Backup is tedious but incredibly important for anyone who uses computers and saves files of various kinds – images, text files, home videos, archived emails, scanned contracts and other important documents, password archives and so on. Imagine that you wake up one day and all your files are gone: How would you react?
For many years, Apple has had an incredibly simple backup solution built into Mac OS. Time Machine has helped many people get started with continuous backup and Apple should be highly praised for that. But Time Machine is not an infallible backup. In particular, you can only back up with Time Machine to a hard disk connected directly to your computer or over the local network. If you experience a fire, flood or burglary, both your computer and backup may be lost at the same time. Therefore, it is good to also have some form of backup that is stored elsewhere.
In this guide, we will walk you through the various backup methods you can use to back up your Mac, with their pros and cons. We also suggest some sensible combinations that provide both smooth recovery if, for example, you happen to delete a file or if the hard drive breaks.
Local backup solutions
In addition to the built-in Time Machine, there are a number of third-party programs that can create local backups to an external hard drive or network drive. We can divide them into two categories: incremental backups and clones.
Incremental backups – Time Machine and the like
An incremental backup not only saves all your current files, but also continues to store old deleted files and older versions of existing files. Time Machine is one example, but there are many others. The main advantages of this type of backup are that you can restore old versions of files if, for example, you have accidentally made changes that you now regret and that you can save accidentally deleted files. Different programs use different techniques to optimize the use of space on the backup disk.
Our general tip for an incremental backup is to choose a hard drive that is at least twice the size of your Mac’s internal storage. For example, if you have a 512 gigabyte ssd in your Mac, you should choose a hard drive of 1 terabyte or more. This allows plenty of space to save file history so that you can restore files several months or years after you first saved them.
The next choice is between a standard external hard drive and a network drive. USB hard drive is clearly the easiest. Apple used to sell a router with a built-in hard drive, Time Capsule, which was easy to use to back up several Macs over the network, but it stopped selling several years ago. You can accomplish something similar by getting a NAS device or connecting a hard drive to your router if it has a USB connector.
If you want to use Time Machine, the router or nas must support it. For other backup programs, it is usually sufficient to make the hard disk available over the local network via file sharing (smb) or sftp.
Clone backup – quickly back on its feet
The second type of local backup, clone backup, is something completely different. With a clone, you create an exact copy of your Mac’s internal storage on another storage device (hard disk or ssd). If something goes wrong with the internal one, you can restart the computer from the external one and, if the internal one is not physically broken, restore it by reformatting the internal one and cloning back in the other direction.
Clone backups are very handy if, for example, you are experimenting with installing beta versions of Mac OS, or if your time is precious and you cannot afford to wait hours for a slower recovery from, for example, Time Machine. Restoring from a clone backup on an ssd can take a quarter of an hour.
Unfortunately, Apple has put sticks in the wheel for just clone backup in Mac OS 11 Big Sur. It is no longer possible to easily copy the entire disk over and over again. Some programs have been updated to work with Big Sur, but do in a different way. After an initial complete backup, only the data volume is copied, ie your own files and settings. The system volume cannot be copied again without deleting the existing clone and starting over.
This means that a clone you made with, for example, Mac OS 11.2 will continue to have that system version even if you update your computer to 11.3 or 11.4. To get the clone updated, you must start the computer from the clone disk and update the system again via System Settings -> Software Update.
Programs you can use for clone backup are: Carbon Copy Cloner, Acronis True Image, Get Backup Pro. The old favorite Superduper has not yet been updated with support for Big Sur and the developer seems to have more or less given up – his recommendation is to use an older version of the program and manually clone only the data volume. If you want a backup you can boot your computer from, you must first install Big Sur on it, and can then clone the data volume as often as you want.
Backups that are stored in other physical locations are usually called offsite backups or remote backups. These are almost always incremental backups, but it is also possible to clone a disk and carry the copy to another location. An early solution for home users was, for example, to put an external hard drive in a bank vault.
