A friend recently asked me about backing up his Mac. He’s been using the built-in Time Machine feature that’s a part of OS X, which is indeed a good basic backup solution, but he identified its flaw, which is that if the backup hard drive fails, you lose your only backup. The fact is that while Time Machine is better than nothing–which is what most people have–I don’t think it’s sufficient, especially when so much of what’s important to us is beginning to exist solely in digital form, including and especially photographs, but also email, documents, music, videos, and more.
So he asked me what I do. Here’s what I said: My philosophy about computer backups is that you can’t have too many backups and if a file doesn’t exist in at least 3 places, it may as well not exist at all.
Here’s what I do for backup: 
- I have a Time Machine backup on my desk here at home. This is for quick recovery of files that I’ve either accidentally deleted or mangled (i.e. saved with a change I later regret). I consider it the least safe in terms of “If everything goes wrong.”
- I do, not one, but two clones of my hard drive every day. I have one here at home and one at work. (This obviously works best for a laptop you carry back and forth but you can also do it with carrying hard drives back and forth, swapping them each day on your desktop computer at home). Obviously, this is the most extreme, but if something very bad were to happen to my hard drive and/or computer, it would get me back up and running in the least amount of time. I automate the backups so I don’t even have to think about it, except to make sure the hard drive is attached at the right time. Having one clone at work means if, God forbid, the house burned down or we were robbed, I still have the one at the office.
- I use Backblaze for $5/month. This backs up everything over the Internet to a remote server. Keep in mind, when you first set it up, it will take forever to do the first backup. I have a lot of data (about 600GB on a 750GB hard drive), and it took about a month(!) for my first backup. But it all happens in the background and the software is smart enough not to slow you down when you’re actually sitting at the computer, using the idle time wisely. This part of the backup plan is for worst-case scenarios, like if a natural disaster wiped out my home and office or if both clones are corrupted somehow or if I’m on a trip and urgently need to recover a particular file. You can recover files over the Internet if you need to, which you can’t do with Time Machine or clones. If you do need to recover your whole hard drive, they will Fedex a hard drive with your data to you, for an additional fee, so you don’t have to take days downloading it. (Download speeds on broadband are faster than upload but still not that fast.)
What you choose to do depends on your level of paranoia and comfort. I’ve had drives fail and have lost irreplaceable files in the past–the name “Zip drive” still makes me shudder–so that’s why I’m so anal about backups.
I should add as an appendix that I use Dropbox to store all my documents and files for both home and work. On the one hand, it means they’re available on any machine I’m using at the moment (including my iPhone and iPad), but also they are backed up in the cloud and versioned so that if I need the version of the file from three changes ago I can get it. So it’s a kind of backup. However, it’s only for documents. Even with the 100GB, $10/month service that my work pays for, I can’t fit my music, videos, or photos in there. Nor can I put all my system preferences and all that in there either.
So, in order to do all this, you’ll need at least two hard drives (Time Machine and clone) or three if you want an offsite clone too, plus Backblaze. Also, you’ll want to test your hard drive backs up every once in a while to make sure they’re not dead and are still backing up.
Does it sound complicated, time-consuming, and expensive? It’s only time-consuming when you set it up, but in practice it’s nearly invisible. The expense depends on how much your data is worth to you. Our photos of the kids are priceless so the cost/benefit analysis is highly weighted in favor of my solution. What I end up with is peace of mind and the ability to be like Star Trek’s Scotty, able to pull a miracle out of my hat when all seems lost.
Illustration: Public domain image
While Time Machine is Mac-specific, cloning and online backup are available for all platforms. A quick Google search reveals lots of software that claim to be like Time Machine for Windows, I have no information about them. ↩
I should add that in the latest version of OS X, Mountain Lion, software can take advantage of a feature called Auto Save, which is sort of like a kind of Time Machine inside of files. Your documents are constantly being saved instead of you having to remember to save them, and when you need to go to an earlier version you get an interface just like Time Machine’s. Melanie uses this when Anthony gets his little fingers on her unattended MacBook and “retypes” whatever she’s working on in Pages. ↩
The software I’m currently using is SuperDuper from Shirt Pocket, but you can also use Carbon Copy Cloner. With the latest updates, I’m thinking of switching because of the new features in CCC. In any case, both do a “smart update” by updating only the files that have changed since your last clone, thus drastically reducing the length of time each successive cloning takes. ↩
I picked Backblaze over Carbonite, because I wasn’t a fan of Carbonite’s software, although it does have a nifty option to back up to a hard drive you store at a friend’s house; a sort of compromise between #2 and #3. ↩
I’ve written before about Dropbox and it’s only improved in the three years since then, including dropping its price.