it any longer, unless I wanted to do selective backups.

Most of this time I'd also been managing backups at my day job. 20, 40, 60, 80 Macs. First on LocalTalk and backed up to a handful of Syquest cartridges. Later on ethernet and backed up to DAT - and still later to AIT.

As we began to network computers at home, it was time to do network backups. Having seen how drive capacity grows, I chose VXA as the ideal solution just over two years ago. Each tape holds 33 GB uncompressed, and my experience told me that translates to 45-50 GB of compressed data. The drive was about $1,300 ($900 today) and the tapes were $80-85 each ($65-70 today), but each tape would last a month or more.

That was a couple years ago. Today we have more Macs with bigger drives on the network, so our initial backup fills the first tape. Incremental daily backups have us filling 3 tapes every 2-3 months.

As happens with every backup strategy, as technology marches forward, we need more and more capacity until we eventually reach the point where the old backup strategy no longer works. It happened with floppies and Zips. It happens with high capacity tapes.

Your Backup Needs

There are different ways of doing backup. We do full system backups, making it possible to fully restore data from a crashed hard drive, stolen computer, or laptop that met a Diet Coke. We get everything back from backup: the System Folder with all the preferences, email, work documents, applications - you name it. It's the best way to do backup, but it also requires the most backup capacity.

If you're willing to reinstall the Mac OS and your applications, you might only need to backup your personal files. And you can probably skip the MP3s, since you can always rip them again. (You do own the CDs, don't you?)

Backup Software

Cheap and Simple Backup

The simplest backup is to drag the files you want to backup to some type of external drive or removable media. Whether this is an iPod, hard drive, CD burner, or Zip drive doesn't matter too much. Some devices are faster than others, but unless you're saving a lot of data at once, the process shouldn't be too slow. Those with a .mac account can even backup 100 MB to their iDisk (albeit at a rate limited by your Internet connection).

Better Simple Backup

When the Mac OS copies files and folders, it copies all of them - even if they're already on the other drive. Stupid but true. Over the years, solutions such as CopyDoubler, Speed Doubler, and Copy Agent have allowed Mac users to speed up the process by only copying files that had changed. If you're using the classic Mac OS, Copy Agent is worth its weight in gold. (I don't know of a similar program for Mac OS X. This is one area I will have to research as I make my slow transition to Apple's next generation OS.)*

Instead of the very simple backup, I strongly recommend a program with intelligent file copying - as long as you're not backing up to CD. If you're doing a backup to CD, it really doesn't matter. The OS will write the whole CD. Not good. (See A Pox on CD Burning for more on this subject.)

Smarter Backup

The best solution is a backup program, and there are several available for the Classic Mac OS as well as OS X. I'm not going to make any specific recommendations, because I've been using Retrospect for too many years to even look at alternatives.** Retrospect supports both local and network backup of Macs (classic and OS X), Windows PCs, Linux computers, and Solaris machines. It's not cheap, but it's worth every penny.

That said, Retrospect is an industrial strength solution. While it works well for those who know it, it has never been a particularly user friendly solution. You really should read and reread the manual when you get started - then come back to it in a few weeks after you've been using the program. There's a lot of power, and it comes with a somewhat steep learning curve. And if you want to become a real Retrospect power user, join the Retro-Talk email list.

If you've got just one or two Macs, your best bet is probably a personal backup program, such as the backup option in .mac (Mac OS X only) or the regular (non-network) version of Retrospect.

Backup Hardware


Backing up to CD can be cheap, especially if your Mac already has a CD burner. Blank media is cheap, and if you've already got the drive, all you need to add is software.

I have no love for CDs as backup media. They're slow and inefficient, even if you have a very fast CD burner. The 4x and 8x burners Apple traditionally uses do not qualify as fast. If you plan on doing comprehensive backups to CD, consider a much faster CD burner.

Zips and MO Drives

Zip disks and magneto-optical disks are true random access media designed to handle computer data efficiently. Nowhere near as cheap as using a CD burner you already own or buying blank CD-R media, these are also much faster. Due to capacity, I'd lean toward an MO drive instead of Zip.


