Time Machine: Apple’s Missed Opportunity?

May 5th, 2017

When Steve Jobs originally debuted Apple’s Time Machine app in 2008, it was presented as a solution to one of the biggest problems with using a personal computer. Most people never do backups, and Jobs quoted some terribly poor percentages for the time, in the low double digits.

It wasn’t a surprise to me. Although I have rather elaborate backup schemes that I’ll mention in a moment, most people don’t bother.

So Apple made Time Machine basically about as simple as possible to help you set it up. Despite this, I’ve encountered more than a few Mac users over the years who never heard of it and, worse, still don’t do any backups.

Now the absolute easiest way to set it up is to mount a backup drive of some sort. You don’t need anything terribly expensive, and certainly not an SSD. A simple 1TB backup drive can be had for less than $50. It’ll connect to your Mac’s USB port. Of course, if you have a MacBook or the new MacBook Pro, you’ll need an adaptor unless that drive is USB-C.

Either way, there’s a Time Machine preference icon in the menu bar (unless you’ve turned off that option), and it’s also available in System Preferences. Normally it’ll ask you to choose a backup disk the first time you launch it, but you can set up the backup drive manually. The “Back Up Automatically” checkbox will start the backup whenever that drive is connected to your Mac. It doesn’t have to be full time. You can just plug it in and it’ll catch up.

The very first time a backup starts, it will catalog your Mac’s startup drive, and that can take a few hours to do. Normally backups are done every hour, and they’re incremental. This means that, after the first run, Time Machine will backup only the new or changed files. If the drive isn’t mounted, it’ll catch up soon as it’s inserted.

That’s the good thing. Once you spend a few seconds setting it up, you don’t have to think about it again until you have to use it. This is where Time Machine is most effective. Depending on the size of the backup drive, Time Machine will record multiple incremental backups. If you accidentally delete a file, and Time Machine already has it stored, you can easily recover it. Maybe you need to restore a file that you removed a week or a month ago. So long as there’s enough room on the backup media, it’ll probably be there if you’ve been using the app long enough.

The ability to travel through your Mac’s history and find and recover data is why it’s called Time Machine, and it has an interface that’s appropriate to its title. But it’s not a panacea, which is why I use several backup methods to satisfy my obsessive nature about such matters.

Apparently Time Machine doesn’t work with PC-formatted media, even though you can use one of those drives on a Mac. You have to format it as HFS+, which requires Disk Utility. Or simply get a drive formatted for the Mac. When you order a backup drive from a dealer, for example, look for a Mac compatible version to save that step, although it’s not much of a step.

There are some technical considerations, which essentially help save space. After a day, hourly backups are combined into single daily backups. Daily backups expire after 31 days. Weekly backups are stored until storage space is used up, after which the oldest sets are deleted.

To me, Time Machine’s biggest limitation is that you can’t boot from it. This sort of makes sense from a practical point of view, since your backup drive is filled with loads of incremental versions of files that would somehow have to be combined, on-the-fly, to allow you to use it as a temporary replacement for your Mac’s startup drive in case of a problem.

On the other hand, if you’re setting up a new Mac or a new drive via Apple’s Migration Assistant, you can restore from Time Machine.

Now Apple’s replacement for HFS+, Apple File System (APFS), may provide some alternate backup possibilities. It was officially released for iOS 10.3 a few weeks ago. The macOS version was introduced as a beta at last June’s WWDC with significant limitations, but may reach release form in time for this fall’s macOS upgrade.

For now, I have two external drives, but I use three backup schemes on my iMac.

So there’s a Time Machine backup set on one drive, and a clone backup courtesy of Carbon Copy Cloner on a second drive. A clone backup is run once every night, and it presents me with a duplicate of my iMac’s internal drive. The third backup is offsite for various reasons, the most important of which is to have a way to get back in business if something happens not just to my Mac, but to my home. You can consider the possibilities.

The offsite backup uses a service known as CrashPlan. I opted for a family plan, so the contents of my MacBook Pro and my son’s MacBook Air are also stored there. Yes, Grayson lives in Madrid, but location doesn’t matter when you’re using a cloud backup system.

Now Time Machine hasn’t received many updates over the years. Perhaps APFS will allow for creation of a bootable drive and other possibilities, but I am not well-versed on the technicalities. Time will tell.

When Jobs launched Time Machine nine years ago, he clearly hoped to address a serious problem with one of the most simple backup schemes ever. However, the more I talk to people about their backup scenarios, I still find that, by and large, there aren’t any. With all of Apple’s resources, surely they can devise a way to persuade people that they need to convert to the backup religion. For now, Apple doesn’t talk about it very much, and that’s unfortunate.

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7 Responses to “Time Machine: Apple’s Missed Opportunity?”

  1. Peter says:

    Apple’s missed opportunity is not making time machine work with iOS devices. especially iPads.

  2. Joe S says:

    I use a very similar backup approach except I SuperDuper! instead CCC.

    Oh the horror stories I can tell about failed rotating media.

  3. dfs says:

    Maybe Time Machine could be improved by opening it up to the world making it do backups to iCloud and/or third-party remote services such as Dropbox? Apple’s decision to keep it “within the family” may be hindering its potential usefulness.

  4. Kaleberg says:

    According to an Ars Technica article, Apple’s new file system supports something called “snapshots” which allow one disk to store any number of file system states. If you create a snapshot, then make changes, you can go back to that snapshot and have access to the preserved files. It is clear that Apple was thinking of a way to make a bootable Time Machine backup disk when they included this feature. In fact, you could boot up to the most recent snapshot or any older one. The next problem is getting people to restore their old machine and not just run on their backup disk until it gets damaged or lost somehow.

    I hate those donut spare tires, but at least they are awful enough to remind you to repair or replace the damaged tire. Back when spare tires were just tires, it was easy to keep driving, damage a tire and realize that you have a bad spare in the trunk.

    Apple has been encouraging cloud backup though. I already use iCloud storage for documents I want safely in the cloud and accessible on my Mac and i-portables. I gather Sierra has features that backup files in the Documents folders to the cloud and will even move less used, large documents to the cloud and delete them to free up space while maintaining a cloud backup. I’m not too sure of this latter approach though. I have big, old walk through videos for property management that I use rarely but never know which one will be needed next.

    • Thanks for the input.

      Yes, I realize that the things we’re missing in Time Machine now can very well be addressed with APFS. It will also mean using far less storage space for full backups.

      I can’t wait to see how it plays out, and I do expect to see it the next macOS.

      When it comes to the donut spare tires: It’s preposterous and foolish, and a lame way to safe space and weight at the inconvenience to the customer. Such expensive cars as BMWs use run-flat tires, and no spares. But when you do have a flat, you soon have to replace the tire, an expensive luxury.

      Why can’t we just return to full size spares and be done with it?


      • Granville Kennedy says:

        My best guess for the spare tire/donut swap – meeting government mandated fuel economy standards while keeping a reasonable amount of trunk space.

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