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How to back up a Mac

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You’ve either arrived on this article because you have just encountered the nightmare scenario of having your Mac die on you without a backup, or you know someone who has had such a dreadful situation befall them and you want to make sure it doesn’t happen to you. Or maybe you are just super organised and want to make sure that the data on your Mac is safe and backed up, which may or may not have been a result of you previously losing everything. Whatever your reason for wanting to find out the best way to back up your Mac, we aim to help you come up with a Mac backup plan.

If you have just lost everything on your Mac because you didn’t have a backup, then have a look at this article for some ideas on ways to recover your data from your damaged drive.

In this article we’ll look at the various kinds of Mac backup you can have, including local wired or wireless backups, live backups, remote backup, and online backups. We’ll examine the best Mac backup solutions, including backing up to iCloud or another online service such as Dropbox, using Time Machine or other backup software for a local backup (we have an in-depth article about how to use Time Machine here), and the various remote backup services that are available to you if you want to make sure that you can recover your data if both your computer and local backup gets wiped out.

Why you should backup your Mac

We’re probably preaching to the converted here, but we’ll quickly run through the reasons why you really ought to be backing up your Mac, in no particular order:

  1. Because you (or someone else) might spill a drink on your Mac.
  2. Because your drive could fail.
  3. Because it can be particularly challenging to recover data from SSDs.
  4. Because you could loose your Mac.
  5. Because someone might steal your Mac.
  6. Mac malware is rare, but if you get hit, you can recover your data from before the infection.

There are also a few side-benefits that come with having a backup:

  1. You could have access your data from another device.
  2. You might be able to access an earlier version of a document.
  3. If you get a new Mac you can easily recover all your data onto it, essentially clone your old Mac onto your new one.

Backup MacBook

Best way to backup a Mac

There are lots of ways you can backup your Mac, but if you were to choose just one way to backup a Mac, which should it be?

Well, the simplest and cheapest solution is probably to back up using Time Machine, Apple’s free backup software. The only associated cost would be purchasing an external drive but since you can purchase 1TB storage for less than £40 these days, it shouldn’t break the bank. We’ve got a round up of the best hard drives here.

Time Machine is a good solution, but is it the best backup solution? A better solution might be one that is not kept at the same location as your Mac, given that if there was a fire or flood, both Mac and backup could be destroyed.

We’ll look at some of the options below, but our advice is don’t rely on just one of the following!


Option 1: Use Time Machine

Apple includes its own backup software, Time Machine as part of the macOS. It’s an exceptionally easy to use solution. All you need to do is plug in an external storage device, hard drive or SSD, and start backing up with Time Machine. We have a complete guide to using Time Machine to back up your Mac here.

Time Machine won’t just backup your Mac, it will keep hourly backups for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups for each month, so you can recover an earlier version of a document if you need to.

The only real disadvantages of Time Machine are that you need to remember to plug in your hard drive otherwise nothing will be backed up, although you could set up Time Machine on a NAS drive for a wireless backup, but that might be a bit slower. You’ll also need a lot of storage available because Time Machine backups take up more space because of those incremental backups, so we’d recommend using a drive with at least 1TB space.

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Time Machine Backup

How to backup your Mac with Time Machine

We have a step-by-step guide to backing up with Time Machine here, but essentially you just need to do the following:

  1. Plug in hard drive or SSD (alternatively you can use a NAS drive).
  2. You should see an alert on your Mac asking if you want to use the drive with Time Machine. Click Use as Backup Disk.
  3. If you don’t see the alert, make sure the drive is formatted correctly – it needs to be Mac OS Extended (Journaled), if it isn’t read this.
  4. If you still don’t see the alert, open System Preferences > Time Machine and choose Backup Disk.
  5. Choose the storage device and click Use Disk.
  1. Time Machine backup

Option 2: Use backup software to clone your hard drive

There are, of course, alternatives to Time Machine that you might prefer. We look at the best backup software here, including Acronis, ChronoSync, Carbon Copy Cloner, Carbonite and SuperDuper.

