People have been asking me about Time Machine, the backup program built into Mac OSX Leopard. I’d be more than happy to write about it, except for one small problem: I don’t have a Mac. (I realize some of you may think that’s a big problem, not a small one. You are invited to buy me one. Laptops only, please.) That means that the closest I can get to firsthand experience of Time Machine is to go to the local Apple Store and ask for a demonstration, and I haven’t had a chance to do that. Besides, in-store demonstrations never run into the same kinds of issues people have in real life.
What I can do is collect a few other people’s (and publications’) opinions, and I’ll share some of those here. But what I’d like to do is have a real Mac user, preferably one of my regular readers, write about his or her experience configuring and using Time Machine. Any volunteers?
Those without Macs may want to stop reading here and just go run your backup programs for this week. On the other hand, I know some of my Mac-owning readers faithfully read the column even when I’m writing about Windows software, so you’re certainly welcome to keep reading.
What Time Machine does is create snapshots of your drive, pretty much the way other drive imaging programs do, except that once you set it up, it operates continually and automatically, making hourly, daily, and weekly backups. And then, to quote MacWorld’s Rob Griffiths,
When the day comes when you need something back, you launch the Time Machine application and simply move backward through time to find the files or folders you wish to restore. […] A Restore button copies the selected files from the backup drive.
Another MacWorld writer, Andy Ihnatko, describes Time Machine as a “freak app.”
It’s a specific service that implements a single (but attractive) backup scheme: “infinite undo” for your whole drive. You desperately need a spreadsheet that you deleted months ago? No sweat: open the folder it was in, activate Time Machine, “rewind” the folder until the missing spreadsheet re-appears, and then drag it from the Folder of Yesteryear into the Folder of Today.
But I can’t think of the last time I actually needed to do that.
No? Well, I can. Or, at least, I can think of several occasions when I’ve needed an earlier version of a file because I did something monumentally stupid with the later version, or overwritten or deleted something I shouldn’t. Or perhaps someone else who was also working on the document did. Or I needed to know just which parts of a project I completed when, and the project is one long document that I didn’t bother re-saving with edit dates on it. “Infinite undo” is a feature that can be extremely (if perhaps not infinitely) useful.
Nevertheless, Ihnatko considers Super Duper more useful, and it’s quite possible some of you will, as well. The only problem with that? Well, according to Mitch Wagner at Information Week, the current version of Super Duper isn’t compatible with Leopard, though an upgrade is expected soon.
Wagner also points out that Time Machine won’t make wireless backups via Airport, and even Griffiths’ rave review in MacWorld mentions a few other drawbacks, like the need for an external drive connected directly to your Mac or another Mac that runs Leopard, and the fact that the hourly backups get collapsed into a daily backup at the end of the day (which saves space, but may not save documents), and the length of time required for making the initial “snapshot.”
That last is an issue with every drive imaging program I’ve ever used, though, and anything else that makes full backups to begin with and incremental backups thereafter. (With Ghost, in fact, every image takes a long time, since each image copies the drive in its entirety.) You just have to prepare for that and leave a couple of hours (or less, depending on the size of your drive and how full it is) for the initial backup to run.
The most detailed analysis of Time Machine that I’ve seen so far is in ComputerWorld, and it’s worth reading their review before deciding whether this is the program you want to rely on.
I have heard, however, that there have been some problems with upgrades to Leopard. It might be safest to wait until those have been resolved, or, if you were thinking about getting a new Mac soon anyway, just wait to get a new machine which comes pre-installed with Leopard.
Since Time Machine isn’t a stand-alone application, the real question isn’t so much whether you want Time Machine as whether you want to (or can) upgrade to Leopard. And that’s something that depends as much on the specs of your existing Mac, and the compatibility of the software you depend on, as on any features Leopard has to offer.