Back Up Your Mac With Time Machine and SuperDuper

Midsection of man using laptop with backup label on external hard disk drive at table
Halfdark / Getty Images

Backups are one of the most important chores for all Mac users. This is especially true when you have a brand new Mac. Sure, we want to relish its newness, explore its capabilities. After all, it's brand new, what could go wrong? Well, it's a fundamental law of the universe, usually wrongly referenced to some guy named Murphy, But Murphy was just reminiscing about what earlier sages and wits already knew: if anything can go wrong, it will.

Before Murphy and his pessimistic buddies descend on your Mac, be sure you have a backup strategy in place.

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Back Up Your Mac

Floppy discs used for backup.
It's been awhile since floppy discs were a common backup destination. But while floppy discs may be gone, backing up is still needed. Martin Child / Contributor / Getty Images

There are many different ways to back up your Mac, as well as many different backup applications to make the task easier. In this article, we're going to look at backing up a Mac used for personal use. We won't be delving into the methodologies used by businesses of various sizes. We're only concerned here with a basic backup strategy for home users that is robust, inexpensive, and easy to implement.

What You Need to Back Up Your Mac

  • A Mac — Seems obvious, but it's a good place to start.
  • A storage device — I recommend an external hard drive, but you can also use other solutions, such as a NAS (Network Attached Storage) box, or if you're a Mac Pro user, an internal hard drive. An external hard drive is still the preferred method, though. I also think old-fashioned rotational storage devices are still the preferred media for backups. You can certainly use an SSD in place of a hard drive, but there's no major benefit, and don’t forget that hard drives are less expensive per GB than most SSDs.
  • Backup software — Since I'm using my own personal backup method, I'm going to use Apple's Time Machine and Shirt Pocket's SuperDuper. I like using two different backup applications because they fulfill several purposes. They cover the need to restore individual files or previous versions of files (Apple's Time Machine), restore a complete copy of my hard drive if something catastrophic occurs (Time Machine and SuperDuper), or have a working backup that can be put in place as fast as rebooting my Mac (SuperDuper). There's another bonus of having two different backups: You've got something to fall back on if Murphy pops up when you go to restore your data.

I want to point out that other backup applications beyond the ones I mention here are also good choices. For instance, Carbon Copy Cloner, a longtime favorite of Mac users, is an excellent choice and has nearly the same features and capabilities as SuperDuper. Likewise, you can use Apple's own Disk Utility to create clones of the startup drive.

This won't be a step-by-step tutorial, so you should be able to adapt the process to your favorite backup application. Let's get started.

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Time Machine Size and Location

Time machine with cogs and gears
Use the Finder's Get Info window to help decipher the size needed for your Time Machine drive. Adelevin / Getty Images

Backing up my Mac starts with Time Machine. The beauty of Time Machine is the ease of setting it up, plus the ease of recovering a file, project, or entire drive should something go wrong.

Time Machine is a continuous backup application. It doesn't back up your files every second of the day, but it does back up your data while you're still working. Once you set it up, Time Machine works in the background. You probably won't even be aware that it's running.

Where to Store Time Machine Backups

You'll need a place for Time Machine to use as the destination for its backups. I recommend an external hard drive. This can be a NAS device, such as Apple's own Time Capsule, or a simple external hard drive connected directly to your Mac.

My preference is for an external hard drive that supports USB 3 at a minimum. If you can afford it, an external with multiple interfaces, such as USB 3 and Thunderbolt, might a good choice, due to its versatility and ability to be used in the future for more than just a backup drive. Consider the plight of individuals backing up to an older FireWire external drive and then having their Mac die. They get a great deal on a MacBook for a replacement, only to discover that it lacks a FireWire port, so they can't easily retrieve files from their backups. There are ways around this dilemma, but the easiest is to anticipate the problem and not be tied to a single interface.

Time Machine Backup Size

The size of the external drive dictates how many versions of your data Time Machine can store. The larger the drive, the further back in time you can go to restore data. Time Machine doesn't back up every file on your Mac. Some system files are ignored, and you can manually designate other files that Time Machine shouldn't back up. A good starting point for drive size is twice the current amount of space used on the startup drive, plus the space used on any additional storage device you're backing up, plus the amount of Userspace used on the startup drive.

My reasoning goes like this:

Time Machine will initially back up the files on your startup drive; this includes most system files, apps you have in the Applications folder, and all of the User data stored on your Mac. If you're also having Time Machine back up other devices, such as a second drive, then that data is also included in the amount of space needed for the initial backup.

Once the initial backup is completed, Time Machine will continue to make backups of the files that change. System files either don’t change too much, or the size of the files being changed isn't very large. Apps in the Applications folder don’t change that much once installed, though you may add more apps over time. So, the area that's likely to see the most activity in the form of changes is the User data, the space that stores all of your daily activity, such as documents you're working on, media libraries you work with; you get the idea.

The initial Time Machine backup includes the User data, but since it will be changing so often, we're going to double the amount of space the User data needs. That puts my minimum space needed for a Time Machine backup drive to be:

The Mac's startup drive used space + any additional drive used space + the current User data size.

Let's take my Mac as an example, and see what a minimum Time Machine drive size would be.

  • Startup drive used space: 401GB (2X) = 802GB
  • External drive I want to include in the backup (used space only): 119GB
  • Size of the Users folder on the startup drive: 268GB
  • Total minimum space needed for a Time Machine drive: 1.189TB

Size of Used Space on the Startup Drive

  1. Open a Finder window.
  2. Find your startup drive in the list of Devices in the Finder sidebar.
  3. Right-click the startup drive, and select Get Info from the pop-up menu.
  4. Make a note of the Used value in the General section of the Get Info window.