The point of a remote backup is to protect you from catastrophic loss. Recovery is always significantly slower than from a local backup. Where it can take a quarter of an hour to restore a clone backup on a fast ssd or a few hours from a Time Machine backup, a remote backup made over the internet can take several days. If you have a hard drive from a relative or friend in the same place, you can prune over and pick it up fairly quickly, but hardly at eleven o’clock in the evening.
Remote backup can be divided into three categories based on how it is done.
With a cloud backup, your files are sent encrypted to the “cloud”, ie servers on the internet. There are ready-made services to subscribe to, such as Backblaze and Idrive, which are responsible for both the storage space and the actual backup with a program you install, but also do-it-yourself solutions. For example, you can get the Arq Backup program and connect to a cloud storage service you already have, such as Microsoft Onedrive or Google Drive. Acronis True Image can do both types depending on which subscription you choose.
Since the first backup can take several days or even weeks, we recommend that you make sure you have a local backup first.
Hard drive with someone else
If you do not want to deal with cloud backup, you can make a regular backup (incremental or clone) on an external hard drive that you simply carry with you and store elsewhere. For example, it could be in a locked cupboard at work or at the home of a trusted relative or friend.
The disadvantage of this is that it is cumbersome to update the backup, it is easy for it to slip behind and not be updated for several months. For some users who do not work so much with files on their own computer, but mostly do things on the internet, it may not be that dangerous, but if you, for example, take photos and film a lot and archive on the computer, it can still lead to many lost memories.
Advanced: Private cloud
The last variant is only for those who are good at networking and have an acquaintance or relative who is also on the notes. By placing each other’s hard drives that are shared via, for example, sftp from a powerful router or an always-on computer (ie a server), you can use backup programs such as Arq Backup and Acronis True Image to do “cloud backup” without subscribing any cloud service.
An advantage of this is also that restorations can go much faster because the one of you who needs to restore can simply take an equally large hard drive home to the other and copy the backup (so that it is not the only copy of the files).
Backup experts usually talk about a 3-2-1 rule that ensures you do not lose any important data. It works like this:
3 – Always have at least three copies of important files, one master copy that you are working on and two backup copies.
2 – always place copies of important files on at least two different media (physical storage devices).
1 At least one copy must be kept in another geographical location.
Cloud backup services often store your files with redundancy, ie nothing is lost if a certain data center burns down. This is good and reduces the risk of something being lost that way. But since it is beyond your control, we do not think you should count it as two copies. Our suggestion is that you have at least one local backup and one remote backup.
Suggested backup strategies for Mac and iOS users
Based on the above, we have produced a couple of examples of strategies that follow the 3-2-1 rule and ensure that you are well protected against all kinds of data losses.
Time Machine + hard drive at a relative
Mac OS built-in backup feature is among the easiest to use and very convenient to recover individual lost files from. Combined with a hard drive of a family member or friend, it provides good protection with a focus on saving you from both your own clumsiness and disaster.
Klondisk + cloud backup
If it is important for you to be able to continue working as quickly as possible after a crash, a clone backup on an external hard drive (or better yet, an ssd) is a good choice. You can schedule daily backups that will save you almost no time at all if your Mac’s built-in storage fails. Even if your entire computer crashes, you can boot another Mac from the backup and continue running with your system and files. A cloud backup is a good complement that makes it possible to recover deleted or changed files, and restore if the disaster has occurred.
Can I use Dropbox or Icloud Drive as a backup?
Many people wonder if they really need a separate backup if they store their important files in the cloud. The answer is yes, it is needed. Of course, cloud services have better redundancy than most home users, broken hard drives and the like are no worries. But there is no absolute guarantee that you will be able to log in to your account forever and access the files or that the company does not make mistakes and accidentally delete data.
In addition, it is easy to accidentally delete something on Dropbox and Icloud Drive, because a file you delete on one of your devices automatically disappears from the others as well.