Time Machine, the Backup Software You Should be Using

Review of the Mac's Time Machine Backup Software

Time Machine's Interface
Use Time Machine to go back in time to recover a lost file. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

The Bottom Line

Using Time Machine as your primary backup is a no-brainer. This easy-to-use backup system not only lets you restore your Mac to a happy working state after some cosmic cataclysm engulfs it, it also lets you ever so easily restore individual files or folders you may have accidentally deleted.

In addition to restoring a file, you can go back in time to see what a file looked like an hour ago or at any time or date in the recent past.

Time Machine's user interface and ease of setup make it a backup application you're very likely to use and continue to use; that's why I highly recommend it.


  • Easy to set up.
  • Automatic on-the-hour backups.
  • Uses available disk space, eliminating older backups when needed.
  • Lets you recover missing files or look at the contents of a file from any point in time.
  • Works with Apple's Migration Assistant to fully restore your data.


  • Preset schedule can't be changed.
  • Requires a large hard drive for effective backups.
  • Initial backup can be very long.
  • Errors and warning messages aren't clear.


  • Included with OS X from OS X 10.5 and later.
  • Unique user interface for a backup application.
  • Works with Apple's Time Capsule.
  • Can use any internal or external hard drive.
  • Works with some third-party NAS appliances.

Apple's Time Machine is a backup application included with OS X (10.5.x or later). Time Machine was a revolutionary approach to backup when it was first introduced.

The revolutionary part wasn't the backup process, or how creative the user interface was, or even how well Time Machine pruned old backups. All these things had been seen before in backup applications. What made Time Machine a winner was that it was so easy to set up and use that people actually used it.

That's the revolution. Mac users are actively backing up their computers, without having to think about the backup process.

Setting Up Time Machine

Setting up Time Machine amounts to selecting the drive or drive partition you want to dedicate to your backups. Once you do that, Time Machine takes care of just about everything else. The setup options are limited to selecting any drives, partitions, folders, or files you don't want to include in your backups. Time Machine will notify you when it deletes older backups; you can turn this notification on or off. You can also decide whether to add a status icon to the Apple menu bar.

For the most part that's it; there are no other required settings to set up or figure out. Click the Time Machine ON switch, or Back Up Automatically (depends on the version of Time Machine you are using), and your system will be backed up.

There are other options you can make use of, such as using multiple drives to store your Time Machine data on. But the advanced settings are hidden away and not needed for most casual users.

How Time Machine Performs Backups

When first run, Time Machine performs a full backup. Depending on how much data you have stored on your Mac, the first backup can take quite a while.

After the initial backup, Time Machine performs a backup of any changes that have occurred every hour. This means you'll only lose an hour's worth of work in the event of a disaster.

Some of Time Machine's magic is in how it manages the space it has for backups. Time Machine saves hourly backups for the last 24 hours. It then saves only daily backups for the past month. For any data that's older than a month, it saves weekly backups. This approach helps Time Machine make the best use of available storage space, and keeps you from needing tens of terabytes of data just to keep a year's worth of backups on hand.

Once the backup drive is full, Time Machine will delete the oldest backup, to make room for the newest. This is important to realize; Time Machine does not archive data. All data will eventually be purged in favor of more recent backups.

User Interface

The user interface is composed of two parts: a preference pane for setting up the backups, and the Time Machine interface for browsing through backups and restoring data. The Time Machine interface is actually fun to use. It displays a Finder-type view of your backup data, and then presents the hourly, daily, and weekly backups as stacks of windows behind the most recent backup. You can scroll through the stack to retrieve data from any backup point in time.

My Thoughts

Time Machine is easy to set up and use. Knowing your data is backed up at regular intervals provides peace of mind. If you don't have a backup system, turn Time Machine on now!

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