Size of Secondary Drives

If you have any additional drives you'll be backing up, use the same method described above to find the used space on the drive.

Size of User Space

To find the size of your User data space, open a Finder window.

  1. Navigate to /startup volume/, where 'startup volume' is the name of your boot disk.
  2. Right-click the Users folder, and select Get Info from the pop-up menu.
  3. The Get Info window will open.
  4. In the General category, you'll see the Size listed for the Users folder. Make a note of this number.
  5. Close the Get Info window.

With all the figures written down, add them up using this formula:

(2x startup drive used space) + secondary drive used space + Users folder size.

Now you have a good idea of the minimum size of your Time Machine backup. Don’t forget this is only a suggested minimum. You can go larger, which will allow for more Time Machine backups to be kept. You can also go a bit smaller, though no less than 2x the used space on the startup drive.

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Using Time Machine

Time Machine Options
Time Machine can be set up to exclude drives and folders from the backup. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

Now that you know the preferred minimum size for the external hard drive, you're ready to set up Time Machine. Start by making sure the external drive is available for your Mac. This may mean plugging in a local external or setting up a NAS or Time Capsule. Be sure to follow any instructions provided by the manufacturer

Most external hard drives come formatted for use with Windows. If that's the case with yours, you'll need to format it using Apple's Disk Utility. You can find instructions in the 'Format Your Hard Drive Using Disk Utility' article.

Configure Time Machine

Once your external drive is formatted correctly, you can configure Time Machine to use the drive by following the instructions in the 'Time Machine: Backing Up Your Data Has Never Been So Easy' article.

Using Time Machine

Once configured, Time Machine will pretty much take care of itself. When your external drive gets filled up with backups, Time Machine will start overwriting the oldest backups to ensure there is space for the current data.

With the 'twice the Users data' minimum size we suggested, Time Machine should be able to keep:

  • Hourly backups for the last 24 hours.
  • Daily backups for the past month.
  • Weekly backups for the past 1 to 6 months, depending on the size of the drive.
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Clone Your Startup Drive With SuperDuper

SuperDuper ready to clone startup drive
SuperDuper includes a wide array of backup options. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

Time Machine is a great backup solution, one I highly recommend, but it isn't the end-all for backups. There are a few things it's not designed to do that I want in my backup strategy. The most important of these is to have a bootable copy of my startup drive.

Having a bootable copy of your startup drive takes care of two important needs. First, by being able to boot from another hard drive, you can perform routine maintenance on your normal startup drive. This includes verifying and repairing minor disk issues, something I do routinely to ensure a startup drive that works well and is dependable.

The other reason to have a clone of your startup drive is for emergencies. From personal experience, I know that our good buddy Murphy loves to throw disasters at us when we least expect them and can least afford them. Should you find yourself in a situation where time is of the essence, perhaps a deadline to meet, you may not be in a position to take the time to buy a new hard drive, install OS X or macOS, and restore your Time Machine backup. You'll still have to do these things to get your Mac working, but you can postpone that process while you finish up whatever important tasks you need to finish by booting from your cloned startup drive.

SuperDuper: What You Need

A copy of SuperDuper. I mentioned on Page one that you can also use your favorite cloning app, including Carbon Copy Cloner. If you're using another app, consider this more of a guide than step-by-step instructions.

An external hard drive that's at least as large as your current startup drive; 2012 and earlier Mac Pro users can use an internal hard drive, but for the most versatility and safety, an external is a better choice.

Using SuperDuper

SuperDuper has many attractive and useful features. The one we're interested in is its ability to make a clone or exact copy of a startup drive. SuperDuper calls this Backup - all files. We'll also use the option to erase the destination drive before the backup is performed. We do this for the simple reason that the process is faster. If we erase the destination drive, SuperDuper can use a block copy function that is faster than copying data file by file.

  1. Launch SuperDuper.
  2. Select your startup drive as the Copy source.
  3. Select your external hard drive as the Copy To destination.
  4. Select Backup - all files as the method.
  5. Click the Options button and select 'During copy erase backup location, then copy files from xxx' where xxx is the startup drive you specified, and backup location is the name of your backup drive.
  6. Click OK, then click Copy Now.
  7. Once you've created the first clone, you can change the Copy option to Smart Update, which will only allow SuperDuper to update the existing clone with new data, a much faster process than creating a new clone each time.

That's it. In a short time, you'll have a bootable clone of your startup drive.

When to Create Clones

How often to create clones depends on your work style and how much time you can afford for a clone to be out of date. I create a clone once a week. For others, every day, every two weeks, or once a month may be sufficient. SuperDuper has a scheduling feature that can automate the cloning process so you don't need to remember to do it

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Feeling Safe and Secure

iMac open for repair
A personal backup plan can make having to replace an iMac's drive an easier task. Courtesy of Pixabay

My personal backup process has a few holes, places where backup professionals would say I could be in danger of not having a viable backup when I need it.

But this guide isn't intended to be the perfect backup process. Instead, it's meant to be a reasonable backup method for personal Mac users who don’t want to spend a lot of cash on backup systems and processes, but who wish to feel safe and secure. In the most likely type of Mac failures, they'll have a viable backup available to them.

This guide is only a beginning, one that Macs readers can use as a starting point to develop their own personal backup process.