Backup Strategy for Mac OS X Using Disk Utility, Carbon Copy Cloner, etc.

A blast from the past! The following article is from one of my first websites, ca. 1999, and was updated a couple times throughout it's history. I am re-posting it here because my old website will be deprecated quite soon.

A few notes before we begin: Since the writing of this article, Time Machine came into being (along with Mac OS X 10.5), and has brought about a revolution in the way I maintain backups: my schema now is to have a local daily Time Machine backup to my external hard drive (I recommend a simple 1-2 TB External USB hard drive), then do a once-a-month DVD backup (stored offsite) of my most important files. For most home/small business users, this should be adequate.

Another revolution in data backup is the idea of backing up 'to the cloud' - with the prevalence of broadband Internet access, and the plethora of options for online storage, many companies offer solutions to online backup that were only dreamt of back in the late nineties. Some solutions I recommend: MobileMe (what I use, but not for everyone), Mozy, BackJack, and JungleDisk. (No, those aren't referral links—would I try pulling that on you?).

Backup Strategies for OS X

A question often asked on the Apple Discussion boards and by my fellow Mac users is: "How/when should I backup my Mac, and what is the best/quickest and most reliable way to do it." This is a complicated question, as there are many different ways one can go about backing up OSX.

There are three basic ways that I would like to cover in this article:

  1. Using Disk Utility to quickly and easily make a complete, bootable backup to an external drive;
  2. Using Carbon Copy Cloner to either (a) do the same thing as Disk Utility, or (b) to clone a certain folder or group of folders (another program that does a great job is SuperDuper!);
  3. Drag-and-drop copy files and folders for a quick backup of important files.

For most complete backups, I recommend purchasing an external 7200 rpm FireWire hard drive (USB 2.0 drives will backup, but won't boot), as this is the most convenient way of doing backups, the quickest way, and fairly inexpensive. I would recommend getting a drive with at least 2x the amount of space on your internal drive so that you could two or three backups in case you need a file from a while back that was deleted before your previous backup.

Every user has needs a different backup schedule. The standard is a complete backup every other month, with smaller backups of only documents and settings (which change more often) every week. This is what I recommend, as it is pretty much the easiest way.

The files that are more important to backup (i.e. ones that aren't on the OSX install CDs) are mostly in your Home folder (most preferences, fonts, and documents are here). There are also a few stored in the Library folder on the root level of your hard drive. For incremental backups, I just copy my whole Home folder (a few files won't copy, though) to back up everything in there (it will also backup any files on your desktop).

Using Disk Utility

NOTE: If you are having problems with this method of backing up using Disk Utility, there is an alternative that seems to be more consistent: Instead of opening Disk Utility from your Applications folder, you can boot your computer using the OSX Installation CD or DVD 1, then (after your computer is started up), click on the 'Installer' menu and select 'Disk Utility...' from there, then go through steps 3-7, restart, and do the rest of the steps outlined here. (Thanks, Niel!)

  1. Once every month or every other month do a full backup to an external drive. Turn on and plug in the external drive.
  2. Open Disk Utility (in Applications>Utilities).
  3. Click on your computer's main hard drive (the one with Mac OSX installed on it) in the left-hand column in Disk Utility. (Click on the same name as the drive name on your desktop).
  4. Click the 'Restore' tab (Mac OSX 10.3 Panther or later required).
  5. Drag your main hard drive into the 'Source' white field.
  6. Drag your external FireWire drive into the 'Destination' white field. (make sure any other data on your FireWire drive is not the same name as anything on your main OSX drive, and that you have deleted any previous full backup by dragging everything to the trash and emptying it.
  7. Click 'Restore' and it will copy all data across to your FireWire drive.
  8. When it is finished, Go to System Preferences and click on Startup Disk, and select the External FireWire drive, then restart and make sure the computer is able to boot from the external drive. If it can, then everything went well, and you can unplug the FireWire drive.
  9. To restore (if you ever need to do so), do all these steps, except hold down the 'Option' key at startup and choose to boot off the external FireWire drive, and put the FireWire drive into the 'Source' field, and your main drive into the 'Destination' field.

Using Carbon Copy Cloner

  1. Once every month or every other month do a full backup to an external drive. Carbon Copy Cloner will work with older versions of the Mac OS (10.1-10.2.8).
  2. Download and install Carbon Copy Cloner.
  3. Plug in your external FireWire hard drive (or USB 2.0, if that's all you have).
  4. Open Carbon Copy Cloner.
  5. Click 'Preferences...' and 'Install psync' (if it says psync isn't installed).
  6. Select a source and target drive (source=main hard drive, destination=external drive).
  7. Click the lock next to the greyed-out 'Clone' button and type in your username and password.
  8. Click the 'Clone' button and wait for the process to finish.
  9. To restore (if you ever need to do so), do all these steps, except hold down the 'Option' key at startup and choose to boot off the external FireWire drive, and choose the FireWire drive as the 'Source', and your main drive as the 'Target'.

