The Leopard Report: The Greatest Feature of All!

August 18th, 2006

I can hear the complaints. Mac OS 10.5 Leopard, so far at least, offers nothing really new, just warmer and fuzzier versions of products long available from third parties, Windows or on Linux. So what’s so innovative about that and why all this nonsense about withholding other features so Microsoft won’t copy them too?

But there is one big thing that some of the commentators and bloggers are forgetting, which is that a product doesn’t have to be original to be innovative. Take the iPod. There were plenty of music players around before it came to be, but Apple succeeded by finding a way to deliver a better product, and integrate it almost seamlessly with an online music store that catered to both Mac and PC users.

So, of all the features Apple has demonstrated so far in Leopard, what’s the real scene stealer? Well, it may not seem a terribly sexy subject, but it’s Time Machine, Leopard’s backup application.

You see, Apple’s executives have delivered some extremely frightening statistics about backups. Only 26% of Mac users perform backups, and only 4% use dedicated software to perform the task. Can you believe it?

At its core, backing up your data is a very simple task. Just copy your stuff to a CD, DVD or another hard drive, and that’s it, at least for the basics. This is nothing new, as there have been backup techniques on the Mac almost from the very beginning, so why are most people avoiding it as if it were some sort of contagious disease?

Now this may be getting boring for some of you, but I’ve been preaching the backup religion for years. What’s more, just consider the consequences if you fail to back up a document and lose it. If that document contains your Quicken financial records, your tax return, or that novel you worked on for the past five years, what would happen if you lost it — forever?

You may argue that Apple is just spinning its wheels with Time Machine. There are already programs that’ll help you undelete lost files, and there are certainly plenty of backup options. So what’s the point?

Again, it’s the fact that 74% of you never back up at all. Not once! Not ever!

Even worse, consider that you are depending on a single device, a hard drive that contains complicated mechanical bits and pieces, to store your stuff. Drives fail all too frequently, and fail hard! Yes, there may be a warranty, but that warranty will only replace a defective drive. It won’t bring your files back, and the recovery services that are capable of performing such deeds charge an arm and a leg with no guarantee they’ll be even partly successful.

Of course, I can’t say that Time Machine is the best solution. I’ve been using dedicated backup programs for years. When Leopard comes out, I’ll probably be one of the early adopters, because I have to write about such things. I’ll even put Time Machine through its paces on one of my three backup drives, but I won’t switch completely until I’m assured it’s as reliable and trouble-free as it seemed to be at the recent WWDC demonstration.

On the other hand, if even 10% of the people who find excuses not to back up change their tune after Leopard arrives, that’ll be a huge success for Apple. You can then forget the excuses the naysayers deliver.

In the meantime, please don’t sit back and wait for the spring of 2007, assuming Leopard arrives on schedule. I cannot overemphasize the importance of having a backup routine now! If your needs are a little more sophisticated than just copying an occasional file or two every few days to an external drive, I’d like to recommend a e-book that’ll help get you towards the best backup strategy. It’s Joe Kissell’s “Take Control of Mac OS X Backups” and it’s just $10. Even better, you get free updates as Joe finds better software and techniques.

Yes, Time Machine, if it succeeds, will earn Apple a golden statue in my book. It’s a terrific idea.

Also, I’d love to have your comments, especially from the folks who never seem to find the time to perform a backup.

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19 Responses to “The Leopard Report: The Greatest Feature of All!”

  1. Karan Misra says:

    I think that the best type of backup systems are the set-it-and-forget-it types and Time Machine will hopefully prove to be one of those. However, I do not have access to Time Machine right now, and frankly, I might not be interested in giving it an entire volume to itself. I use a software called Déjà Vu that comes as a part of Roxio’s Toast Titanium 7 and installs itself as a Preference Pane. I have simply set it to backup my Home folder and some other important folders to certain folders on my external disk every morning at around 6.15am (I have set my Mac’s Energy Saver preferences to either Wake Up or Start Up my Mac at 6am for this purpose) and it does so faultlessly. My system does not help me recover some file I deleted 6 days ago and that is not its purpose. That is something I manage on my own and try not to overwrite important files for instance and keep Versions in Microsoft Word (very cool feature). Anyway, the purpose of my system is to make sure I have at worst, a day old snapshot of my entire Home folder such that if one hard disk crashes, the other can be used to recover the data.

    One advantage of this sort of simple mirroring system instead of using something like Time Machine is that the whole system is straight-forward and you can use any basic file browser to recover your files. You do not need to have a copy of a special version of an OS or some special piece of software. This will be a mild issue with Time Machine. Also, my system currently does not need its own dedicated volume, but just a folder where it can store its stuff. This is sensible and I can’t see why Time Machine would need an entire volume because in its current phase, when it backs up files to network volumes, it creates a disk image inside which it puts its data and it could just as well do this on a local disk. So, I asked my friend who has a copy of Leopard to find out for me if he can just create say a 40GB disk image on his computer, mount it and use it as a backup volume for Time Machine and he said it works.

