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  • Living with Leopard: Book III — Backups for the Rest of Us

    October 31st, 2007

    As I’ve said so many times — and I bet some of you are bored — I’m a devout believer in the backup religion. Whenever I create mission-critical files, such as interviews for my two radio shows, I make two backups immediately. Take that literally. I will even postpone a bathroom visit to start the process, because most of those interviews are one-of-a-kind events, and I do not wish to be forced to repeat the process. And that assumes the guest is gracious enough for another go-round.

    In addition to the immediate backup, I’ve been using SuperDuper! for clone backups on my extra drives. However, the current version of this application is not quite Leopard compatible, so, for the time being at least, I’ve decided to subsist on manual file backups and, of course, Apple’s Time Machine.

    Now, aside from the fancy (and perhaps overdone) 3D visual effects, the concept behind Time Machine is based on common sense. Most Mac users don’t backup files, and of those that do, only a small number actually try backup software.

    I don’t pretend to understand the psychology behind this posture of benign neglect. It’s not as if the best backup applications are hard to use. SuperDuper!, for example, easily guides you through the process, which is hardly more difficult than selecting your source drive and your backup (or target) drive, and picking a backup option. SuperDuper! does the rest without fuss or bother and it can, if you prefer, quit the application, put your Mac to sleep or shut it down once the backup is done.

    Sounds easy to me, but I gather it’s just not easy enough for many of you, and that’s really sad!

    With Apple’s Time Machine, when you plug in an extra drive, you get a dialog box asking if you want to use it for your backups. That’s it. Time Machine does the rest.

    The initial backup may take several hours, depending on how much data you have. But it’s all done in the background and, aside from a Finder progress bar, you never know it’s happening. Once the backup is concluded, Time Machine will perform incremental backups each hour to capture the files you’ve changed or added. You’ll see a spinning circular arrow in the Finder for the device to which you’re backing up, but again, aside from the usual sounds made by a hard drive in action, you shouldn’t notice any performance degradation. Of course, if you’re using a 3D rendering application, it may present an issue, but that remains to be seen.

    In any case, I’m sure many of you have seen the widely-circulated demonstration about using Time Machine to recover lost files. In effect, you cross the frontiers of the universe, visually of course, to return your Mac to the state a certain folder was in when that file was still available.

    Unfortunately, Time Machine suffers from some version 1.0 shortcomings. The most critical is the annoying process of restoring your Mac in the event of a hard drive failure. For that, you have to restart your Mac with your Leopard DVD and use it to engage Time Machine to bring the contents of your hard drive back to life, either on the same drive, a replacement drive, or another Mac.

    Some of the more severe critics suggest the process simply takes too long, but I submit that restoring tens of gigabytes of data is going to be a lengthy process regardless.

    I also understand why you wouldn’t want to restore by starting up with the same drive you’re using to bring back the entire contents of your backup. But wouldn’t it make sense for Time Machine to, perhaps, create a bootable system or partition on the backup drive, so you can restart from that drive in order to restore your system? What happens if your Leopard DVD isn’t readily available? Maybe it was misplaced, or the boss, with the proper degree of paranoia, places software media in a safe. The boss is off for a “business meeting” in the Bahamas, and you’re stuck. Do you get the picture?

    Power users will also rightly criticize Apple for failing to provide some level of granularity in Time Machine’s options. Say you want to skip a scheduled backup, perhaps because you don’t want your system to be busy while performing a 3D rendering operation. Perhaps you’d like to completely override Time Machine’s built-in settings. I’m sure you could do some Terminal trickery to accomplish that task, and I’m just as certain that third parties will soon provide simple graphical tools to simplify the process.

    Over time, all this shall pass. As you recall, lots of people criticized the first iteration of Spotlight in Tiger for its lack of Boolean searching, and inconsistent performance. That’s just how things are, and as Apple gets input from people like you about Time Machine’s shortcomings, I’m sure some of those concerns will be addressed in future versions of Mac OS X.

    It may even be possible for it to happen earlier, assuming something of the sort can be seamlessly grafted into a maintenance update.

    As a concept and an initial release, however, Time Machine appears to be just the ticket to convince people who just won’t backup their data that it’s time to change their ways. Sure, maybe they’ll have to buy an external drive, but that’s money well spent.



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