MacMost Now 231: Choosing a Time Machine Backup Drive

If you aren't using Time Machine to back up your Mac, then it is time to start. Here are some options for a Time Machine backup drive.

Video Transcript
Hi, this is Gary with MacMost Now. On today's episode, let's find a hard drive to use for Time Machine backups.
So, are you backing up? You really should. Time Machine comes with Leopard, so you've already got the software. All you need to do is supply a hard drive to save the backups to, and then you're protected, either from disaster or from an accidental deletion.
When shopping for a hard drive to use, there are four different types. The first is the standard, normal external hard drive. It comes with a power adapter. You plug it into power, and you plug it into your Mac, either via a USB or Firewire.
Another type is the portable drive. This is basically the same idea, except it's a smaller drive, similar to the ones used in laptops, so it doesn't require external power. You just plug it in, usually via a USB, and it gets all the power it needs from USB. So, it's a little simpler, but they're a little bit more expensive and they don't hold as much data.
Now, if you've got a Mac Pro, you can actually add more internal hard drives. So, you can add an internal hard drive like this one, and use that for Time Machine backups. Likewise, even if you don't have a Mac Pro, you can buy a dock like this NextStar dock, and you can plug in an external hard drive here and use a USB to plug it to your Mac.
Now, there's never been a better time to buy an external drive because they're really cheap right now. You can get one of those standard external drives with one Terabyte for about $120 and half a TB for about $80. You can also get portable ones, they're going to be smaller but like a 320 GB one will usually run you about $100. In addition, you can get an internal one for even cheaper, one TB for under $100.
Determining what size you need depends on how you use your Mac. You've got to figure out how much stuff is on your Mac's hard drive. It's not necessarily important how big the hard drive is, but how much of it you're using. For instance, I do a lot of video, so I've easily got hundreds of gigabytes of stuff on my drive, but someone who just does the occasional photos and has a little music may have only a few GB total on their drive. If you add the system to it, of course, because you want to back everything up, including the library, the fonts, the printer drive, and everything on the Mac so you can completely recreate the hard drive in the case of a crash, then you're probably looking at 20 GB minimum and a few 100 GB if you're someone like me using a lot of media.
So, select your hard drive in the Finder and get info on it to find out how much space you're using. Now this should help you figure out how big of a hard drive you need. Now, if you're using less than 100 GB, then you probably can just do with a standard drive. It doesn't really pay to get less than 500 GB nowadays, so I'd go and get one of those external drives, 500 GB, for about $80 and use that. But if you're using a lot more, if you're using several hundred GB, you probably want to look at a Terabyte drive.
Your first backup, of course, is going to be a complete backup of everything on your drive. So expect if you have got 100 GB on your drive, for the backup to be 100 GB. But after that, it is going to do it incrementally, so it's only going to save the files that have changed. This means if you change a lot of big files every day, you're going to have very large backups. But if you rarely change files, like if your big files are music files and photos and things like that that just stay on the drive and you occasionally add new ones to it, then you're going to have very small backups every day. So if you have 100 GB in your initial backup, and you've got a 500 GB external drive, and you have very small backups, then you're probably going to be able to save months and months worth of backups on a single drive. Where, if you're working with video like I am, it's probably only going to be able to save a few days or weeks worth of backups before it needs to destroy the old ones to save the new ones. Either way, as long as you can get one good backup on a drive, you have a big advantage over not having a backup at all.
Now some neat things about Time Machine backup drives. You can use them for more than one computer. So you set the backup drive to be a Time Machine backup drive by using the Time Machine preferences and saying you want to use that drive. It erases everything on it, and then you start the backup of your computer onto that drive. You can then take that drive, plug it into another computer, say you want to use it, and it won't erase the drive. Instead, it will store a second folder with all the backups for that computer on it. So, if you have two or three computers in your house, you can use one large drive to back them all up as long as you move them from computer to computer.
Now there's also a way to backup over your network. So if you have several computers, you can back up to a drive that's attached to only one of them. I'll talk about that more in this week's tip at the site and in the MacMost newsletter.
Now, by default, Time Machine will backup every hour. If that's a little bit too much for you, you can use a handy program called Time Machine Editor, we've recommended it before, to schedule backups or have it backup less frequently than every hour. You can also schedule Time Machine to only backup when the drive is plugged in, so you can have one drive move from computer to computer, you plug it in and within the next few minutes it will start a Time Machine backup.
So, where to buy an external hard drive? Well, there are fewer and fewer computer stores out there, and the Apple Store's hard drives are nice, but tend to be a little overpriced. So you probably want to buy them online. You can go to Amazon or a store like Newegg. I'll put some recommendations in the post for this video at of some hard drives that I've bought in the past that have worked well for me.
Well, if you've been procrastinating buying a hard drive for Time Machine backups, well, the time is now. Whether you've got very important work on your Mac or just a few precious photos, you really should have a backup. It's completely worth it. Until next time, this is Gary Rosenzweig with MacMost Now.