  2. Dan says:

    Time Machine does hold some excellent possibilities, but there are a few caveats that I can see:

    1. It backs up everything. The one thing that this means to me is that you are going to need big storage capacity to take advantage of it. By including the OS in the backup, you are committing thousands of files to be backed up in lots of iterations. The ability to roll back to a previous version after a problematic update was mentioned. So that’s at least 5GB that changes regularly.

    2. For lots of people that means purchasing a 2nd drive. There’s no point in doing backups on the same drive. So iMacs and Minis are going to need an external drive. And possibly they already have one for a lot of their data. Which leads to;

    3. Can it backup external drives too? What if I have movie projects on an external HD that I want to save?

    Time Machine is a great idea. And I hope that when it actually arrives that it’s a little more granular than the impression I got from the demo.

    Personally, I think that the big development in Leopard is Core Animation, as Time Machine demo’ed so well. Once Devs get their brains around that, I think we’re looking at a leap forward in Mac apps.

  3. Jack Newton says:

    I am one of the 74%, regrettably. It’s strange, but it’s a psychological thing with me. I have never thought that my data is all that important to be saved. How stupid is that? I have to change my ways. Perhaps “Time Machine’ will assist.

  4. D says:

    Another way to think about backups is, 74% of people don’t care about backuping up. Network Spotlight searching is far more usable especially in the work place.

    Still the top to botton 64 bit and 32 bit support problably takes to cake, so far.

  5. Lyle Gunderson says:

    If my experience with Backup (Apple’s present backup solution) is any indication, then Time Machine will be responsible for the salvation of many users’ data. Since I got Backup free as a .Mac subscriber, it was easy to cajole myself into using it. After 5 or 10 minutes of telling it what to back up and where, it’s been backing my important stuff up to a FireWire drive every morning in the wee small hours. It comes with useful defaults, so the process could have been even easier and quicker.

    Eventually, the incremental backups fill up the FireWire drive, but I just toss them and do another backup. There is probably a better way, but I’m too lazy to figure it out.

    The combination of availability, simplicity, and effectiveness is very effective.

  6. Jeff says:

    I’ve been using Apple’s Backup since they released it and have never had a problem. Certain critical files are backed up once a day to my .Mac account, while other, mostly larger files are backed up to an external firewire drive. Once a month, a full backup of my home folder is stored on another external firewire drive.

    If any of the backup destinations get full, I delete them and start afresh.

    Time Machine seems like a nice solution, and I’ll give it a try, but I really don’t see how it’s going to provide more than a 5-10% increase in the number of people that are already backing their files up.

  7. OS11 says:

    A somewhat unique way to handle backups is have 2 near identical machines. I have a MacBook and iMac, both have near identical data, so if one HD goes down, I have the other in reserve (and visaversa) until the problem machine can be repaired. Works fine.

  8. The Oracle says:

    A) Karan Misra said: ” I can’t see why Time Machine would need an entire volume because in its current phase”

    Perhaps I’m reading you wrong. You mean ‘volume’ as a synonym of ‘disk’. The information at Apple’s website is certainly scarce, but they say: “Backup Disk: Change the drive or volume you’re backing up to. Or back up to a Mac OS X server computer.”

    They make a distinction betwee a ‘drive’ and a ‘volume’. So a ‘volume’ in my understanding can be, for example, a disk image created via disk utility that has to be manually mounted at the time that T.M is going to do its job (also you must ensure its big enough for the job). But, hey, it’s just a guess of mine.

    B) Dan:

    T.M. backups everything, unless you specify which folders you’re not willing to backup. At least this is what is seen in the T.M
    preferences pane that is on some websites.

    “Can it backup external drives too?” Well, as far as I understand it, currently only backups your boot disk. The preferences pane out there are clear on that. But that can be changed in the final release.

    P.S. Doing a simple backup is one of the few tasks (not the only one) I’ve been using Automator for. Not T.M, but well…

  9. The Oracle says:

    Whoops…seems Karan already tested (and confirmed my guess) the disk image thing.

    That happens for being to fast to post, but I guess intention is what matters the most.

  10. Dennis Hill says:

    Does Time Machine make a bootable external drive backup? If so, I’m on-board. If not, I’ll just stick with my daily SuperDuper! bootable backup to my external FireWire drive.

  11. Does Time Machine make a bootable external drive backup? If so, I’m on-board. If not, I’ll just stick with my daily SuperDuper! bootable backup to my external FireWire drive.

    My understanding, based on attending the keynote and reading the report from my friends at Mac world, is that it does.

