Beginning Mac: Time Machine


Backing up your computer is an essential task that many of us neglect until something goes horribly wrong. With OS X Leopard, Apple has made it much easier to ensure that your data is always backed up and protected through a feature called Time Machine.

Time Machine is an application that automatically synchronizes your computer hard drive with another storage device every hour. Reverting to an older version of a file is simple, facilitated through an interesting ‘space-like’ interface.

This article will provide an introduction to Time Machine, explain how best to set your computer up, and the process of restoring a backup if you accidentally delete data or suffer a hard drive failure.

What You’ll Need

timemachine_hdicon20071016There are two main requirements for using Time Machine. First is a copy of OS X Leopard — older versions of the operation system don’t include the backup software. Second is an external hard drive.

I’d generally recommend buying the largest hard drive you can afford. The more capacity, the more room there is to store older files (and the further back in time you can go to restore a file). At the minimum, the drive should be bigger than the internal drive in your Mac.

Apple does offer a dedicated router/hard drive combination called Time Capsule, coming in either 500GB or 1TB varieties. If you’d like a all-in-one network router and backup drive, it’s a great option — if you plan on using it solely as a hard drive, it does work out expensively.

Setting Up Time Machine

The quickest way to get started with setting up Time Machine is simply to plug in your new hard drive. OS X will recognize that you haven’t used the drive before, and ask whether you’d like it to function as a Time Machine backup. Alternatively, head into System Preferences, select Time Machine, and choose your new hard drive from the list of options that appear.


Once set up, Time Machine will begin to back up your drive for the first time. The initial process will copy every single file from your computer’s hard drive to your backup drive. This could involve copying many thousands of files, and will likely take a couple of hours. Be patient, and choose a time when you won’t need to unplug your laptop or power down the machine.

The speed will also depend upon how the hard drive you are using is connected. If plugged in directly via USB (as most will be), the process will be relatively quick. If you’re using a Time Capsule or other networked hard drive you may need to be prepared for a slightly longer wait.

After the initial process Time Machine will only copy files that have been added or changed in the past hour, making future backups far quicker. You’ll find that the following backups are kept:

  • Hourly backups for the past 24 hours
  • Daily backups for the past month
  • Weekly backups until your backup hard drive is full

Changing Options

There are very few options to tinker with when setting up Time Machine, but those that do exist are worth noting.


Firstly, you are able to specify a number of files or folders which you’d like Time Machine to refrain from backing up. This isn’t usually necessary, but can be handy for large files which you don’t need to keep safe.

In addition, you can tell Time Machine not to back up when your laptop is running on battery power to conserve energy, and specify whether you’d like to receive a warning when older backups are deleted.

Restoring Individual Files

Should you lose a file or accidentally delete it, open the folder which used to contain the file, and launch Time Machine. You’ll be presented with a window similar to the following:


Clicking the arrows to the right of the screen will go forward or backward in time, scanning through the various backup dates. It’s possible to take a closer look at a file through Quick Look, by selecting a file and pressing the Spacebar.

When you’ve found the file to restore, select it and press the ‘Restore’ button in the lower right corner. Time Machine will exit and copy the file back to its original location. If it would involve overwriting an existing file, it will ask you what action you’d like to take. Easy!

Restoring an Entire Backup

If the worst happens and you suffer a hard drive failure (or, on a more optimistic note, buy a new Mac!) you may need to copy everything back across from your Time Machine disk. Again, this is a fairly simple process.

If you’ve purchased a new Mac, you’ll be asked when setting it up whether you would like to ‘Migrate’ from a Time Machine backup — simply agree, and follow the instructions to proceed.

If you are booting from an installation CD (after suffering a hard drive failure), select the ‘Utilities’ option from the menu bar, then “Restore from Time Machine Backup.” You then select the Time Machine drive you wish to restore from and follow the simple instructions. Your Mac should be back up and running in no time!

Other Solutions

If you’d prefer not to use Time Machine, there are a couple of other options available:

  • Use a utility to create an entire “clone” of your hard drive onto another on a regular basis, such as SuperDuper!
  • Use an online service such as Dropbox or Syncplicity to backup important files and documents to your online storage space


Time Machine provides a simple, ‘set it and forget’ backup solution. You’ll need to spend some money to pick up an external hard drive, but I guarantee it will seem worth it when you accidentally delete a set of family photos, an important business document, or your music collection.

Restoring is simple, and it even makes the process of swapping to a new computer almost seamless. Remember to pay attention to any error messages which may pop up occasionally, and regularly try to restore a file (just to check that your backup is functioning as it should)!

Hopefully you’re now all set up and ready to sit back and relax while your Mac keep itself well protected.

You're subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings


Comments have been disabled for this post