The Complete Guide to Backing Up Your Mac – Part 1 – Local Backup

Backing up is one of the most important things you need to do with any computer. I cannot tell you how many times someone has needed a major computer repair and hasn’t had a backup of their data. Having a good backup is a necessity. Now the best backup solutions requires an on-site and off-site backup. In this article, we’ll be looking at 3 utilities for on-site backup, which means a backup that is in the same location as the computer you’re backing up. This could be just an external hard drive on your desk, another computer on your home network, a NAS drive, etc.  Programs for offsite backup will be covered later, but this could include anything from sending CD backups to a family or friend, or an online backup solution like Carbonite, Dropbox, iCloud, etc.  Here’s the list of materials you’re going to need: your Mac, a backup program, a backup schedule, and a place to store your local backup.

BACKUP DEVICE:  

A Synology 2-bay NAS DiskStation model DS220J.  White box with 4 lights on the front for power, LAN, and the status of the 2 hard drives inside it.  The word "Synology" is embossed on the side.
Synology DS220J, 2-Bay NAS DIskStation.

What kind of medium should you use for backup?  First, make sure whatever medium you use, the storage space is at least double the size of your Mac’s hard drive.  If your Mac has a 500-gigabyte internal hard drive, you’ll want to look at a drive that has about a terabyte (1024 gigs) of storage space.  The next thing to consider is how portable you want your backup medium to be, especially considering how mobile your Mac is.  For example, a network attached storage system, commonly called NAS, is good for people who need a lot of space and don’t want to always be physically connected to their machine, or for people who are limited in the number of ports for their Mac.  People who plug in a lot of things, such of photographers, video makers, etc. might prefer this for the sake of having a few extra ports.  Many of these systems will also let you have multiple large hard drives in order to either have older copies of files and have built-in backups of the drives inside to prevent losing your entire backup should one drive go bad.

For people who might go out of town for business often, having a network drive might be more trouble, whether it’s lack of Internet connection, security, or just getting connected over another Internet connection.  They can also be a little troublesome to set up (though they have gotten easier).  A USB external hard drive should suit most people fine; they’re fairly mobile, inexpensive, & easy to setup.  The disadvantages include remembering to plug in the drive into the computer to backup & the increased mobility risks more damage to the drive.  

If you go down the route of a USB external drive, then I’d recommend one from one like Western Digital or LaCie depending how rugged you need them to be. If you’re thinking you like the NAS solution better, Synology makes some good NAS boxes, though make sure you get some NAS hard drives to go with it.

If you’ve never backed up your Mac before, know this; that first backup is going to take quite a while.  Your Mac has to copy all of that data from scratch to a new location.  But as this is done regularly, backups will take less time.  And of course, the more data you have on your Mac, the longer those backups will take.

WHAT TO BACKUP: 

Now the question is, what should you backup, and what should you use?  At first, this seems a simple question; I want to back up all my documents, my college reports, my family photos, my music, etc.  Basically all my personal information is what I really want, and for most people, that’s all you really need.  But what about your apps?  Do you want them backed up?  If you have a lot of free apps, like Firefox, Evernote, etc. or built in Apple apps like iTunes, then backing up your apps isn’t that big a deal.  Likewise, if most of your apps come from the Mac App Store, then those are linked to your Apple ID so when you get that new Mac or reinstall the OS they’re free to re-download.  But if you have important apps that you don’t have the media for, apps that aren’t available in the Mac App Store, and aren’t available for free, you might want to put some thought into.  Likewise you may want to consider how difficult it is to get the apps setup with the settings, themes, and workflow that you like. While some apps have cloud backup and syncing, Chrome and Firefox being prominent examples, then those might be fine. But not all apps are like that, and may take more time to reload.

One other consideration is whether you want a bootable backup; in other words, do you want to be able to boot off of your backup like you do from your internal drive.  This kind of backup requires more time and takes up more space on the backup drive, but can be advantageous when troubleshooting problems with your Mac, especially when booting up. Alternatively, you may want to focus on the simplicity of your files and folders, and not so much on individual apps.

BACKUP APPS:

Time Machine:  

Let’s start with the simplest and perhaps easiest option for backing up your Mac: Mac’s built in Time Machine.  Time Machine was added to the Mac in OS 10.5, a.k.a. Leopard.  You can use either a network drive, such as a NAS, or an external hard drive connected directly to the Mac, be it USB, Firewire, or a Thunderbolt connection. Time Machine will backup all of the personal files from your Mac onto the backup drive, and then backup incrementally from then on.  Each set of backups will not back up the whole hard drive again, but it will instead only backup any files changed since the last backup.  It can back up all or just some of the user accounts on your Mac, but can also back up users’ system preference configurations, file preferences, and more.  Some apps, specifically Apple’s own apps, work natively with Time Machine, so you can run Time Machine from within the app without going to the Time Machine app.  These include Finder, iPhoto, iWork, and more. And you can take advantage of file versioning. Meaning you can not only recover lost files, but older revisions of those files should you need to scrap the current project and go back.

Time Machine Preference Pane

Creating a Time Machine backup drive is especially easy.  Just plug the drive into your Mac and Time Machine will ask if you want to use that drive for backups, and then set it up automatically from there. You can also do the same for network drives if they’re mounted wirelessly to your Mac..  The drive will have to be formatted for compatibility with the Mac, in either HFS+ or APFS so any data on the drive beforehand could potentially be lost.  You can also setup and manage Time Machine from the app within the Applications folder or under System Preferences.  You can also choose to exclude certain folders and users from backup and encrypt your backups using the built in FileVault technology.  These backups can then be used to move your data from one Mac to another or restore your Mac in the event it has to be reset.  Time Machine will backup hourly, weekly, and monthly, and will start deleting the oldest backups when the drive is full.