Here are some recommendations of hard drives I have used:
I’ve used many Western Digital MyBooks in the past. Here is the current 1TB hard drive for less than $120.
For internal drives I’ve used several Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB 7200 RPM SATA II Drvies which run under $100.
I’ve also used those internal drives in a Vantec NexStar NST-D100SU 2.5-Inch/3.5-Inch SATA to USB 2.0 and eSATA Hard Drive Dock, which I have connected to my Mac via USB.
Currently I am using a Data Robotics DR04DD10 Drobo 4-Bays USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 Fully Automated SATA Robotic Storage Array for my time machine backups with four of those internal drives. It handles all of my Macs.
Another option is a portable drive. They are smaller and don’t require external power, but are a bit more expensive. I’ve used one similar to this in the past: Western Digital My Passport Essential 500 GB USB 2.0 Portable Hard Drive WDME5000TN

Comments: 28 Responses to “MacMost Now 231: Choosing a Time Machine Backup Drive”

    4/21/09 @ 4:25 am

    I would love to see a podcast on how to use Automator.

      4/21/09 @ 6:26 am

      Hello Dean. What sort of task would you like to see Automator do? It is an interesting tool, but hard to do a tutorial on because it can do such a wide range of things.

    Arthur Price
    4/23/09 @ 11:02 am

    I have just purchased a new 15 in. Mac Book Pro.
    Watching your Video on backups you said I can use a second internal drive for my time machine;.
    Is this correct and if so how do I do this?

      4/23/09 @ 2:06 pm

      You would only be able to do this with a Mac Pro, as it is the only Mac capable of having more than one internal drive.

    Camille Kander
    7/15/09 @ 4:52 pm

    I would like to know what does Time Machine do when the backup drive is not plugged in. Like for instance, if I leave the drive at home, and go to work with my MacBook Pro, how does it do the backup at the end of the day when I come back ?
    Will I be able to access hourly backups as if the drive had alwas been plugged in, or will I end up with one backup for the whole day ?
    I don’t know if I’m making myself very clear here ^^
    Anyway, thanks in advance.

      7/15/09 @ 4:59 pm

      It simply shows a exclamation point in the TM icon in the menu bar, and a message in the menu that it couldn’t connect to the drive. Then it will resume backups when it finds the drive attached at the next scheduled backup time. This is a very normal way to use TM if you have a MacBook.

    Camille Kander
    7/16/09 @ 3:56 am

    But does it create the hourly “versions” of my Mac ?

      7/16/09 @ 7:02 am

      Only for those hours that it can connect with the hard drive.

    3/29/11 @ 6:15 am

    I have an external hard drive that I previously used for a pc. Can I now use this for my Time Machine backups? Will my MacBook automatically re-format the external hard drive for Mac use and will the former pc data be lost.?

      3/29/11 @ 7:50 am

      Yes, you can use it. But is it a large enough drive? I’d recommend something about twice the size of your internal drive that you are backing up. When you set it up as your TM drive it will reformat it and all previous data will be erased.

