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How to back up your Mac

Time Machine makes it easy to create system-wide backups, while iCloud is convenient for creating additional redundancy for your photo library.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The release of new MacBooks and Mac Minis makes it a good time to review how to back up your Mac in the chance you want to wipe it clean and sell it in favor of a new model. You have two options for setting up your new machine: migrate your data or clean install. In either case, it's a good idea to back up your system first. Happily, Apple provides the tools you need to perform a full system backup or back up selected files. 

I'll show you how to use Time Machine to copy the entire contents of your Mac to an external hard drive and how to use iCloud to create copies of selected apps and folders. And then there's iTunes; I'll show you how to create a backup of your iTunes library.

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Time Machine

Apple includes its own backup app on every Mac. Called Time Machine, it's the easiest way to back up your Mac to an external hard drive. This drive can either be connected directly to your Mac or to your network via an Apple Time Capsule, an external drive connected to an AirPort Extreme Base Station or another router with an available USB port.

When you connect an external drive to your Mac, your Mac will ask you if you want to use the drive to back up with Time Machine. If your Mac forgets its manners and doesn't ask, you can select the drive for Time Machine to use by going to System Preferences > Time Machine and clicking the Select Disk button. When selecting your drive for Time Machine, you can also check a box to Encrypt backups, which will require a password when you go to restore your Mac from a Time Machine backup.

Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

In System Preferences, there is also a checkbox to Back Up Automatically so that the next time you connect your designated Time Machine drive to your Mac, Time Machine will spring into action and create a system backup.

If you keep a Time Machine drive connected on your network at all times or directly connected to your Mac at all times (more likely with a Mac desktop than laptop), then Time Machine will create hourly backups of the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month and weekly backup for all previous months. Time Machine will delete the oldest backups when it runs out of space, replacing them with newer copies of your system.

Click the Options button in Time Machine's panel in System Preferences and you can add items for Time Machine to exclude. Excluding items will speed up a Time Machine backup, but you can still use your Mac while it's getting backed up; Time Machines goes about its business in the background, though older Macs might feel a bit sluggish during the backup process.

There is also an option to Show Time Machine in menu bar. From the menu bar icon, you can keep an eye on the status of your backup, stop a backup and manually start a backup.

To restore your system to a previous point in time, click the menu bar and choose Enter Time Machine. You'll see your previous Time Machine backups like cards in a rolodex; scroll through and find the one you want and click the Restore button.


In addition to performing regular Time Machine backups, I use iCloud to create copies of selected folders. Mainly, I use it to back up my large photo library because if disaster strikes -- my house burns down, gets swallowed by the earth or hit by a meteor (while I'm luckily elsewhere) -- I want copies of my photos stored safely offsite.

To backup your photos to iCloud, go to System Preferences > iCloud and check the box for Photos. Next, click the Options button for Photos and check the box for iCloud Photo Library. It uploads full-resolution copies of your photos for safe keeping in the cloud. It also includes the added benefit of making my Mac's photo library easily accessible from my iPhone and iPad.

Since I had to upgrade to a paid iCloud plan to store my photos, I also use the iCloud Drive option to back up my Mac's Desktop and Documents folders to iCloud, as well as my Reminders and Notes so they are synced across my Mac and iPhone.

Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET


Noticeably absent from iCloud's options is iTunes. It's so big and unwieldy that I can only assume it needs its own backup system. Your iTunes library is included in a Time Machine backup, of course, but since I spent so many years buying CDs and importing them into iTunes, I keep a separate copy of my iTunes library on an external drive.

Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

Before you create a copy of your iTunes library, it's a good idea to make a sweep of your Mac for any media files it may use that aren't already in the iTunes folder. To do so, open iTunes and go to File > Library > Organize Library. Check the box for Consolidate files and click Done.

Next, open Finder and go to your home folder (the one with your user name) and find the Music folder. Inside the Music folder is a folder titled iTunes. This is the folder you want to copy.

If you moved your Music folder from its default location, you can look up its current location by going to iTunes > Preferences and clicking on the Advanced tab. At the top of the Advanced window, iTunes lists the path of your iTunes Media folder location.

Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

With your iTunes folder located in Finder, connect an external drive to your Mac. It will be listed along the left panel of the Finder window. Simply drag the iTunes folder from its current location in Finder to your external drive listed on the left to copy it.

Originally published on Oct. 27, 2016.
Update, Oct. 30, 2018: Added information about new MacBook Air and Mac Mini announcements.

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