Despite the raw power and ample hard drive space of today's computers, I'm always leary of data loss. I was burned once when one of the drives in a proprietary RAID0 setup died and wasn't able to get my data back, which housed a lot of really great old videos and pictures. With all of that in mind, here’s my triple fail-safe process of setting up a new Mac or updating an old Mac to the newest available OS X, from start to finish.
Optional but sometimes worthwhile: Reinstall the OS
This might seem like craziness to some people, but if you've had your Mac for a few years and just continuously upgraded the OS you've probably accumulated a bunch of language files, fonts, printer drivers, and even applications that you will never ever use. The first step in this process is moving all of your personal files off of your main drive or just making a clone of your current drive with either SuperDuper or Disk Utility.
After your files are safely off your main hard drive, download the latest operating system your computer can install. After that's complete, I'd recommend creating a USB boot disk using the awesome DiskMaker X, which will allow you to install from an SD card or USB Stick, thus allowing you to format the contents of your main hard drive.
To do this properly, once you boot from the install disc and select your language, click on Tools in the Menu Bar and open Disk Utility. From there, select your primary hard drive from the column on the left and click on the Erase tab on the right hand side. Ensure that Mac OS Extended (Journaled) is selected and hit Erase. Now you’re ready to hit the ground running, quit Disk Utility and continue with the installation as normal.
Update Everything. Install Only One Program
Even on a brand new machine, the first thing you should do is open the App Store and apply any system updates. After your system is completely up to date, open Disk Utility again (located in Applications > Utilities), select your partition from the left (usually named Macintosh HD), and click on the button that says “Repair Disk Permissions” under the First Aid tab. I generally do this after applying large amounts of updates just to ensure there’s no data corruption now or in the future. If you want to know a little more about this process, check out Apple’s Support Document on the topic.
The hard drive should only contain the freshly installed-and-updated system: none of the programs you use, none of your user files like pictures, music, etc. I download only one program at this point: SuperDuper!
The First of Many Backups
Some people swear by Carbon Copy Cloner, but I love the speed and interface of SuperDuper! — In reality both programs are amazing at what they do: creating a bootable backup of your system. The one feature of MacBook Pros and iMacs that got me jazzed when it announced was the inclusion of the dedicated SD card slot. The first practical application I thought of, beyond the obvious quick retrieval of photos and videos, was a bootable SD card backup and that’s exactly what I did. You’ll need at least a 16GB SD card for this to work, and I’d recommend Class 6 or higher. The class of an SD card is a measure of it’s speed; Class 6 cards usually range in the 20-24mbps range, which is plenty fast for our purposes, but Class 10 or higher would work even better.
Insert the SD card into the dedicated slot or into a card reader connected via USB, open Disk Utility and select it (not its indented partition, but the device itself) in the left column. Once you’ve done that, click on the “Partition” dropdown on the right side, select 1 Partition, then click on the “Options…” button below. From here, make sure to select the GUID Partition Table, which will make this SD card a bootable OS X device, then click OK to come back to the main Partition section. From here you can optionally name your volume or just hit the Apply button. Disk Utility will format and partition the card and it will appear back on your desktop. Here's a handy animated GIF on the whole process.
Your next step will be to open SuperDuper! The interface here couldn’t be simpler: In the first drop down, you select your primary hard drive, in the second you select your SD card, and the one underneath should have “Backup – all files” selected. Once that’s done, click on Copy Now, enter your user password, and go grab a sandwich.
It’s worth mentioning that you don’t need to back up to an SD card, but it’s a method I chose because they’re inexpensive, reliable, and fast. You could just as easily follow the same steps on an external USB or Thunderbolt drive. You could even use a USB stick if you had one of those lying around. Another option would be to save that step until after you’ve moved all of your files and programs onto the machine and then create a bootable backup of your entire system. You can even automate this with the paid version of SuperDuper so if your primary hard drive ever fails, you literally boot into your backup and pick up where your last backup left you off.
First Backup Done. Initialize Offsite Backup.
You now have a fresh, up-to-date version of OS X you can restore from in the future should you ever want to start over or deploy a basic installation quickly on a new machine. Remove the SD card, flip the switch into the “Lock” position, and store the card away somewhere safe.
