How to back up your Mac

TimeMachineIconXWhen using or troubleshooting your Mac, you may be eager to jump in and get to work; however, it is worth your while to ensure your system is properly backed up, especially if your work and data is important, or if you plan on making changes to the system in any way (e.g., installing software, or tweaking a system component).

There are several ways to back up your data on a Mac, with two that are the most recommended options.

Time Machine

The first option is Time Machine, which is Apple’s built-in option that can back up to a local hard drive, or to a network server (e.g., a Time  Capsule device). To use this, simply attach an external drive that is at least the size of the data stored on your hard drive, though I recommend using a drive that is at least the size of your hard drive. When you do this, OS X will ask you whether or not you would like to set it up for use with Time Machine. Confirming this will format the drive and create an initial backup, which may take a number of hours, but then should only take a few minutes to update at regular hourly intervals, provided the backup drive is available and attached.

Time Machine system preferences

Clicking the “Add or Remove Backup Disk” option will allow you to add multiple Time Machine drives.

While one drive is recommended to use for Time Machine, you can use multiple drives, which may be beneficial for redundancy but also if you use your system in different locations (such as at work and at home). To set up multiple drives, go to the Time Machine system preferences and under the list of drives there should be an option to Add or Remove Backup Drive. By clicking this, you can add another backup destination that your system will use. With multiple drives attached, Time Machine will revolve through them each time it is updated.

Regardless of how many drives you have attached to your system, if you need to restore from backup, then the system will poll them all and present you with a listing of all the most recent backups, starting with the latest.

System Clone

The next option is a system cloning tool, such as the popular Carbon Copy Cloner application, or even Disk Utility. These tools will create a mirrored copy of your hard drive to another hard disk which, unlike Time Machine, will allow you to boot directly to the drive if your initial one stops working.

To make a clone, according to the cloning software’s instructions you will select your boot drive and then an available destination drive, and then start the cloning process. Following this, updates to the clone will be quick updates to changed files only.

Creating a clone in Disk Utility

Drag your hard disk to the source (green arrow), and then your destination drive to the destination field (red arrow).

To create a clone with Disk Utility, open the program and then follow these steps:

  1. Select your boot volume in the sidebar
  2. Click the “Restore” tab, and you should see this volume listed in the “Source” field (drag it there if it is not)
  3. Attach your destination drive
  4. Drag it to the “Destination” field from the Disk Utility sidebar
  5. Click the “Restore” button, and the drive’s contents will be mirrored to the destination drive

As with Time Machine, you can make as many clones of your system as you have destination drives, but unlike Time Machine, you can only have one backup of all your files per backup disk, instead of a series of backups. This means that you cannot roll back several backup instances when restoring; however, it does mean that if your main hard drive stops working properly, you can boot directly to the clone (from your Mac, or another one) and continue your work.


Both Time Machine and Cloning can be used with Apple’s setup assistant tools to migrate data to new Macs, so while in this sense they are more functional than copying files manually, you can still use manual copying to make backups of specific files.

2 thoughts on “How to back up your Mac

    1. Topher Kessler Post author

      Using an SDXC card for a local clone is a good idea; however, SDXC cards only get up to 256GB for now (and are about $600 each for that size), so this may be impractical for systems with larger internal drives.

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