Welcome to this third instalment in our ongoing series on storage and backups. Today I want to address backup strategies for an average home user. I’ll give you my recommendations as to how I think you should set yourself up. Next time I’ll do the same for professional users.


Ok, so right off the bat, if you’re not doing any backups, you’re running the risk of losing everything on your computer. The simple fact is, that at some point, components of your computer will break. And, especially if you’re running a non-solid state hard drive, the chances are that it will be your hard drive that goes first. Imagine a little metal case that has several (approximately CD sized) magnetic disks spinning over 5000 times a minute, and you can begin to understand why there is potential for electronic or material failure to happen in these components. Unfortunately, this is the part of your computer that holds all the data!

That is of course forgetting the risk of theft, burglary or carelessness; we’ve all been daft at some point, right? Maybe left your bag by the chair in a coffee shop when leaving, or accidentally knocked it off a desk?

Many of us these days have our entire lives stored digitally on our computer, and are oblivious to the fact that the loss of the computer, or the data on it, could create a huge problem for us. Often, people will think “ah, not to worry, I don’t keep any financial information on my computer” or “there’s nothing in my email that I can’t afford to lose, or can’t get back somehow”. What they tend to forget, until they’re faced with it, is the loss of memories that a data disaster can cause.

We’ve had so many people come to us with various tales of woe; spilt glasses of wine, computers stolen out of the car. I’ve seen one guy who, despite being ‘advised’ by his wife to backup their family photos, couldn’t be bothered; that almost cost him his marriage. But the one consistent theme is the shock people get when they realise that all the photos of their newborn baby, or their homemade Christmas movie showing a recently passed away family member are gone. Forever. Well, without our help at least. Often we’ve been able to recover a significant amount of ‘lost’ data, but this is, by no means, a guarantee. If it’s beyond the tools we have at hour fingertips (usually if a hard drive has failed horrifically), you’re looking at specialist disk recovery labs where recovery of information can cost upwards of £300 (extending to thousands).

All this heartache can be prevented (or at least the risk minimised) by a simple backup strategy, and as Mac users you’re blessed with the fortune to have the tools available to you and will happen for you, almost without intervention, if you provide the right facilities. For the ‘average’ home users, I’ve put together three separate backup strategies, each being incrementally safer in terms of protecting you against data loss.

Good Strategy

I mentioned setting up Time Machine on your Mac previously, and this is, by far the easiest, most efficient way of keeping a backup of your system. There are plenty of places on the web that show you how to configure Time Machine (this is a great reference site), so I won’t spend too much time here with the details. Suffice to say that, as an Apple utility, its super easy to setup and use, and can be configured by either going into the Time Machine section of System Preferences, or by clicking ‘Open Time Machine Preferences’ in the Time Machine tool in the menu bar at the top of your screen.

Better Strategy

However, a single Time Machine backup is not perfect. Let’s say that you use a notebook, and a Time Capsule for backups. Now, what if you were to go away for a couple of days, a family holiday maybe, take a bunch of photographs and put them onto your notebook while you were away. Everything goes really well, and then on your way back, the notebook goes missing. Unlikely, but it does happen no matter how cautious you are. You’d (hopefully) get a replacement computer under your travel insurance, but all the information you’d put on the hard drive between leaving home and your last backup would be gone. Again, forever.

Unless you operated a dual Time Machine drive configuration. This is the config I prefer, because it allows for the least hassle, but safest option possible. Time Machine (in OS X 10.8 – Mountain Lion  – and later) will allow you to set up two separate drives for backing up. If you have a Time Capsule as your first drive, this should always be connected (when you’re in range of course) and will just backup without intervention. The second drive, I’d recommend should be a portable external drive. You can plug this drive in whenever you make a noteworthy change to your computer (i.e. a large or important batch of photographs). Time Machine will also remind you after two weeks of not connecting the second drive, that you haven’t backed up to it for some time, and will keep nagging at you until you do it. The important thing though, is to make sure this second drive is kept away from the computer (apart from when its backing up of course). If you’re at home, keep it in another room (preferably another house!), and if you’re away from home, never travel with it in the same bag as your computer. That way, should the worst happen, the chances of you not losing a great deal of memories will be so much greater.

Best Strategy

As above. With extras!

The final thing I’d recommend requires another external hard drive. Additionally you’ll need a clone tool such as CarbonCopyCloner (free). With this tool, from time to time, when I’m sure my machine is trouble-free, I’d take an exact copy of it as is. Typically on a decent level machine, a clone is going to take several hours (up to 8 I’d say), so this is the kind of thing you should do overnight when your machine is doing nothing else, and you’re asleep.

Time Machine is a great tool that will help you out massively should a drive fail or your machine is replaced for whatever reason. However, because it backs up so frequently, it can be more of a problem if something you install, or do, to your machine corrupts some of your data, and this is subsequently backed up. You do of course have the ability to restore ‘backwards in time’ but how do you know how far to go back if you don’t know when the corruption happened. An occasional clone backup will allow you to pop that drive in (or boot from it at least) to carry on working or investigating the problem you have. Or it gives someone like me a fighting chance of getting you working quicker.

As always, if you have any questions on backup strategy, or further suggestions on future topics for us to cover, please contact us,  connect through social media or leave comments below.