This is the first article at Mac Guru Lounge in the “Getting Started” series. Starting with basic explanations and real-world scenarios, these articles are designed to help you learn about technologies and applications already on your computer.
In reading this article, your first question to me might be, “Why start with Time Machine? Surely there are more basic concepts worth covering.” I can’t argue with you there, but I have three reasons for starting this series with Time Machine: first, Time Machine has arguably been the most anticipated and talked about feature of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard. Second, everyone should have a backup strategy to protect their data. Third, Jayson was the first person to ask a general question, and he wanted to know about Time Machine.
What is Time Machine?
The simplest way to describe Time Machine is that it is a program used to back up your data. Pretty exciting, eh? Exactly. Raise your hand if you’ve ever backed up your computer. Keep your hand raised if you routinely back it up. Finally, keep those hands raised if you think it’s easy to back up your computer. How many hands are showing? Even I know your hand isn’t raised.
Let’s face it: we spend a lot of time in front of our computers, but we never think we have time to back them up. What’s worse is that while we fear we should back up our computers, most of us are willing to take our chances with fate and back nothing up (or, at best, keep a few files on a thumb drive). Why do we act against our interests in this way? Two reasons: Backing up has always been difficult and inconvenient. In the past, your computer didn’t come with software to back itself up, so you had to find some on your own (and usually pay for it). Then, you opened the software and couldn’t figure out how to use it. That’s because back up software was never written with you in mind.
Enter Time Machine
With Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, Apple included backup software (that works!), and it should take you all of one minute (or less) to configure. This software is called Time Machine, and it is running in the background on your computer, remembering each time you add, delete, or change every file on your computer. By default, your computer can back up your data each hour, and you don’t ever have to remember to do it yourself. That way, if your hard drive ever crashes or if you simply delete a file by accident, you can use Time Machine to get it back!
Time Machine backs up all of your files. It backs up your music, photos, movies, Word documents, mail messages, address book entries, preferences, applications, and system files. It leaves no stone unturned. In fact (and it’s a bit beyond the scope of this article), it does such a complete job backing up your data, if your hard drive crashes and needs to be replaced, Time Machine can restore your data to the exact state it was in the last time you backed it up (meaning you do not need to reinstall programs, register them, change preferences, or set up your mail accounts).
What Do I Need To Run Time Machine?
To run Time Machine, you only need two things:
- A Mac computer running Mac OS X 10.5 (or later), and
- An external hard drive (that you leave plugged into your computer), or a Time Capsule.
Now, you might be asking why you need the external hard drive and why it needs to be plugged into your computer. Answer this question: Why would you put something valuable in a safe deposit box? We all know the answer: Because it’s not safe to keep it in its home. That’s true with data, too. All of your data is stored on your hard drive that is inside your computer. The reason you back up your data is to have another copy of it in case something happens to your hard drive. If you store your backup data on the same hard drive as it is coming from, you’ll have no way to retrieve either set of data if your hard drive crashes.
This means we have to keep our backup data somewhere else. If you only had a few files to back up, you could probably fit them on a CD, DVD, or thumb drive. But in today’s world, your operating system requires 5-10 gigabytes of space. Then there’s your MP3 collection, all of your photos from your 10 megapixel digital camera, and the home movies you’ve made with your camcorder. They take up so much space that only a hard drive is large enough to fit all of their data. (Just as an aside, you know that 300-page novel you’ve been writing every day for the past year? The amount of space it takes up is equivalent to 30 seconds of one MP3.)
Because you have so much data, you need another hard drive that you plug into your computer to store that data safely. (If you currently do not have an external drive, click here to see some of the best drives available from Amazon.) I recommend that you use one drive exclusively for Time Machine backups, but it isn’t required: you can store additional data on the same drive that has your backups.
How Do I Set Up Time Machine?
Setting up Time Machine is pretty painless (you can do it!). In fact, it will probably be as easy as plugging the empty hard drive into your computer. When you do, a window will pop up asking you if you want to use the hard drive for Time Machine backups. If you say yes, the Time Machine System Preference will open (or you can open it from System Preferences yourself), and you simply need to make sure you’ve switched the On/Off button to On:
Note: A few external hard drives may need to be reformatted before they can be used. This is not likely to occur for you when you plug in the drive, but if you get an error message, look at Apple’s kbase article on how to resolve the problem.
My picture above shows you what the Time Machine System Preference looks like. There are really only two settings you can fiddle with here: First (#1), you can click Change Disk to select which external hard drive you want to use for Time Machine. If you have three drives plugged in, and you’ve changed your mind on which one should hold your data, you can change it.
Under Options, you can add (or subtract) folders that you want Time Machine to skip over when it backs up your data. By default, you should assume you want Time Machine to back up everything. If, however, you have folders that store huge amounts of data temporarily (meaning you won’t want backup copies of them), you could add those folders here.
My #2 is simply the On/Off button. Turn Time Machine on to have it begin backing up your data. Only turn it off if you no longer require backups. It will stay off or on until you change this setting.
Notice the information to the right of the buttons? That information lists which drive is being used to back up the data, how much space on the drive is still available, how old the oldest backup is, the date and time of the newest backup, and the date and time of the next scheduled backup.
Where Does The Data Go?
So all of this happens in the background? Then how do I know it’s working? And where does the data go? Yes, all of this happens in the background, except for the very first time you back up your data. The first time you do it, you’ll see a window in the Finder that’s like any other window you get when copying data from one drive to another (because the initial backup takes the longest time, Apple included a window for you to see how the backup progresses). After your whole drive has been backed up, future backups will occur in the background.