As with Time Machine you can use the backup drive – or clone – to recover your Mac in the case of failure and to retrieve an earlier version of a document or a deleted photo. And, as with Time Machine, you do need to remember to plug in your drive for the backup.

A clone is slightly different to a Time Machine backup because it can be used to boot from, so you could plug it in to another Mac and boot up from it without recovering your Mac, which could be useful as a temporary measure. You can’t use a Time Machine backup in this way.

Best backup Mac

How to clone your Mac

The method you use to clone your Mac will depend on the software you are using to back up your Mac, but generally you can expect it to be something like this:

  1. Plug in your external storage.
  2. You may need to format, or reformat, the drive, before you can use it. In that case, open Disk Utility and with the external drive selected, click on Erase, choose the macOS Extended (Journaled) from the format options, and click Erase again.
  3. Open your cloning software.
  4. It’s likely that the software will give you an option to ‘Copy’ what’s on your Mac’s internal storage to the external drive. You’ll want to pay attention to what you can copying – make sure you copy all files, for example, because otherwise your clone might not be bootable.
  5. Before the copy gets underway you may need to enter your password and confirm that you are happy to erase anything on the external drive.
  6. Expect the cloning process to take a while, once it’s done, click OK.

Storage


Option 3: Use iCloud to backup your Mac

Depending on whether or not you pay Apple a monthly subscription for iCloud storage, it may be an option to keep a backup of your data in iCloud.

You can choose to keep your Desktop and Documents folders, your Numbers, Pages and Keynote documents, your Mail, and more, in iCloud. This is a particularly useful solution if you have more than one Mac, or you want to access things you are working on from an iPhone or iPad.

You can also sync your Photos to iCloud Photo Library, and store all your music in iCloud using iTunes Match (for £21.99/$24.99 a year,) or, if you already subscribe to Apple Music (£9.99/$9.99 a month) you can use iCloud Music Library to access your music anywhere. We explain the difference between iTunes Match and Apple Music here.

iCloud storage isn’t free (well apart from the first 5GB, which isn’t going to go very far). Monthly subscription prices are as follows:

  • UK: 79p (50GB), £2.49 (200GB), £6.99 (2TB)
  • US: 99c (50GB), $2.99 (200GB), $9.99 (2TB)
  • Euros: 99c (50GB), €2.99 (200GB), €9.99 (2TB)
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How to backup your Mac to iCloud

Here’s how to backup using iCloud.

  1. Open System Preferences on your Mac and click on iCloud.
  2. Sign in to iCloud if you aren’t already.
  3. Tick the box beside iCloud. How to use iCloud to back up Mac
  4. Click on the Options box in the iCloud row.
  5. Make sure that you check the box beside anything you want to be stored in iCloud, such as your Desktop folder, Pages documents, and your System Preferences.
  6. Open the Finder, you’ll see an iCloud Drive folder in the bar on the left. Click on it to open. You can move any folder on your Mac that isn’t already in iCloud onto your iCloud Drive and access it on any of your Apple devices, and even via the web on a non-Apple device.

iCloud Drive

With these options selected any device logged on with the same Apple ID can share access to the same files and System Preferences settings. Another benefit is the fact that backing up to iCloud means you don’t need to have an external drive.

Because so much of what we are working on these days is stored in iCloud if our Mac was to meet an untimely demise the loss of data wouldn’t be quite so critical as it would have been a few years ago. Our photos are in iCloud Photo Library, everything we write is in Pages and therefore available on any of our Apple devices, we use Apple Music and have all our music in the cloud thanks to iTunes Match, and most of our apps are from the Mac App Store. Even apps from the likes of Microsoft and Adobe now come in subscription models, so these days nobody has to dig out discs to install software.

However, while other Mac backup solutions might allow you to easily recover a clone of your old Mac onto a new Mac, including apps and all your settings, iCloud won’t enable you to do that.