The next thing I do is install an off-site backup manager. There are literally dozens to choose from and after giving them all a fair shake I decided to go with Backblaze. Here’s a quick list of other services you can choose from for the sake of fair-and-unbiased-ness:
They all vary slightly in price and implementation, but all work great. I chose BackBlaze because it’s $5/month/computer for unlimited storage and installs itself as a simple System Preferences panel that runs in the background. All of these services say that the initial backup takes the longest, which is why I still don’t put any of my files on the computer at this point: I basically want a working duplicate of my computer in the cloud. Your mileage will vary from mine at this point depending on your internet connection, but you basically have to upload roughly 12GB of system files onto the internet. This is something I let run overnight, while I sleep soundly knowing my data is being secured.
Make Yourself at Home, Install Apps
I assumed a lot from you going into this article, not the least of which was that you had your data safely stored on some sort of external device or computer. Well, now’s the time to bring all of your goodies into the fray. Add your music, movies, photos, etc and order them however you’d like. If you’re as particular about your folder structures and naming conventions as I am, this could very well be the longest step. Also feel free to install all of the applications you use as this point.
More Backing Up
We’re almost at the home stretch, so now you’re probably thinking “What the hell more could we do to secure our data?” Well, we’ve already started on one: Backblaze.
After I moved all my files over and installed the programs I use on a regular basis, the amount of space I was using jumped from 12GB to 204GB. Backblaze (or whichever service you’ve chosen) will back all of that information up. For me, it took roughly 2 weeks (all the while adjusting how much bandwidth I wanted Backblaze to use: more at night, less during the day, etc), so that’s pretty much a background thing that will be happening for a while. The last thing to set up is OS X’s own Time Machine.
Taming Time Machine
I love Time Machine. Before it was introduced in Leopard I never had a backup/restore plan. I figured if I lost everything, I’d just start over again from scratch—the force (of laziness) was strong in this one. Time Machine made it easy and important to me to back up everything digital. Though it isn’t without it’s flaws, it’s certainly the solution a majority of people who use OS X are most familiar with. I don’t use any third party tools to control the times of day it chooses to back up, but I am very particular about what it backs up. Below is a list of folders that I explicitly tell Time Machine NOT to back up and why. If you’d like to save a little space on each back up, you can add any or all of these folders by going to System Preferences > Time Machine > Options.
- /Applications — This folder changes so often and drastically that I’d prefer to manage it on my own. If I need to get an app that I accidentally deleted, I’ll make sure to get the latest version from the company’s website.
- /Library/Audio — After installing Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro, this folder jumps up to a whopping 32GB. If you install Garageband this can rocket even higher. Again, if I accidentally delete something from here (unlikely), I’ll reinstall from the App Store or through the apps themselves.
- /Library/Caches — Non-vital files that can accumulate in size rather quickly and change even quicker. No harm here.
- ~/Library/Caches — Same as above
- ~/Downloads — This folder changes so often that I’d rather not have anything in here backed up. I do pretty regular maintenance with Hazel to keep this folder clear anyhow.
- ~/Dropbox — I’m a mega Dropbox user. If you haven’t heard of it, you should really make it a part of your life—especially if you collaborate often with others. Dropbox files already live in the cloud (and usually on many other computers) and have the ability to go back multiple versions. No need to back this up.
- ~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync — Only applicable if you’re an iPhone user who still syncs via iTunes, but definitely worth looking into. Depending on the contents of your phone, this can mirror or exceed the capacity of your phone.
Dropbox as an Alternative
Some files I choose to keep in my Dropbox folder for easy access: documents, some pictures, synced application data, and more. Dropbox is as good a backup solution as any if you’re willing to pay a little more for a very fast, very convenient service that offers a native app on almost all platforms as well as a web interface. The one downside here is that you manage all of your files through a series of Dropbox folders as opposed to using your regular Music, Movies, Pictures, etc.
Here’s how I roll, in list format:
- Clean OS X Installation
- Update OS X via Software Update
- Repair Disk Permissions in Disk Utility
- Create a bootable backup of my primary hard drive using SuperDuper!
- Install BackBlaze for off-site backups
- Move all of my files onto the hard drive, install all of my apps
- BackBlaze passively continues to back up all of these files
- Set up Time Machine on my Mac, excluding several folders that are greedy with my gigabytes
- Revel in the fact that I’m safe should my internal hard drive bite the dust
There are clearly a variety of ways to ensure that your data is safe. None of them are perfect and a few of them—ahem—are a hell of a lot of work to maintain, but when your primary source of income can be crippled because of something as small as a corrupted hard drive, it’s a good feeling to know that you’ve taken steps to make sure you won’t be out of commission for too long.