Have you ever lost an important file? If not, you are either very young or very lucky. But being young and lucky is not a strategy for protecting your important work. Also, it is not just documents. Music, movies, applications, and photos are just a few examples of the types of things I've lost over the years. If you don't have a plan for avoiding loss, you are going to be a victim. For years, Apple has included software in the OS with the goal of keeping you from becoming a victim. It may be the most underutilized software that can save your digital life. Let's take a look:
Is there really a need for backup?
Before diving into backup solutions, it might be a good idea to evaluate whether or not you need a backup solution at all. If you listen to tech pundits, everyone needs at least three levels of backup all the time for everything. That't just not true. The problem with taking advice from pundits is that in many ways that really matter, they are nothing like you. They write multiple documents a day for a living. Most likely, you don't. They use a lot of different devices during the course of a day. They take photos that number in the thousands. Some of those photos are important to their job. My point is that they tend to produce a lot of valuable content on a lot of devices. Losing some of it could cost them not just time, but money.
There is a good chance you don't have anything that needs backing up that isn't already being backed up automatically. If you are in the Apple ecosystem, you already have a lot of protection of which you might not be aware. Your last thousand photos are automatically backed up to Photo Stream, and are available on all the devices connected to your iCloud account. The same goes for the music and movies you buy from iTunes. The rest of your media is backed up if you subscribe to iTunes Match. If you use the iWork apps, your documents are also backed up in the cloud. All of the apps you buy from the Mac App Store can be redownloaded for free. In the Apple ecosystem, almost everything is already backed up for you automatically.
That said, let's take a closer look at what is not backed up. The biggest issue might be your photos. Photo Stream backs up your last 1,000 photos, and only that. You are going to need some kind of solution for backing up your photo library. Music and movies is another one of those areas where Apple's solution is insufficient for huge media libraries. iTunes Match only gets you so much. If you don't want to pop for a subscription, you are definitely going to need a way to back up all that entertainment media. What if you write documents in something other than iWork apps You guessed it. iCloud will not work as a backup solution.
To what extent do you live inside of Apple's ecosystem? How large are your photo, document, and media collections? If you lost everything on your computer, how devastated would you be? These are the questions that ultimately determine whether or not you even need a backup solution. I have known too many people who have lost everything, or were about to after my repairing their toasted computer. They were perfectly fine about losing everything. They didn't have anything important to worry about. I suspect that is the case for a large percentage of people. If you are in the other camp, keep reading.
Time Machine: backup for the rest of us
Time Machine is Apple's backup solution for everyone who uses a Mac, and does not want to spend a lot of time trying to figure out a backup solution. It is backup for Mac users who don't care about backup. Truthfully, no one cares about backup until they lose something important. That is rather much like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. It is also a lot like insurance or security. We care about it very little until something happens that makes us wish we had it. There is no one more eager to talk to a home security dealer than someone who has just been robbed
Apple ships the backup solution with every Mac they sell, at least the software component. For Time Machine to actually work, a dedicated, external hard drive must be present. There are inexpensive ways to do this. Apple does not offer one of them. Instead, they sell something called Time Capsule. It is their Airport router with two or three terabits of hard drive inside. You will pay either $200 or $300 depending on the capacity. However, count on Apple's solution being the one that works the best and most seamless.
Once you have a hard drive dedicated to Time Machine backups, the software takes care of everything else in the background. You never have to think about it again. Yes, you can fiddle with a few settings, and there are only a few. But if you do nothing, you will still be well protected. If you accidentally hid Delete on a folder full of documents that contained your great American novel you have been working on all your life, don't worry. You're covered. Just go into Time Machine to the documents area where your folder used to be, go back in time with the large arrow keys near the bottom-right of the screen until you get back to a place where your folder is safe and sound. At that point you can just bring it forth to the present without changing anything else. It really does feel a lot like magic.
Unfortunately, hard drives go bad. Sometimes they die well before their time. Even SSDs give out. If that happens to your Mac, Time Machine can be a lifesaver. When you purchase a new Mac, or a new hard drive for your Mac, you have the option to restore from a Time Machine backup. That is one of those moments when you really wish you had a Time Machine backup. The process is not exactly speedy. But when it is done, your new Mac is the same as your old Mac, only newer. It works a little like an iCloud backup for your iDevice.
However, Time Machine is not a disk image. It does not save the state of your system. Think of a disk image as taking a picture of your computer at a particular moment in time. Every 1 and 0 is copied for later reproduction. It is an exact clone of your machine at that particular time. If you were ever a Windows user, you can remember thinking that you wish you could save the state of your machine at a given moment when everything was working perfectly. That happened so infrequently, that when it did, you wanted to save it, and have it for later reproduction if necessary. In fact, that is exactly how Windows backup worked. It gave you a chance to save that perfect state.
On the Mac side of things, that condition is not so rare. Sometimes a critical system file goes belly up, but it is rare. You don't need to return to some rarely seen perfect state. You just need that problem to be fixed. There are two ways you can do it. Even without Time Machine, you can reinstall the OS without dislodging your personal files and applications. Whatever system file was broken is now fixed, as you are running a fresh copy of the OS with the latest updates. With a Time Machine backup, you can completely wipe your hard drive, do a clean reinstall, then restore from a Time Machine backup.
Time Machine's real fatal flaw is that it also relies on a hard drive to store your precious files. The hard drive you use for backup is no more reliable than the one in your Mac. It would be nice if Apple offered some type of off-site storage like iCloud. I think it would be very difficult to get people to pay for something they care so little about. Till then, Time Machine is the best backup system you can get if you don't care much about backup. It is also a good thing to talk someone into.