But you will be able to access all the data you were storing in iCloud, and when it comes to apps, you will be able to reinstall any you downloaded from the Mac App Store just by logging on and going to your Purchased items list.

To see your Purchased apps in Mac App Store click on your name in the bottom left corner of the Mac App Store app.


Option 4: Use Dropbox, Google Drive or another backup solution

There are many alternatives to iCloud if you are looking for a way to sync and share your files. You might already be using Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, or one of the other Cloud storage services we look at here.

These solutions are generally used for sharing a files with colleagues or friends, or storing files that everyone can collaborate on, rather than backing up all your data. Like iCloud you can subscribe to data plans that would allow you to store all your data in the cloud, but as with iCloud you wouldn’t easily be able to download a clone of your Mac should it be lost. (You could theoretically store a disc image of your Mac in the cloud and download that).

How to back up to Dropbox, One Drive, or Google Drive

If you want to back up a few files then Dropbox, One Drive or Google Drive could be a good solution. You’ll have the benefit of being able to access the files from any device and you will essentially have a low cost off-site backup.

  1. In the case of Dropbox, sign up for a Dropbox account here, download the software, and install it. (Or log into your existing account if you are already signed up).
  2. Once the software is installed on your Mac open Dropbox this will actually take you to the web interface where you can copy your files too.
  3. Click on Upload Files or Upload Folder on the right, locate the folder you wish to upload and click on Choose. Wait while the folder uploads.
  4. You can also easily drag your files and folders into Dropbox via the Finder. When DropBox is installed on your Mac you will see a Dropbox tab under Favourites in the Finder, just drag and drop anything into that folder and it will be backed up to Dropbox, and accessible on any other computer or iOS device that has Dropbox installed.
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Copy folder to Dropbox

The process is similar for the other cloud storage services.


Option 5: Use an off-site backup

Those services are more for syncing and sharing files, not for storing all your data, but there are dedicated online backup solutions, such as Carbonite, which will backup your Mac over the web, for a fee (although Carbonite does have a 15-day free trial).

Carbonite


The benefit of one of these dedicated cloud backup services is that the backup is remote – so if your Mac was destroyed in a fire or flood along with your Time Machine backup, you’d have a copy of all your data in a secure facility (these places will have a way of keeping your data safe and accessible even if they suffer a power cut or similar, although we’re not sure about end-of-the-world scenarios).

If your Mac fails, is lost, or stolen, you can recover everything from this cloud backup, as long as you have access to the internet.

There is another option that won’t cost as much as paying a company to host your backup. You could use CrashPlan to sync your data to a drive at a friend’s house. You just need to make sure that the drive is always online or the backups won’t happen. Plus your friend will probably want you to return the favour.

The main disadvantage of either of these methods is that it can take a long time to complete that initial backup of your data, especially if you have a slow broadband connection, and on the flip-side, it can take an equally long time to recover all your data – in fact it could take weeks to restore all your data. You may also want to look at whether your broadband service is capped for uploads and downloads, because you may tip it over the edge and encounter extra fees if you were to upload or download a few hundred gigabytes of data. Another option is to look for a service that will send you a drive to backup to which you can then send to them for storage.

How to back up your Mac to an online backup service

As with the alternatives to Time Machine that we discussed above, the way you back up your Mac to one of these online services will be determined by the one you choose, however, the process is likely to run something like this:

  1. Register for an account with the service – you may have to sign up for a subscription rather than make an upfront payment as is often the case these days.
  2. Install the software provided by the supplier and run through the set up process.
  3. It’s possible that the backup process will begin immediately. This can take A Very Long Time. How quickly the backup happens is mostly determined by your broadband connection, but there might be settings available in the apps Preferences that can let you speed things up.
  4. Another way to speed things up is to leave some things out of the backup, so take a look through what’s being backed up and deselect things that you don’t need.

When the worst happens and you need to restore your data you’ll probably need to log in with your ID and password – so make sure you keep a copy of them somewhere other than on the Mac you are backing up.



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