How Often Should You Backup Your Mac?

Clients often ask me how often they should backup their Mac. They also ask me which files they should backup. My answer is short and sweet. Everybody should backup all files on their Mac’s hard drive every day. Why? Because you never knows when disaster will strike and you’ll need to rely on a recent backup to retrieve one or many files. Whether you use your Mac for business or personal purposes, increasingly most of us have sentimental or important files on our computers which need to be backed up so they can be recovered if a disaster occurs.

A wide array of disasters could occur with little or no warning:

  • You could accidentally delete the wrong file.
  • A critically important file could suddenly be damaged such that it can’t be opened.
  • A cup of water could be spilled on your computer which could cause electrical shorts, corrosion or other problems that prevent your laptop from turning on.
  • Your laptop could fall off the table and then fail to work at all.
  • Malicious software, known generally as malware, could delete files from your Mac or lock your Mac so you can’t use it at all.
  • A burglar could steal your Mac.

These aren’t just hypothetical problems. Every one of these situations has occurred to one or more of my clients. Most of these problems have occurred to at least one of my clients within the past year!

What should you do to protect yourself? Set up redundant, automated backup systems that produce multiple backup copies of your files in multiple places. More specifically, initially setup the Time Machine backup application and then supplement it with an online backup service like CrashPlan (or at least create a second Time Machine backup stored on a second, off-site hard drive). CrashPlan creates an off-site backup of your data like emails, photos, music, calendar, etc.

Clients often balk at the idea of setting up two independent, redundant backup systems, but there’s an old adage–if it’s worth backing up once, it’s worth backing up twice. Here are some reasons why you want redundant backups.

  • If your only backup is sitting next to your Mac, then spilled water could destroy both copies or a burglar could steal both.
  • Malware could lock both the files on your Mac and on the backup hard drive connected to your Mac.
  • Backup systems can stop working for a myriad of reasons. Maybe a cable is knocked loose or your credit card expired and so your subscription to a backup service has lapsed.

Having two independent backup systems in place is prudent.

Time Machine is Apple’s backup application. It comes bundled with every Mac. It’ll backup nearly everything on your Mac to an external hard drive. This previous Tech Tip covers basic setup and monitoring of Time Machine. Buy an external hard drive, connect it to your Mac and let Time Machine start to backup your Mac. Once you’ve set up Time Machine, you just need to leave your external hard drive connected to your Mac all the time. If your move your Mac laptop around throughout the day, when you plug it the power cord to charge the battery get in the habit of plugging in your external hard drive as well. Time Machine will automatically perform backups every hour when the hard drive is connected to your Mac. It stores multiple versions of your files so you can retrieve a particular version of a file, from an a few hours ago, yesterday, last week or last month.

Time Machine’s initial backup will take many hours since it needs to backup the Mac operating system, all applications and all of your data. However, subsequent backups, especially if they are performed daily, will often only take 10-15 minutes since Time Machine will only backup newly created files and files that have been edited since the last backup. Having daily backups of your files will let you recover from most of the disasters listed above. However, you wouldn’t be protected against fire, flood, theft or similar situations that could destroy both your Mac and your backup hard drive which is likely sitting nearby.

CrashPlan, an online backup service, creates an off-site copy of your files. In other words, a copy of your data would be sitting on CrashPlan’s servers and thus you’d be protected against fire, floods and theft. CrashPlan has the added appeal of being able to perform backups whenever your Mac is connected to the Internet. So, if you carry your Mac laptop around all day, CrashPlan is a great way to protect your data throughout the day, provided your laptop is periodically connected to the Internet. By default, CrashPlan runs automatically and performs backups every 15 minutes and stores multiple versions of your files.

While I’ve been a user of CrashPlan for many years, I haven’t written about it often enough so I’ll soon write a Tech Tip about how to set up and use CrashPlan. In the meantime, you can read about it in The Wire Cutter’s review of many online backup services. The Wire Cutter picks CrashPlan as the best online backup service.

Whether you choose to use Time Machine and CrashPlan or some other backup application, please make sure your backup system is redundant, automated and produces multiple backup copies of your files in multiple places.

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