Making Incremental (i.e. weekly or daily) Backups

  1. Open Disk Utility after turning on your external drive.
  2. Create a disk image with enough space to hold all the data you want to copy (if you're copying your Home folder (recommended), click on the home folder, and choose 'Get Info' from the File menu in the Finder to see how much space you'll need). If your Home folder (or whatever you want to copy) is 200 MB, make the Disk Image 225 MB (add around 10-15% extra space for overhead).
    1. Click the 'Image' menu, select 'New' and choose 'Create Image...'
    2. In the window that pops up, choose what size you want (you can choose 'custom' if you want and enter whatever amount of space you'll need), make sure 'none' is selected next to "Encryption:", make sure "Format:" is 'read/write.'
    3. Type in a name, select a location (anywhere on your external HD), then click the 'Create' button.
  3. The image will be created (as a file), and a virtual 'drive' (white thing) will mount on your Desktop. Copy files you want to backup onto this 'drive', and when you are finished (and want it password protected), drag the white 'drive' from your Desktop to the Trash.
  4. Every time you want to re-access the files, double click on the disk image wherever you created it, and you can retrieve, delete, or recopy files to/from it.

Alternate Method of Incremental Backups

  • If you have CD-RWs, CD-Rs, DVD-Rs or DVD-RWs and a drive that can read to them, you can just pop in the disc, erase it using the Disk Utility (if it is a '-RW' disc), then copy what you want to backup to it.


There are also many other great programs for backing up your computer, or certain files and folders on your computer; check out Dantz Retrospect, iPodBackup, or look at MacUpdate's selection of Backup utilities.

What's *your* preferred method for backing up? Let me know in the comments below!


And there is no better time to back up your stuff than now, with all the on-going threates, such as conficker. Besides, there are companies out there that will do it for free (usually up to 2 gb)

Quite true, Jack! I am thinking of including a few more bits of information in the article, since it's approaching the decade-old mark. Online backups and Time Machine integration are two very nice ways to round out a solid backup plan.

You CAN boot any Intel based Mac from a USB drive.

Here's a repost from another forum from someone named 'implicit' which seems to detail well the necessary process:-

Yes, your drive needs special formatting. When you do this, you lose everything that is on your USB drive now.
Open your Disk Utility, and click on your USB drive (the manufacturer's info line, and not the line with the name of the partition), and click on the Partition tab.
Click the Options button at the bottom of that window.
Click GUID partition table (needed for booting on an Intel Mac.)
Click OK
Click on the Volume Scheme, and choose 1 partition from the drop-down list (or another choice if you think you need more than 1 partition.)
Click the Format drop-down, and choose Mac OS Extended (journaled)
Name your drive whatever you like, and click the Partition button.

That USB drive should now be selectable if you boot to your installer disk.

In the past, no Mac could boot OS X from a USB drive. That changed with the Intel Macs, and USB certainly boots an Intel Mac. But, you must change the type of partition, as listed above, or the installer ignores the USB drive.
Good luck!

Thanks for that information! It's quite handy to have on-hand, as USB drives become faster, cheaper, and easier to use.

Sometimes you may need to backup your favorite movies to better save your original DVDs.
Here are some guide information on how to realise your requirement.

Step1. Launch DVD Backup
Launch a DVD Backup for Mac and insert DVD as indicate.
If you have external optical driver, the program will also ask you to choose which driver you need to insert DVD.

Step2: Select DVD Copy Method
After inserting DVD, you can choose to copy your DVD to the following way: Click DVD Disc in output options to burn DVD to the blank disc. If you insert D9 disc, you can choose the D9 to D5 compression option to burn D9 disc to D5 disc. Besides, you can also choose to copy DVD to DVD folder, DVD media format or ISO file. You can also choose to save these three formats to your external hard disk.
After choosing the copy options, the interface will turn around to another interface.

Step 3. Choose DVD Copy Method and Finish Settings
In the interface you can see the DVD whole contents in the menu list. You can choose Main Movie Copy, Customized Copy or Full Copy from Copy Options according to your needs.
After simple tip, click Start button to begin burning.
After clicking start button, you need to type in the DVD name for the new disc. And you also need to choose optical driver to burn the disc if there is more than one driver. You can also choose the copy speed and quantity according to your own need.

Step 4: Start Copying DVD
When the setting finished, DVD Copy Pro will start burning DVD and save the data to a temperate file. After burning, the program starts encoding DVD and will inform you to insert a suitable blank DVD disc.
Then you can surf website or listen to the music and check icon progress strip sometimes. The program will inform you the completion of burning later.
Now you can enjoy your DVD movies with new disc and save the other one as collector's edition.

I have been using Carbon Copy to external USB 2.0 drive with no issues...except...I sometimes find my entire MAC drive is duplicated on itself i.e. the backup has been saved onto the my MAC as well as the external drive. There seems to be no particular time frame to this, and I cant find anywhere in the set-up that it is following a saved back-up instruction to do this. I was therefore wondering if Time Machine or 'other' is doing a periodic back-up, but Carbon Copy is the only software I have 'running' for back-ups. Wondered if anyone else had a similar experience. The downside obviously is I have to regularly delete an entire copy of my drive off itself to regain the 'lost' space taken up by the back-up. I have an iMAC with 500gb drive and have only used some 220gb, but a duplicate back-up takes that to 440gb and I would like to avoid it happening at all.

Ok, so now I have a backup made with disk utility on a USB drive. Will I be able restore that backup with the USB drive? How?