The ultimate guide to backing up your Mac

Protect your files forever

When we've spent hours, days, months working on our Macs the last thing we want to do is redo it all because it's been lost.

Neither do we want to put our photos at risk, see our music go up in digital smoke or trash the first draft of a book by accident.

Fortunately, none of these unfortunate scenarios need to happen if you take daily care of your data. Implementing a structured, mutliple-location backup system isn't difficult. And a few hours spent setting it up can save you days or months in the long run, when you neatly sidestep having to recover – or recreate – your lost work. Quite apart from the practical benefits of a back-up routine, putting one in place now will save you the heartache of losing your digital memories later.

In this ultimate guide to backing up your Mac, we'll show you just how easy backing up can be with a series of steps for home and business users.

The ultimate guide to backing up your Mac

Time Machine takes the pain out of backing up by running in the background

Backup basics

The first rule of building a back-up routine is to make sure your original data and backups are not stored in the same place. Picture a scenario in which your house is flooded. How would you recover your photos if your Lightroom library and your backup were both on the same drive? You couldn't.

Even the simplest setup needs to ensure two sets of data are kept far apart – at least in different parts of your house, but if you can, preferably in different buildings. You should also make a point of building back-up points into your weekly routine. Ideally you should back up every day, but this isn't always practical and it's easy to forget.

Add an event to the OS X Calendar or Reminders apps to pop up an alert at least once a week, prompting you to back things up manually. You don't need any specific software to create a backup. You can simply connect an external drive or use the SD slot in the iMac or MacBook Pro to attach a removable storage device and drag across the folders you want to secure, using Finder.

Make sure the pointer icon bears a '+' in a green arrow before dropping the copied files onto the destination media to ensure they are duplicated rather than moved. (If this doesn't appear, hold the Options key while dragging.)

If you have space, copy across your whole User folder. But if not then at least copy your Documents, Desktop and media folders. It's good practice to have more than one destination media and to rotate between them. So, if you can afford two or three inexpensive external drives label them so you can tell them apart and use them in sequence so you aren't ever wiping out your only backup each week when you create a new one.

You will also have incremental backups, by working this way, allowing you to reinstate files from different points in time.

How to do a basic backup in Time Machine

The ultimate guide to backing up your Mac

1. Sort out your storage

Connect a large external drive to your Mac (the larger the better; buy the highest capacity you can afford). If it's not formatted for the Mac, open Disk Utility, select the drive in the sidebar, click the Erase tab, select Mac OS Extended '(Case Sensitive, Journaled)', then click the Erase button.

The ultimate guide to backing up your Mac

2. Decide on directories

Open System Preferences, click Time Machine, then click Options... Click the '+' button adding your internal storage. You can include virtualised operating systems here, which create large files that change frequently. Use the VM's snapshots tool to back these up.

The ultimate guide to backing up your Mac

3. Safety vs Battery life

If you're using a notebook, decide whether you want to back up on battery or just when using mains power, bearing in mind that you need to balance file security with battery performance. Click Save to store your settings and step back to the main Time Machine preference pane.