    Till then, I agree with you: SuperDuper is the way to go 🙂


  12. Alan Goldberg says:

    The really great thing about Time Machine is not that it’s a great backup app. In fact it may be a fairly limited backup app compared Retrospect, SuperDuper, CCC et. al.

    What is really great about TM, is that it looks to be a fantastic RESTORE app ‘for the rest of us’. It’s one thing to back up your data – another to get to it when you need to access that data. How many users of Retrospect know how to find their data when they need to get it off a backup set?

  13. The Oracle says:

    I have to agree with Gene in that T.M does, indeed, make a bootable external drive backup. But on one condition: it requires you not to exclude the System folder from the backup. Since the default option is to backup the entire system, the backup external volume would be bootable.

  14. Jeff Mandell says:

    As another long time SuperDuper user, I’d just mention that the basic version is free. They do this because once you use it, you smack yourself on the side of your head and realize this is the most obvious, easy to use, compelling app since the invention of word processing. You then buy the full version to automate it at night while you sleep. After that you only read these threads out of mild curiosity.
    If your computer burps, you shrug, instantly boot from the backup and are running again with everything exactly the same as pre-burp in the time it takes to re-boot.
    Trouble shoot the computer’s own drive when you have time, but no hurry.

  15. Grant Jacobs says:

    A couple of thoughts.

    As Alan said, it looks a good restore app (but see the last paragraph, below). IMHO backups are only as good as they can be reliably, and easily, recovered. If you think how few user use specialist backup software, how many of those that do actually test the recovery phase…? Not many I’m willing to bet.

    I personally worry about the number of naive users using mirroring software to do backups. As Karan says they are *not* a backup per se. I get the impression a lot of naive users don’t understand the difference, hence my concern. So its good Apple is going for a rollback backup vs. a mirror (which, after all they could do via RAID). Karan: I don’t like the idea of “just remembering” not to overwrite important files–defeats the whole point of backup in my opinon (but then, that’s just my opinon!).

    FWIW, Retrospect is good *backup* software, but its support of recent devices is absolutely shocking over recent years, which has forced me to use mix of mirroring and my own backup scripts.

    Karan: Using a local volume makes good sense (I’m not keen on the ‘net backups either, although it has its applications, esp. for those who are mobile), *but* it’d be best done to a separate external drive. Certainly not to the same physical device as the files are being backed up on.

    Furthermore, if you really care about the data, the backup should be taken offsite, even if that’s just the garden shed (or the office in town): if a fire, etc., destroys the machine, if the backups are physically next to them, it’ll destroy them too…

    Finally, can anyone please tell me how Time Machine copes with re-arranging, but not deleting or adding, files? This involves more than just rolling a set directory back in time; if anything I’d have thought you’d need a tree-structured view to see what is going on in that case…

  16. Grant Jacobs says:

    I should add that some time ago (about a year ago I think) I reviewed many backup/mirror apps for a few specific conditions, in particular how files, directories and aliases of the same name were handled, and I found that *all* products failed, even rsync. Many simply silently threw data way. One of the few that worked correctly was Synk (with a ‘k’, its a mirror app.); I think Retrospect also worked, but its hardware support is, well, lets not go there.

  17. Andrew says:

    SuperDuper is the greatest thing on a Mac. I always hate it when I back up my PC using Norton Ghost, hitting return every time the current segment hits 2GB, which may be a limitation of my old 2002 version, but since I’m cheap I haven’t upgraded.

    SD is so much simpler and I love that its automated.

  18. Karan Misra says:

    Karan: Using a local volume makes good sense (I’m not keen on the ‘net backups either, although it has its applications, esp. for those who are mobile), *but* it’d be best done to a separate external drive. Certainly not to the same physical device as the files are being backed up on.

    @Grant Jacobs: Well, the entire practicality of using a disk image, in my opinion, has been to avoid having to devote an entire volume and (@Dan) I do know the difference between a volume and a disk but I don’t even wish to devote a mere volume to TM, a disk image should do. The disk image, in my case, has been stored on an external (or secondary) hard drive. Storing it on the same disk would save you from the “Overwrite” issue but not the more significant “Hard Drive Fail” issue.

    Also, I do not think the backups that Time Machine creates are bootable, because I asked a friend of mine who does have a Developers’ Preview of Leopard to use my way of creating a disk image on a second hard drive and to use that to keep backups and Time Machine, it seems, creates a folder called Backups.backupdb at the root of the disk. Inside that folder there is a single folder with the same name as your computer’s name (in Sharing PrefPane). Inside that folder there are different folders named with the date and time of backup as well as an alias called Latest. In System Preferences, the mounted disk image does not appear as bootable (they usually do when they contain a bootable partition even though you can’t boot from disk images).

  19. John Levett says:

    Started with Redux. Would that be 1988? System 6? Now…SuperDuper! to 100gig LaCie mobile.

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