Backups: If You Only Do One Thing

A couple of weeks ago I met a new Mac user at my local Mac Users Group meeting. She was a visitor to our group and came to learn more about her recently purchased Mac. She seemed to be a fairly novice computer user in general and during the Q&A portion of the meeting asked a question that was right in my wheelhouse:

"Should I be doing something to backup my work on this new computer, why? It’s brand new?" 

I can blab on for hours (see MPU 008043) about the reasons for backup and the details of implementing a comprehensive (and complicated) backup scheme. I’ve written about comprehensive strategies for backing up your Mac as well as your iOS devices - she clearly wasn’t interested in all that. She wanted a simple answer and something that was easy to implement or it simply wasn’t happening.

That got me thinking about a the topic from different angle. If I could only convince someone to do just one thing to backup their computer, what would it be? 

There’s no one right or wrong way to create a backup strategy, but over the years I’ve come up with four basic “rules” that I think every good backup strategy must follow:

  1. Backups must be automatic - if backups don’t occur automatically, the reality is they won’t happen regularly. You need a system that is set it and forget it.

  2. You should have redundant backup systems - backups fail, and I prefer having multiple options, ideally different types of backups.

  3. A copy of your data should be off site - when really bad stuff happens, it’s likely to take out both your primary machine and your backup, having a copy of your data off site protects you from most of those things.

  4. Your system must be regularly tested - because even the best backups fail.

I can’t think of any one backup system that hits all four of these rules. My current backup system is fairly complex and involves a combination of hourly Time Machine backups to a network drive, daily clone backups to a local hard drive and ongoing backups to a cloud storage provider. I also have a number of secondary backup methods (cloud storage, secondary drives, etc.) for my most critical data as well as methods to backup my archived data.

But most computer users aren’t readers of tech blogs that are likely to implement such complex strategies. In fact, most users don’t have any backup at all. Convincing someone they need to backup their computer daily (or heck, even weekly or monthly) is not always an easy task. You’re certainly not going to convince them to have a multi-teared backup method.

Which brings me to my question, what if you could only get someone to do one thing? That might not be so hard. We can all agree that something is better than nothing. Taking into account ease of use, cost, reliability and - perhaps most importantly - likelihood of a backup actually happening, what is the one thing you could recommend an average computer user do to backup their data?

I’m going to cheat and give two answers, because I think the answer depends a bit on the user.

Option 1: Time Machine

When Apple introduced Time Machine with OS X Leopard, it lowered the barrier to entry for backups. Time Machine creates incremental backups of files that can be restored at a later date. Users can restore a whole system, or individual files.

When the initial backup is created, Time Machine backs up all of a user’s files (except those specifically excluded.) From that point forward, incremental “snapshots” of the machine are taken to capture the most recent state of the machine. As these snapshots age they are compressed and once storage space on the backup hard drive runs low, the older snapshots are deleted to make room for newer ones. This has the advantage of allowing users to “go back in time” to restore a file from a previous state.

Time machine isn’t perfect. It uses a somewhat complicated system of hard links and has to be managed by the OS. It’s also not unheard of for Time Machine backups to become corrupted. They should be regularly checked to make sure that files can be restored successfully and to ensure backups are in fact occurring. Attempting to backup over a network can also add complications. For this reason - keeping in mind we’re only doing one thing - I’d recommend using Time Machine with a direct attached drive.

Time Machine has several advantages. First, it’s Apple’s built in solution which means it’s about as easy as it gets. The user only needs to purchase an external hard drive and plug it into their Mac. The operating system will detect the new drive and prompt the user to setup Time Machine. Additionally, Time Machine is automatic, occurring by default every hour. Time Machine backups are incremental which allows the user to restore their machine to it’s last backed up state as well as revert to a previous state for individual files. Lastly, Time Machine is very cost effective. A user can buy a hard drive for usually under $100 (I recommend a drive 2–3 times the size of their internal drive). While all hard drives are susceptible to failure, most drives will work reliably for 2–4 years before needing to be replaced.

If you’re only going to do one thing, I’d recommend Time Machine for desktop computer users who can keep the drive plugged in regularly at their desk. It may also be an option for notebook users who use their laptops primarily at a desk as a home machine. Time Machine is a good deal for the cost-conscious, but they will need to periodically monitor and test it to make sure backups are occurring and remember to replace the hard drive every few years. Though it’s important to note that Time Machine is no good if the hard drive isn’t plugged in. 

Option 2: Offsite Backup

Another great option is offsite backup. There are a number of providers that will backup a users’s date to “the cloud” for a flat fee. The going rate is about $5/month or around $50 a year. My personal choice for cloud backup is Backblaze, but I’ve also used and was happy with Crashplan. There are others as well. 

The idea behind these services is the user will pay a yearly fee, and install a small helper application that runs in the background while their computer is on and the contents of the computer will be backed up securely to the provider’s servers. If it becomes necessary, files can and can be restored at a later date, generally through a web interface. Files are generally encrypted, but users will need to choose a good password to protect their account.

Depending on how much data a user needs to backup and the speed of their Internet connection the initial backup can take a while. Generally, for most average computer users with a reasonable amount of data and a broadband Internet the initial backup will be complete within a week or so. From there, the service only backups new or changed files and proceed fairly quickly.

The advantage to cloud backup services is that it keeps data separate from the computer. In the event of a major problem such as a power surge, fire, flood, or theft it’s very possible that both the computer and a direct-connected backup drive could be compromised. If a copy of the users data is stored off site, that’s not a concern. Cloud backup services are also generally very automated from the initial setup to the ongoing backups, meaning as long as the service is paid for, the computer is turned on and connected to the Internet, backups are occurring with little change for user error. This makes them generally among the most reliable backups.

There are a few disadvantages. First, online backups generally cost more. For what you’d pay for a year of an online backup service you could probably buy an external hard drive that would last several years. They’re also not good for people who have very large amounts of data, have slow Internet speeds or have bandwidth caps. Restoring data can also be more complicated as it typically involves logging into a web interface to download files. If a user needs to restore a significant number of files, it would require a long download or an additional fee to have the backup provider ship them a hard drive. For novice computer users, online backup software can be a bit complicated to setup - but generally is set it and forget it once configured. (For example, by default Backblaze excludes several file types from backup but this can usually be tweaked in the settings.)

If you’re only going to do one thing, I’d recommend online backups for mobile users. In fact, this is the solution I’ve chosen for the members of my immediate family, who are all notebook computer owners. To get them started, I bought them all one year gift subscriptions to Backblaze for Christmas last year. Although a bit more expensive, for the novice user I think an online backup solution has a much higher likelihood of actually being completed (assuming they keep it paid up). I’d assume they could also get assistance from a more advanced user for the initial setup and the event it became necessary to restore files. But everyone can rest easier knowing files are backed up.

Neither of these single solutions are perfect. They don’t account for backing up data that isn’t stored on a computer’s internal hard drive and both require that a computer be restored to a workable state before data is recovered. But if you can only get someone to do one thing, I think either is a good start.

This article first appeared in the September Issue of ScreencastsOnline Monthly Magazine. ScreenCastsOnline monthly magazine is packed with hints, tips, articles and links to streamable versions of ScreenCastsOnline tutorials and delivered monthly via Newsstand on the iPad. You can find out more at