Quite often come across conversations with both clients & on twitter with people who have lost all their data when their computer has been stolen, or the hard drive has crashed, or damaged etc etc.

Nowadays external hard drives are both cheap & quick, so there is no financial excuse not to have a backup copy of your hard drive contents, and the software to do this is usually cheap or free.

Wherever possibly I always advise that at least one copy of your backup should be ‘off site’, criminals, fire, flood all tend to be pretty indiscriminate and will take/destroy everything. If your backup drive is there on your desk next to your computer, both will go. If you are in an area subject to natural disasters then your off site backup may want to be a long way away, here in the UK, a friend, family, office a few miles away is usually good enough. If you aren’t in an area subject to flooding then even a neighbour (not attached) should usually be fine too.

Backup drives

External drives come in 2.5″ & 3.5″ versions, each have their own pros & cons.

3.5″ drives buy you the most ‘bang for buck’ but require their own power supply (often a weak point), are faster, and available in larger capacities, but by their nature are generally large & heavy.

2.5″ drives are more expensive, and currently top out at 1TB, but they are small enough to fit in a coat pocket, so easier to hide away in another location without them being inconvenient. They are also ‘self powered’ so no worries about losing the power supply.

Currently I’m running a matched pair home/office of 3.5″ drives which share power supplies, so if one fails I’ve got backup power too. These are a ‘roll your own’ using an enclosure from Starmount which has a big 80mm fan to keep the drive cool, and you can just select capacity/brand of choice, and also upgrade for just the cost of the drive if you exceed capacity later.

There is also the options of USB2 or Firewire 400/800 drives, USB2 is cheaper, FW400/800 has faster sustained data rates, but not all machines are equipped with Firewire ports. For most USB2 offers ample speed. Also worth noting Intel Macs can boot from USB drives, but if you’ve got an older PPC G4/G5 machine then it can only boot from Firewire.

For a starting point, expect to pay less than £50 for a 1TB 3.5″ drive or 500GB 2.5″ drive. Professional clean room drive recovery if you’ve not got a backup starts at £230…

For more serious capacities of backup, you can start getting in to Drobos and Network Attached Storage (NAS), but for now going to stick with the basics.


From here on in this post is now Mac only…

First out the box is Time Machine, if you’ve bought a new Mac in the last few years it will have come with 10.5 Leopard or 10.6 Snow Leopard which comes with Time Machine backup software included free. Simply plug in your new hard drive, and the Mac will pop up a dialogue asking you if you want to use this new drive with Time Machine, click ‘use as backup disk’ and every hour all your user data is synchronized, it’ll automatically delete the oldest backups but you should be able to roll back to older versions of a file if you find you’ve made a mistake. From a fresh start of Mac OS 10.5+ (either for disaster recovery or for a new machine) the installer setup will ask you to plug in a Time Machine hard drive to restore your data back to your new machine. All very easy, but you can’t really customise anything it does, except exclude folders from the backup. For more info see the Time Machine 101

If you’ve got a few machines you may also want to look at the ‘Time Capsule‘ which is available in Time Capsule 2TB, Time Capsule 3TB, or the Airport Extreme Basestation which you can plug your own choice of USB hard drive in to the back of, they are then visible on your network to all macs & Time Machine can then back up to them. Especially useful if you’ve got a handful of MacBooks at home/work to backup.

Next up is Chronosync, this is $40 but is very customisable. This is the software I personally use, it can set up scheduled timed backups, fully bootable, backup on mount, backup the complete HD, or just selective parts of the HD. Parts of this such as the ‘backup on mount’ with bidirectional sync can be used cleverly with items such as a very small backup set so that when you mount a flash drive, you have say a ‘work’ folder it synchronises, useful for a folder of work that you switch back between machines. Services such as Dropbox have made this a bit less redundant as it can be done without thinking over the internet, but for those on the end of a piece of string phone line wise, or it’s secure data you don’t want to entrust to a person/company you don’t know and trust, still a useful feature. On my personal machine I just backup the user data folders to keep the backup size down, the OS & apps can all be quickly installed from CD (and I keep the paid & unpaid downloaded software DMG files etc in the backup area). Because it can backup to folders on the destination HD it can also backup multiple HDs or machines to one drive, which expands it’s usability further.

Another popular choice is SuperDuper a bit cheaper than Chronosync at $28 (though you can download & trial), it doesn’t offer all the features of Chronosync, but specialises in doing full or incremental bootable backups, through a pretty easy to use interface.

For those that love the word ‘free’ there is the excellent Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC) which is shareware, & offers no fuss cloned backups, updates have made this much more user friendly, and scheduling options.  I use this on the mail server at the office however which takes a long time to set up, I do fully bootable clones, so if the HD in the server dies, just insert a new HD, and clone the backup back and carry on from a few hours ago…

Hidden away in Disk Utility since around 10.4 has been an option to ‘Restore’ a drive, there’s no incremental options, or schedules, but if you want to make a bootable clone, it is a good free option.

Final mention goes to Retrospect v8. I’ve used the previous versions in the office for mass backups of all the machines over the network, and it’s always split opinions. But the latest version isn’t even fit for beta, it’s the most unreliable turd of software I’ve used. Not what you want for backups.