These days, "backup" means duplicating your entire internal drive to a secondary volume (an external drive), using a backup utility such asTime Machine, or a clone app like SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner (covered below). By having all data stored on two drives, your files will not be lost when a drive fails - and they all do - as long as your backup has been properly configured, kept current and stored safely.
Cloud backup is not good enough. Here's why:
all your data into space puts modem, router, internet service provider (ISP), passwords and servers in the way of recovery.
Most cloud backup services only store unique personal files ("target files")., meaning you will have to install OS, apps and updates to a new drive and restore network settings before you can retrieve files from cloud storage. You'll need most of your passwords and all of your patience.
Security is always an issue. If you go the cloud backup route, use Apple's iCloud and consider having a USB backup drive as well (they're cheap).
Having a full and complete backup copy of your drive (safely stored in your possession) will literally save you days of grief. Keep your backup up-to-date automatically or on a regular schedule. If you use a desktop Mac, setup TimeMachine and leave it connected 24/7. Doesn't get any easier than that. Backup can always be stored offsite, too, if necessary.
Q#1: Do you care?
If you tossed your computer from a high-rise window, would you miss it? Family photos? Your music library? Bank records, vacation videos, love letters, bookmarks, docs and emails....? If you answered 'no,' good for you! There _is_ more to life after all. But, if you count on your computer, you should know that all your data is stored on a device that is certain to fail eventually. Having a backup is only prudent.
Another reason to create and maintain a proper backup has to do with OS upgrades, program installations and software updates. If you make a full/complete/proper backup _BEFORE_ applying upgrades or making major modifications, you'll have an "undo" option if something goes wrong or you find you can't tolerate the change.
Q#2: How much storage capacity do you need?
Gigabytes, terabytes or exebytes? Got a humongous music library? Loads of video? Maybe it's time to look into a RAID setup (Redundant Array of Independent Disks); multiple drives which may be arranged to backup files on the fly and provide loads of storage. Professional photographers, videographers, musicians, designers and the like may have storage requirements far beyond the needs of "normal" computer users, in which case a RAID array is the way to go (Drobo, if possible). For the rest of us, a single 1, 2 or 4 terabyte drive is more than adequate. Take a look at your current drive's storage capacity and available space to get an idea of what your requirements are and how much room you'll need for future expansion.
1024 bytes = 1 kilobyte (1KB)
1024 kilobytes = 1 megabyte (1MB)
1024 megabytes = 1 gigabyte (1GB)
1024 gigabytes = 1 terabyte (1TB)
1024 terabytes = 1 exebyte (1EB)
Q#3: Is Security a concern?
If you haven't thought about it, you really should - and not just because someone might get into your personal information. Your files and Operating System could accidentally be damaged by allowing others to have access to your computer, an upgrade could go haywire, or the machine might sustain damage. You should at least protect your admin account with a proper password (especially on portable devices). When letting others borrow your computer, logout as Admin and use the Guest account provided by your OS. Make sure your backup drive is safe and secure, too.
- Top Priority, at any cost. You have two choices (basically): Encrypted, continuous and complete backup offsite over a secure network - or - hand-carried physical volumes rotated periodically thru a secure offsite location. Recovery from a total disaster should take no longer than a restart from your backup volume or server.
- Security is appreciated: Automated, scheduled onsite backup with password protection and limited physical access is adequate for most of us. Backup schedule is determined by acceptable loss and/or convenience. Security isn't an overriding concern here, so a proper password and backup should be sufficient.
- Security is not important (workstation, casual user): Data loss is always an issue, regardless of security concerns. Occasional backup based on completed jobs, work schedule or major changes/upgrades might be okay, depending on potential setback. The easier your backup plan is, the more likely you will use it, but any workable plan is better than none.
It has to be dependable and convenient.
If you use an older MacPro tower (except the 2017 tubular model), you may have unused drive bays ready for internal backup (rare). In most cases, an external drive of sufficient capacity is necessary, and 1-2TB backup HDDs are cheap. Larger 3.5" desktop drives are even cheaper and go up to 16TB or more each. These need an enclosure with a power brick, or may be available as a complete unit. This backup plan is the easiest and cheapest of all. iMacs, Minis and notebooks rarely have provision for additional internal drives, so an external backup is your only option - but it's an easy one. If you travel with a notebook, a 2.5" USB backup drive is your best bet. Small, portable and self-contained, these drives are easy to connect, pack and use. If portable backup isn't necessary, a full-size 3.5" desktop unit (or RAID array) will happily stay behind as backup volume for your machine. These have higher capacity and 3.5" drives are generally less expensive per GB than their 2.5" notebook-sized cousins.
HARDWARE HALF of making a backup:
An external FireWire (pre-2013), Thunderbolt (pre-2016), or USB-C connected drive of equal or greater capacity as your Mac's primary backup drive is ideal. USB is the most common type of connection, but if your machine is equipped with Thunderbolt you may want to take advantage of the additional speed of this port.
FireWire 800 was backwards-compatible with 400, and adapters are still available for older Macs (aka FireWire 9-pin to 6-pin). Newer models have Thunderbolt (USB-C) and may require an adapter to backup drive USB ports. External drives are available at office supply
and electronics stores, or online along with enclosures and your choice of HDDs or SSDs.
