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The complete, easy guide to backing up your Mac

Christopher Phin | Jan. 28, 2016
You know about Time Machine, but there are other ways to back up your Mac. Here's how to pick the best backup method for you.

If, tomorrow, something goes wrong with your Mac or if it gets stolen or damaged, replacing the hardware itself is technically very easy to do; it just takes money. But the data that was on its hard disk or SSD—those precious photos, that carefully amassed iTunes library, that work, that novel? The best case scenario is that you pay hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars to a data recovery specialist to try to get some back, and the worst case is that it’s gone for good.

And that’s why, today, you should back up your Mac. We all know this, but understanding the different ways of backing up, and picking a backup strategy that’s right for you—so that you can rest easy knowing that it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll lose any of your files—can be tricky. At least, it would be, but for this guide!

Here we’re going to talk you through the pros and cons of different ways you can back up your Mac, giving you the information you need to make an informed decision about protecting your data in the way that suits you best.

But because that detailed information might be a bit intimidating, we’re going to start with two simple scenarios: the “if you do nothing else, do this” setup that is easy, cheap, and will give you some basic protection against data loss, and then our recommendation for a good mix of backup methods that should in most situations ensure your data can withstand almost any catastrophe.

If you do nothing else, do this!

Buy a hard disk, plug it into your Mac and then, when prompted to use it for Time Machine backup, accept. If you don’t see that prompt, just launch System Preferences and pick the hard disk in the Time Machine backup pane. (If it’s the wrong format, your Mac should offer to reformat it for you; if not, launch Disk Utility, repartition the drive as a single partition using the GUID map, and Mac OS X Extended format.)

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Time Machine comes with every version of OS X since OS X 10.5.

We encourage you to read more—to adopt instead our recommended system immediately below, and to discover more about the limitations of this simple backup process in “Time Machine to a disk connected to your Mac” further below—but don’t be put off by all the text that follows. If you stop reading here and do this rather than nothing at all, you’ve done a good job.

A good, safe backup strategy

To give your data the best chance of surviving a range of problems, and to minimize your down time if disaster strikes (which is especially important if you rely on your Mac for you livelihood), you should do three things:

  • Back up using Time Machine (to a disk connected to your network for extra convenience, particularly if you use a laptop)
  • Clone your hard disk daily to a disk connected to your Mac
  • Use a cloud backup or peer-to-peer backup service

 

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