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Mac’s Time Machine Backup: All You Need to Know

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Time Machine Backup is a Mac computer's excellent built-in backup tool, similar to File History in Windows.

Once set up, it runs by itself in the background and keeps many versions of your data. As a result, you get the chance to undo not only accidental file deletions but also unwanted edits/changes to your files.

To use Time Machine on your Mac you need either:

A NAS server is an excellent Time Machine backup disk.
A NAS server is an excellent Time Machine backup disk.

Start Time Machine backup for the first time

When you plug in a portable drive for the first time, the system will likely prompt you to use it as a TM backup disk. You can either take that offer or follow these detailed steps:

Creating a separate partition on your backup drive is the best way to control the amount of storage Time Machine will use.
Creating a separate partition on your backup drive is the best way to control the amount of storage Time Machine will use.

1. Prepare the backup disk.

For an external drive, make sure it uses either HFS+ or APFS file systems. If not, you can follow this post on how to reformat it. In the case of a backup server, like a Time Capsule-cable router, make sure you have turned Time Machine service on at the server's side.

The Time Machine software can be found in the Mac's System Preferences.
The Time Machine software can be found in the Mac's System Preferences.

2. Run Time Machine on your Mac

On your Mac, click on the Apple button at the top left corner -> System Preferences -> Click on the Time Machine icon to run the Time Machine software.

3. Enable Time Machine backup

With the Time Machine software running:

  • Click on Select Backup Disk, you'll see a list of available Time Machine backup destinations (disks).
  • Pick the one that you want to use. Then on Use Disk. You'll notice that the two options "Backup Automatically" and "Show Time Machine on the menu bar" are automatically selected. You want to leave them that way.
  • Click on the Options button, then use the + and - buttons to add/remove folders that you want to backup. Or leave it alone if you want to backup the entire sytem.

That's it! Now the backup will run by itself. If you use an external drive, make sure it's connected to the computer as often as possible. Also, if you use a backup server, keep in mind that Time Machine only works when the Mac is in the same local network as the server.

By default, Time Machine will overtime hog all storage space of the backup destination. You can follow this post to keep Time Machine's storage use in control.

Add/remove Time Machine backup destinations

If you have more than two backup disks (destinations), you can easily use them both or swap them out. Here's how:

  1. Run Time Machine as shown in step #2 above.
  2. Click on Select Disk. Here you can remove an existing Time Machine disk if you want to stop using it. If you're going to use an additional drive, select it and click on Use Disk. You'll be asked to confirm.

Note that if you use two backup disks at a time (and they are both available), Time Machine will create backups to both, one after another, and you can use either disk to restore files.

Restoring files from a Time Machine backup

You can restore data to the same internal drive (in case of accidental deletion or unwanted changes) or restore to a new internal drive (in case the original drive is lost or damaged).

The Time Machine 's interface for restoration.
The Time Machine's interface for restoration

Restore to the same internal drive

  1. On the Mac click on the Time Machine icon on the menu bar (the bar that runs across the top of the screen), then choose Enter Time Machine.
  2. You'll be presented with many "layers" of time, each representing a backup point and showing the content of the computer at that particular point in time. You can go back and forth between these time points via the dial on the right of the screen. Select a point you want.
  3. To bring the entire computer back to that time point, click on Restore. To restore a single file or folder, click to select it (or use Shift + click to select multiple files and folders), then right-click on it and choose Restore. Note that the original copy of the data will be over-written. You can also choose to copy a particular file or folder, then click on Cancel to exit Time Machine and paste it where you want.

Restore to a new internal drive (or a new Mac)

There are a few different ways to restore a Time Machine backup to a new Mac, and restoring to a new internal drive is the easiest and fastest way.

You can use Mac's recovery mode to recovery a computer from Time Machine backup.
You can use Mac's recovery mode to recover a computer from the Time Machine backup.
  1. Install the new internal drive on the Mac that you want to restore the Time Machine backup to. If it's a new computer, make sure it's powered off.
  2. As soon as you hit the power button to turn the machine on, press and hold the Command + R keyboard combo. The computer will boot up in the Recovery Mode.
  3. Plug the backup drive into the computer (or connect the computer to the same network as that of the backup server, preferably via a network [ethernet] cable if possible).
  4. Select Restore from Time Machine Backup, then select the backup disk and follow through with the process. Depending on how large the backup is, this can take a long time.

The takeaway

Though far from perfect, Time Machine is a valuable backup tool for any Mac user. Take advantage of it and keep in mind that data backup is an ongoing daily (if not hourly or more frequent) matter.

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6 thoughts on “Mac’s Time Machine Backup: All You Need to Know”

  1. Hi,
    I am a new subscriber. I have two new MACs and an older MBP, plus much IOS gear. Two questions;

    Does the TM protocol store backup data as encrypted by the device?
    Can IOS devices use TM?

  2. Thanks for the article. I have yet to find anywhere on the net anyone discussing whether the external HDD used for Time Machine needs to be left switched on 24/7. Are there benefits to doing so? Can you switch it off over night to save electricity? Does leaving it on vs switching it off lessen HDD life or improve it? Settings to use in preferences to optimise when Time Machine runs, ie.e in the middle of the night? How does Time Machine manage the hourly backups if the remote HDD is switched off? Even if the HDD powers down when not in use, the transformer plug is still using power, and these things add up when you have a dozen or more in the house. Including this info would be appreciated. Regards, Steve

    • Steve, yes you can always switch it off. Generally, you only need it on when a backup is in progress. However, in most applications, hard drives are already automatically turned off when idle and the host device uses very little energy when nothing is going on. You won’t save enough energy to compensate for the risk of forgetting to turn it back on, which would mean no backup is made. That’s not to mention the hassle involved.


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