The old drive enclosure pictured at left is for a desktop 3.5" (full-size) hard drive. Like most, this example has various ports, requires a power brick (not shown), and cools by convection thru its case. Other full-size enclosures may have fans, some are stackable, some are made from plastic and others, like this example, are made of aluminum. Solid state drives (SSDs) typically have lower storage capacity at much higher cost than rotational drives, but are a great choice for backup purposes where "speed" is helpful and cost is not important.
Compact, pocket-sized 2.5" external backup drives like the one pictured here are commonly available from all manufacturers. These drives are powered directly thru USB port, eliminating power bricks associated with full-size backup drives. 2.5" backup drives may be found at Staples, Best Buy, Walmart, Target and most office supply stores, up to 2TB. Pocket-sized SSDs go well beyond 2TB.
All backup drives will likely need to be formatted, and be advised: Many ready made backup units come with annoying utilities onboard that you neither need nor want - erase the drive and its utilities (reformat) and never use that stuff - you have better utilities in your Mac's Operating System.
RAID arrays are becoming necessary, as storage and backup space requirements explode. Pictured here is the business end of a 4-bay RAID array containing 3 full-size hard drives (the minimum RAID arrangement). RAID arrays (RAID = Redundant Array of Independent Disks) may be configured as backup and/or storage, or both, with up to 12 bays in a single enclosure - but be prepared for sticker shock. A good choice for video editing, enterprise server applications and more-than-normal storage requirements is the Drobo pictured here with 4 bays and high-speed data connections. Please note that RAID arrays require special formatting and setup that is beyond the scope of this discussion; a brief intro may be found on DriveSaver's blog, found here.
SOFTWARE HALF of making a backup:
iCloud: As mentioned at top of this page, cloud backup has its problems, but it's certainly better than nothing. If this is your choice, keep the nonsense to a minimum by using Apple's iCloud service. An iCloud account provides cost effective online backup and also allows you to synchronize your files across multiple computers, iPads, iPhones and such; the sync function of iCloud can be pretty attractive for managing workgroups and multiple devices. If your equipment is up to date and you prefer online backup, give iCloud a go.
Be advised: There are bogus cloud "backup" services and software floating around out there that must be avoided. Know who you are dealing with before sending all your data out into space. Use Apple's iCloud.
Time Machine: Apple has addressed the need for backup by including their Time Machine backup utility with the MacOS, providing easy automation, once an external storage drive has been setup. Time Machine is slick, fast, free, and requires no attention, operating unobtrusively in the background while keeping your backup current. Once configured correctly, Time Machine operates flawlessly and couldn't be easier to use. Restoring your data from a Time Machine backup requires a few unique steps, so get acquainted with the restore process while you're at it. We use a variety of methods here at the shop, but highly recommend Time Machine as best choice for most Mac users.
Retrospect: Best choice for enterprise use, this venerable long-time Macintosh app has recently been re-released after a long absence from the Mac platform. It's expensive, with periodic updates and various license agreements available, depending on your equipment and circumstances. We've yet to see or test the new versions of Retrospect, but it claims to support encryption, work flow options and backup to a wide variety of media (incl. tape). May be best suited for high-end corporate use supporting multiple servers where speed, security and dependability are critical, but is impractical for most users.
Carbon Copy Cloner: Drag-and drop installation, ease of use and a full compliment of automated features, CCC has everything you need to create and maintain a bootable clone backup with a minimum of hassle and maximum convenience. Download is fully functional for a limited evaluation period, and comes with a comprehensive user manual. This app has been around for a very long time thru many OS versions and is still going strong. Quick and reliable, its easy interface hides a sophisticated core that has matured over the years and managed to keep pace with all the latest changes in the MacOS.
SuperDuper!: From our friends at Shirt Pocket, SuperDuper! has a clear and simple interface, it's quick, easy and nearly bulletproof with an outstanding feature set at a very reasonable price. (SuperDuper is still available for older Systems including PPC machines, too.) Free to download, it can be used immediately to make a full backup, but purchase and registration is required to unlock its full capability, including incremental and scheduled (automatic) backup. Comes with a full PDF manual and installation is a simple drag-and-drop to your computer's Applications folder.
Test your backup _before_ it's needed:
To test a Time Machine backup you must have an available (empty) drive to use since it will overwrite any volume it restores to - and you don't want to risk data on your primary hard drive for the sake of a test. The restore process cannot be interrupted and results won't be known until completed.
The other utilities recommended above all create bootable backups that requires nothing more than an open port to plug into. Once the backup mounts, you can compare both volumes side-by-side; these should be nearly identical if backup was made recently and correctly. Comparing volumes shows backup is complete; starting up from the backup volume only takes a minute and will prove it can be used as a boot volume as well.
The rest is up to you.
If you are capable of sorting thru all the details and setting up a proper backup, the info above should at least get you started and help you on your way. By all means, _do_ create and use a backup plan if you don't have one already; if you do have a backup, take the time to keep it current and test it now and then. If you find all this too complicated to deal with, know that you're not alone and we're here to help.