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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6 Responses to “Living with Leopard: Book III — Backups for the Rest of Us”

  1. Dana Sutton says:

    I’ve been using T. M. the past five days, and am pretty happy with it. The one thing that worried me the most, that it might slow down my Mac’s normal operations, isn’t the case, it’s works VERY unobtrusively, I can’t even hear my hard disks working. I agree that the major drawback is that it doesn’t produce a bootable backup, we can only hope that Apple adds that (and also the ability to work over a wireless network) in future versions. Then it would be near-perfect. What I’m concerned about now is watching it closely to learn out how long it takes to fill up my external h. d. or, put differently, how far back in time it is going to be able to reach (weeks? months??). When I know that, then I’ll need to ask myself how far back in time I really need to go, and that will tell me if I do or don’t need to invest in a bigger h. d. All in all, this is hands down the jewel in Leopard’s crown. I’d have been more than willing to pay the price for the whole OS just to get this single application

  2. George Carrington says:

    I have to admit that I didn’t see the button in the Time Machine System Preference that you need to click to get Time Machine working until two days after I installed Leopard – and I did wonder (aloud, in front of the family) why my Time Machine wasn’t working. The worst part is – my kids won’t accept my excuse of failing eyesight, and feel that they really should remove the G5 iMac out of my care, because I’m getting senile!! AAAAGH!!!

    I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact they both run Intel iMacs?

    As for booting from the external drive – I created (once I discovered I could do so without destroying everything, and it worked this time – touch wood!) a separate 10GB partition to which I copied the Leopard Install DVD. If I want to restart from my external HD, I restart with the Opt key, select the DVD partition and proceed from there. HTH!

  3. rwahrens says:

    My only nitpick is that TM doesn’t do one more incremental backup after a logoff.

    That may seem unnecessary, but just think:

    You’ve been working for several hours on, say, editing a movie, and with a little work in iPhoto just prior to the movie.

    Ok, the first hours will get caught on backup by the regular incremental backups.

    BUT – you’re late for dinner, the spouse is hotter than the roast beef, so you log off and go carve the cow – at say 58 minutes after the last incremental backup.

    Your last save will NOT get caught by the backup, and will not until you log in – say tomorrow afternoon? What if your drive tanks overnight?

    You’re screwed. UNLESS Time Machine did one last check – while all users were logged off – to see if any files were changed since the last incremental backup. If so, it could catch those files, THEN stop all hourly backups, since they wouldn’t be needed till someone logged on.

    THAT would make Time Machine truly a major league backup program!

    It’s good now, for a 1.0 version, but this concept would make it almost foolproof.

  4. George? You didn’t see Time Machine’s Preference panel ON slider button? It’s honkin’ huge! 🙂

  5. rwahrens says: “Your last save will NOT get caught by the backup, and will not until you log in – say tomorrow afternoon? What if your drive tanks overnight?”

    Before you log off, control- or right-click Time Machine’s Dock icon and choose “Back Up Now” to solve your dilemma. 🙂

  6. George? You didn’t see Time Machine’s Preference panel ON slider button? It’s honkin’ huge! 🙂

    And honkin’ is an understatement 🙂

    Oh, and thank you, Partners in Grime, for the added tip.


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