You can see the progress of a backup (or see the last time your drive was backed up/failed to back up) simply by opening the Time Machine System Preference. It indicates successes and failures in backups. See that check box at the bottom of the System Preference? You can click it to put the status in the menu bar (or to force a backup immediately rather than waiting for the next scheduled one).
While I don’t recommend looking directly at your backup files (it’s like staring at the sun), you can see them on your external drive in a folder called Backups.backupdb. If you keep traversing through those folders, you’ll see that there’s a folder for each date and time your machine was backed up. These files are not intended to be accessed through the Finder, and honestly, why would you want to try finding some missing file by navigating through thousands of folders? Instead, you want to use the Time Machine application.
Traveling Through Time … In Space?
Your computer probably has between 100,000 and 200,000 files (or more) on it. What is the best way to find the files you want after backing up hundreds of thousands of files for several months? You’d probably just want to use the Finder like you always do. Luckily, if you open the Time Machine application (in your Dock or Applications folder), you’ll get to do just that (along with a spiffy space background). Here’s what the window looks like:
As you can see, Time Machine will grab your Finder window, throw it into space, and let you start searching for older files. I’ve got a bunch of numbers here, and I’m actually going to start with the last one, #5.
Over on the right side of this window (#5), you have a time line. Each mark in the time line represents a backup that Time Machine made of your computer. You can move your mouse up and down over this area to see the dates your machine has been backed up and select a date, if you know there’s a particular date at which you had the file you want. You can also click the arrows or the “rear” windows to move further back.
Let’s look at a way this would work in the real world. Suppose you’ve lost a copy of the resume you were working on last week. You’re pretty sure you saved it on the Desktop, but you’re not certain, and regardless, it’s gone now. How are you going to find it? Let’s see:
- You could click on your Desktop in the Sidebar (see #1 above) or navigate through your folders just like you normally would to get to your Desktop.
- Then, you could go over to #5 and keep checking back one day at a time until you see your file appear in the Desktop folder. Once it does, you can click on it, then click on the Restore button (#3), and Time Machine will restore it to your Desktop!
- If that file sat on the Desktop every day in December, you should be able to choose any date (#5) in December and still see that file listed on the Desktop. If you want the newest version of the file, choose the last day it appears on the Desktop. You could choose an older version if you think you made poor changes to it later in December.
What if your file doesn’t appear in the Desktop folder? What if you can’t remember the name of it?
- That’s where #2 comes in: the Find field. You can always search for the name of the file or a word in the file (if the file has words — something like an MP3 may not). For example, you know you worked for Apple and you speak Italian, so you might type “apple italian” into the Find field and see which files can be found with those words in it.
- If your time line is on today, your file probably won’t be there (since it was deleted), but you can start going back in time, and your search terms will stay in the Find field. Each time you select a new date, Time Machine will rescan the backup to see if there was a file with those words. You can restore several files at once if you’re still not sure which file is yours.
You can also use the Gear button (#4) to do a bunch of other things: use Quick Look to see a preview of the file, restore the file to a folder different from the one it was originally in, or delete that copy (or all copies) of that file/folder that have been backed up.
But Time Machine Is Even Smarter
What if you want to restore someone’s Address Book card? How are you going to find that? What about an iPhoto photo? Do you have any idea where that file is, or what it is named? No way. But Time Machine can help you.
If you want to restore Address Book data, open the application first, then click on the Time Machine icon in your Dock (note: this way of restoring data only works if you’ve kept Time Machine in the Dock). Time Machine will open with the Address Book window in the foreground. You can move back in time until you find the card you’re looking for. Do the same thing with iPhoto!
Notes For Laptop Users
This whole bit about keeping a hard drive plugged into your computer probably doesn’t sound enticing to laptop users. If that’s how you feel, there are a couple of options. First, you could simply plug a hard drive in when you want to perform backups. Time Machine won’t get upset if its hard drive is only available part-time. When you plug it in, it’ll do a backup within the next hour; when you unplug it, it will stop trying to back up your data until it sees the drive again.
A lot of laptop users want their data to be consistently backed up, but they want to be wireless. You might sit on the couch or at a table with your laptop, or it may stay in the conference room at your work. What can you do? Buy a Time Capsule. Time Capsules are AirPort Extreme Base Stations with integrated hard drives. They back up your data, via Time Machine, over the wireless network. You’ll never have to worry about keeping your hard drive plugged in. So long as you’re connected to the network, Time Machine will back up your data on time.
There are many reasons not to back up your data. I’ve yet to hear a good one. Of course, that assumes you care about the data on your computer. If you don’t mind losing everything you’ve written, collected, photographed, or installed since you bought your computer, you may not need to do a backup. For the rest of us, Time Machine offers a simple and elegant backup solution.
If you’ve never lost a file or had a hard drive crash, let me remind you: it’s coming. It does for everyone. For some of us, it simply comes sooner (or more often). I can’t tell you how many people I’ve helped who have come to my in tears because they lost something valuable to them on the computer. It’s terrible when that happens, and it reinforces the anger people have towards computers. Unfortunately, Mac hard drives are the same hard drives that go in every other computer. They usually last longer than you want to keep the computer, but sometimes they don’t. Please consider spending a small amount of money for an external hard drive to help protect all the hours and energy you put into your computer. Plus, you already have enough to worry about. Time Machine lets you check one of those worries off your list.
Did this article help you better understand Time Machine? Do you have recommendations on backup strategies? Are there better ways to use Time Machine? Let others know in the comments section.