    6/2/11 @ 4:50 am

    I have a macbook pro with 2 user logins. Can i backup to an external HD with time machine knowing the difference between the 2 users? Also, to keep my macbook HD as empty as possible, can i then delete the files on the macbook only retaining the files on the external hard drive? Lastly, can i then select any file from the external HD to copy back to the macbook is so desired. Thank you

      6/2/11 @ 7:39 am

      Not sure what you mean by “knowing the difference between the 2 users” — the TM backup should backup both users.
      Do NOT treat the TM backup as an archive. If you delete something from your internal drive, then TM will eventually get rid of it too. It is a backup, not an archive. A backup is for emergencies and mistakes, not for storage. Get a second HD and transfer files you no loner need to that drive for long-term storage.

        6/2/11 @ 8:47 am

        Gary. Thanks for that. In essence i need an archive drive as you said. HowD would you suggest I format the HD for archiving Iphoto and especially Imovie? EG MAC with journaling? (I think)

          6/2/11 @ 8:49 am

          Just use standard formatting. (Mac OS X Extended, Journaled)

    John Kubler
    6/19/11 @ 9:34 am

    I have a MBP and an iMac connected to an Airport extreme through wifi. I am trying to setup the two pcs using TimeMachine. The MBP sees the external HD connected to the USB port of the Airport Express, but the iMac does not. The iMac sees the external HD connected through the firewire to the iMac.
    What do I need to change so that I can use the external HD connected to the Airport Extreme as backup for both pcs?
    By the way, I really like your videos on the various issues. They are very helpful and easy to understand.

      6/19/11 @ 11:39 am

      So one Mac sees the network drive, the other doesn’t. Just check your settings in File Sharing for both Macs, make sure they are both connected to the network, etc. Just troubleshoot. Hard to advise on this because there are so many factors.

    Mr Anthony Cotton
    8/9/11 @ 12:02 pm

    Can you do a video on how to use Time Machine. I have never used it,and from all the tech jargon in other peoples questions has got me lost off. When you find the time. Thanks Gary

    1/15/12 @ 6:35 pm

    I have a MacBook pro with Leopard and a new Mac-mini with Lion. From finder each system can see one another and connect. On the Lion Time Machine I can choose the Leopard system for backups but the Pro Leopard version cannot see the mini Lion system in Time machine. Very new to Macs so any help would be appreciated.

      1/15/12 @ 6:49 pm

      So you are trying to back up each machine to the other? Bad idea. Just get an external drive for each machine, or a Time Capsule router to do it.

        1/15/12 @ 7:02 pm

        No I am not trying to back up to each other. I only illustrated the connectivity that I have. I want to backup my Leopard system to the Lion which is the one I can’t have time machine see.

          1/15/12 @ 8:04 pm

          You say you want to back up your Leopard system to your Lion Mac? That’s what I mean by “back up to each other.” Just get an external HD and back up to that.

    1/15/12 @ 8:56 pm

    That’s a non-solution for me and doesn’t address why my Leopard Time Machine doesn’t see Lion.

      1/15/12 @ 10:58 pm

      Very hard to tell why that could be happening. Just try checking and double-checking all settings in both places.
      But what I am saying about using one machine to back up another still stands — I don’t recommend that. A cheap external HD would be much better. I’m just trying to help with some good advice.

    1/15/12 @ 10:21 pm

    I have it working, without a full understanding yet, so to date: Both systems were wireless. Moved the Lion system to wired and everything went well. I will look further into this and post any info I have.

    3/25/12 @ 11:14 am

    I just wanted to say thank you for posting this video. It was unbelievably helpful in helping me learn more about both external backup and Time Machine. Just what I needed. Thanks again!

    Na Phillips
    11/5/12 @ 1:05 pm

    I have MBP and my external hard drive hooked up to Time Machine is almost full. I need to get another external hard drive, but when I hook it up, will it back up my whole computer or is there a way that I could have Time Machine just back up from the day I connect it. Hope this makes sense. Your videos are really helpful. Thank-you!

      11/5/12 @ 3:17 pm

      Why do you need to get another drive? Do you have more data on your regular drive than the size of your TM drive? Otherwise, it is natural for a TM drive to fill up. Then TM will automatically rotate out old backup versions for new ones. That’s how TM works. No need to pay attention to the amount of free space on your TM drive.

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