Tape backup used to make a lot of sense. Drives were expensive, but they were also fast, and tape was cheap. Of the tape solutions on the market today, VXA seems to find the sweet spot between price (roughly $900 for an external FireWire drive, $600 for an internal IDE drive, $65 per 33 GB tape), speed, and capacity. The newer VXA-2 looks to be an even better deal at $95-100 for an 80 GB (uncompressed capacity) tape.

Hard Drives

One reason Apple switched from SCSI drives to IDE was cost. Today's UltraATA hard drives can be incredible values. A search of recent listings on DealMac finds:

  • 80 GB 5400 rpm Western Digital UltraATA/100, $80
  • 80 GB 7200 rpm Maxtor, $80 after rebate
  • 80 GB 7200 rpm Western Digital UltraATA/100, $103
  • 120 GB 7200 rpm Western Digital UltraATA/100, $158
  • 120 GB 5400 rpm Maxtor UltraATA/133, $141
  • 60 GB 7200 rpm Maxtor UltraATA/100, $60 after rebate

Compare $1.00 to $1.32 per megabyte for a bare drive with $1.20-1.25/MB for VXA-2 tapes. Then figure that you don't have to buy a $600-plus tape drive. External FireWire enclosures for 3.5" IDE drives are available for as little as $60 (two drive bays, two FireWire ports, and the famous Oxford 911 bridge). And it's not hard swapping drives out of most FireWire enclosures, making this a real alternative to tape with unlimited expandability.

Cost to Switch

Instead of investing more money in VXA tapes, I'm updating Retrospect (version 5 supports OS X), picking up a couple FireWire enclosures, a FireWire PCI card (my SuperMac doesn't have built-in FireWire), and some low cost, high capacity hard drives. Once a drive is full, Retrospect can use a second drive. You could even unmount and unplug the full drive from your Mac, remove the drive mechanism from the FireWire enclosure, install your next drive, and hook it back to your Mac.

Breakdown of costs:

  • Retrospect Desktop upgrade, $93 shipped from MacMall
  • Two dual-bay FireWire enclosures, $130 from Computer Geeks
  • FireWire PCI card, undecided, $20-50 total cost
  • Two 80 GB hard drive, $170 including sales tax at CompUSA

Total cost should come in at $415-445. I hope to sell my old VXA drive with three tapes and a SCSI cable for about $500, so I'm actually putting money in my pocket by switching systems if I can get my asking price. (Low End Mac really is about value computing....)

In terms of speed, this should outperform any other option, and with today's drive prices, this is also one of the lowest cost ways to backup a lot of data - and it's far more convenient than dozens upon dozens of CD swaps.

The Ultimate Solution?

For light use, backing up to CD-R might be the best solution, but as you get to the point where you're backing up several GB of data, backing up to an external FireWire drive becomes a more attractive option.

Also, if you've got more than two Macs, a network solution such an Retrospect merits serious consideration. The backup server (I use my old SuperMac J700 for the task) can run 24/7 and check the network, making sure to back up your 'Book as soon as you return from a trip.

The combination of networked Retrospect and low-cost hard drives in FireWire enclosures looks like the best choice in a situation where several networked Macs are being backed up.

Best of all, network backup can proceed unattended until you need to change disks or tapes, so you don't even have to remember to run the software.

* 2010 update: The best OS X solution I've found thus far is File Synchronization from Nemesys Software. It's note drag-and-drop simple like the Classic Mac OS add-ons, but you can create backup pairs (source and destination), dupe in either direction or merge the contents of both locations, and tell it to delete "orphan files" (ones on the destination that are no longer on the source). It's not lightning fast, but it gets the job done, and it is faster than copying everything in the Finder. $15 shareware.

** Two years after publishing this article, I switched to SuperDuper and backing up to a second hard drive. SuperDuper doesn't archive old files (Time Machine on OS X 10.5 and later can take care of that); it does create a fully bootable backup that you can use or clone back to your hard drive (or a new drive) in case of a catastrophe. $28 shareware.

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