There are a couple of hitches though.  First, you have limited control over when Time Machine makes its backups.  While having constant backup has its advantages, some may prefer to simply backup at the end of the day or week.  It also means that the drive constantly has to be connected, being a potential drain on your battery.  Furthermore, Time Machine tends to annoy you with popups when it’s trying to backup and can’t find the drive.  You’re also limited when it comes to restoring from a backup.  You cannot directly boot from a backup drive via Time Machine, limiting your ability to check for hard drive failures.  And if you need to restore the Mac operating system itself, you’ll have to have use the built-in Recovery Partition, Internet Recovery, or from the Recovery USB drives you have made.  

So Time Machine is a good solution if you want regular versioned backups but don’t necessarily care about a bootable copy, don’t want to pay any money, and are comfortable with recovering the OS via another method.

SuperDuper!:

SuperDuper is another option for backing up your Mac.  Setting up the drives and scheduling for backup couldn’t be simpler.  In the top of the window is a box that says “Copy ‘X’ to ‘Y'”, X of course being the drive you’re backing up and Y the backup drive.  Under that is a box saying what files will be backed up.  By default, SuperDuper backs up all of your files, but you can change that to User folders, Shared folders, or make your own custom commands.  And under that are 3 buttons labeled “Options” “Schedule”, and “Copy Now”.  Both Copy and Schedule are pretty self explanatory.  The options button provides you with some pretty straight forward, but handy options for backing up the drive.  For example, SuperDuper! can repair file permissions (for versions of Mac OS that still support repairing file permissions) before backing up the drive, making sure all of your files are in working order.  SuperDuper! can even make a disk image of the backup so that you can save it elsewhere or burn to a disc.  Pretty handy for adding extra layers of backup to your plan.  

SuperDuper!’s Main Windows (courtesy of shirt-pocket.com)

But the real key to SuperDuper! is that the backups it creates are bootable. Meaning this can not only act as a file backup and recovery method, but itself can be a recovery flash drive. If you had to reset your Mac or restore to a new machine then you would have a piece for piece copy of your hard drive. This will take much longer on the first backup than even the Time Machine backup because it’s doing more by cloning the entire drive.

SuperDuper! is free to download and use to backup and clone your hard drives, but if you want access to features like scheduling, versioning/Smart Updating, etc. then you’ll have to pay for the full version, which is $27.95 American. At the time of writing, it’s also compatible with OS 10.15 “Catalina”, with big Sur support currently in Beta. It’s still a great tool and worth paying for, but the free version is a great way to test and see the benefits of cloning. You can download it at https://shirt-pocket.com/SuperDuper

Carbon Copy Cloner:

This is my personal favorite tool for backing up Macs. Carbon Copy Cloner, like SuperDuper! is a utility for backup and cloning Mac drives that also offers scheduling and versioning. However, it is currently fully compatible with OS 11 “Big Sur” and can take advantage of a number of those features.

For example, whereas SuperDuper! and previous versions of CCC had to scan through each folder to detect changes, CCC can now monitor and detect those folder changes automatically via a new Apple API. This means it saves time completing the backup because it already knows where the changes have been made. It also comes with an ability to not just schedule backups, but also to automatically trigger a backup of a file or folder when changes are detected in those folders.

Carbon Copy Cloner’s main window.

CCC can also make bootable backups, though in Catalina and Big Sur it will need to partition the drive into an OS version and a data partition, in the same way your Mac already is quietly setup. There are some caveats about this going forward, but we’ll get to those in a minute.

Now Carbon Copy Cloner is a paid app. You get a 30-day free trial to do with it what you will, but afterward you’ll have to pay $39.99 to purchase to license. It is a one time payment, not a subscription, and you’ll get all updates for that version (in this case version 6) without any additional costs. Should they release future upgrades, you’ll be able to get discounts on those versions going forward. While this app costs more than SuperDuper!, it is better maintained in my opinion given that it supports current versions of Mac OS and stays on top of updates. I paid for it many years ago, and I’m very happy to continue using it.

A note about bootable backups

As happy as I am with bootable backups, there is a long-term problem with them, and this is due to Apple. Bootable backups are currently possible in the versions of Mac currently available, but Apple does seem to be changing the way they’re doing it. As Mac OS has become more locked down over the years, it’s meant that some of these tools are getting more difficult to use. On top of this, Macs coming with Big Sur have booting off of external media disabled by default. Apple instead pushes for users to reinstall via the Recovery Partition or via Internet Recovery Mode. While you can re-enable it, it may be a sign that this method won’t work forever.

Personally, I don’t know that Apple will give this up totally, at least not for a while. There are still plenty of situations where having a bootable backup flash drive is still necessary, perhaps when you’re testing an issue with the Mac or don’t have a reliable Internet connection. They’ve been willing to lock down certain aspects of macOS but not always outright abandon the old ways on lower level stuff. But that’s not to say it won’t happen, and I’m not necessarily the best at making predictions.


Now you have some options for backing up your Mac to a local hard drive. In part 2, we’ll go over ways to backup your Mac offsite using things like cloud storage providers. If you have any tools you’d recommend, either for local or offsite back, feel free to let me know in the comments or on social media.

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