How to set up a Time Machine Backup



(First in a series of backup-related blog posts)


Summary
• Buy an external hard drive (here are some good options)
• Connect it to your Mac
• Click “Yes” when asked if you want to use this disk for Time Machine backups


Time Machine is Apple’s backup software. Every new Mac has it, and most old ones do too, as it was introduced with System 10.5 (Leopard). The odds are very very good that your Mac has Time Machine already installed. Time Machine backs up to a disk, not to “the cloud,” so Step One is “get a disk to back up to.” For best results, devote an entire disk to the backup task.

Time Machine will back up every file on every drive you connect to your Mac, automatically, unless you tell it not to. Great stuff.

Time Machine can be used to restore individual files, or an entire Mac. Setting up a new Mac is a piece of cake if you have a Time Machine backup of the old Mac. So is setting up a new hard drive, in case you upgrade your Mac to a bigger, faster disk. By the way,

Once set up, Time Machine works in the background, backing up your Mac every hour. When you need to restore files, Time Machine is ready to restore a single file, an entire folder, your whole Mac– or anything in between. No other backup system is as easy to set up nor as easy to restore from, and if you’re not using it already I’m here to talk you into it.

Keep in mind that Time Machine saves a snapshot of your machine after every backup. Why is that important? Well, imagine this scenario:

  • All of a sudden, your Quicken file won’t open. Imagine: your Quicken file opened last week, but it doesn’t today. Maybe it’s corrupted. A “regular” backup system would have backed up the corrupt file– that is, your backup file would be corrupt too. You need to be able to go back a few days and try opening the file as it existed last week. Time Machine lets you do that.
  • Here’s another scenario. Suppose you’re working on a project– maybe a report for school, maybe a book, maybe a page layout document, maybe an art project. You make some changes and then, some time later, you realize that the document was better a while back. Time Machine lets you restore older versions of your document– from an hour ago, 6 hours ago, a day ago, 30 days ago, or even last year.
  • One more scenario: you open up a folder that used to hold hundreds of photos. But, today, you see just a few. Time Machine lets you go back to the time when tall of the images were where they belonged, and then bring them “back to the future.”

I’m going to assume you’re convinced: Time Machine’s the backup system for you. Now, let’s set it up. Turns out you’re already halfway there, since the Time Machine software comes pre-installed. What you need now is a place for your backed up files to be stored. In most cases, you’ll use an external hard drive for this. Let’s pick one out for you.

Note: Time Machine can only make a backup when the disk is connected. So, once we set things up, you should keep the disk connected. If you’re a laptop user and you can’t keep the disk connected when you’re moving the machine around just remember to re-connect the disk again as soon as you can. Time Machine is smart and will recognize the disk when it’s there, and the backups will start up again within an hour, without you doing anything else.

First thing to do is figure out how big a disk you need to get. Look under the Apple menu for “About this Mac.” Click the “Storage” button. It’s going to look something like this:

Hard drive in my laptop– 1 TB capacity, almost completely full

(There are other ways to find out how much storage you’re using– you can use the Disk Utility app, you can use the System Information app, you can Get Info on the hard disk– you can even email me and I’ll help you do it.). Those with more than one hard drive should add up the total space used.

Get a hard drive that is about twice as big as the amount of space you’re using now. I should get a 2 TB disk. Now the question boils down to “which disk do I get.” I can help you there too.

Note: don’t go cheap here by reusing some old disk you have sitting around. Backups are important! Don’t take chances. Get a new disk and dedicate it to backups. This is 30 years of experience talking.

You’ll need a disk that can connect to your Mac. In almost all cases, this means a drive that connects via USB. If you have a really new MacBook or MacBook Pro (the kind with USB-C ports and nothing else), you need something with a USB-C connector, or else you need one of Apple’s USB-C to USB adapters.

You can find external USB hard drives at Apple stores, at Best Buy, at Staples, etc. Here’s a link to a list of external USB hard drives available at Amazon. (Here’s a link to a hard drive I’ve used and liked.)

If you’re willing to spend a little more, get a solid state drive (SSD). SSDs have several advantages compared to old-style spinning hard drives:

  • They’re faster
  • They’re smaller
  • They’re lighter
  • They draw less power
  • They’re quieter
  • They’re cooler

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2 thoughts on “How to set up a Time Machine Backup

Add yours

  1. Great article 🙂
    It might also be worth mentioning the following:
    1) Time Machine can backup via your home wifi network to a suitable wifi drive (e.g. Apple Time Capsule). This is really convenient, but can be expensive.
    2) You can connect more than one drive and Time Machine will alternate between them. Obviously this adds to the expense, but does give peace of mind as a drive might fail at some point in the future.

    1. Howdy Nigel–

      Good points, both. The first point was a better option when Apple was still making the Time Capsule. Even the Apple Airport was a good candidate for connecting a drive to. If you have an Apple Airport already this is a good option and I think I will add this to the article.

      The second point is so good I mentioned it in the article. 😃

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