Approaches for restoring files using Time Machine

With Time Machine, Apple has tried to provide a simple and intuitive method for backing up and restoring files, and while this is the case for most users, depending on your approach to locating backed up files the interface can be a little frustrating.


Written by Topher Kessler

With Time Machine, Apple has tried to provide a simple and intuitive method for backing up and restoring files, and while this is the case for most users, depending on your approach to locating backed up files the interface can be a little frustrating. Luckily there are several ways to manage your backed-up files.

Two mentalities toward finding backups.

There are two basic steps that people use when finding a lost file: first find the expected location of the file, and then find the most recent backup of the file. While these steps seem to be in logical order, for some people or in some situations the more intuitive approach is to first find the backed-up file and then place it in a desired or expected location. Since Time Machine is based around the first approach, if you apply this second approach in Time Machine, you may get confused with the results.

For example, if you choose to first search for lost files using the Finder, you will lose your search results when entering the Time Machine interface to get the backups for those files.

Apple Discussion poster "Michael Stancato" writes:

"I open the Search feature in a Finder window. I type in my query. Then I open Time Machine. The Search window moves into the center with the Time Machine universe extending backward. BUT, the entire search bar "Search for: My query text" disappears from the Search window. How do I restore?"

Luckily Time Machine keeps backups in a "files and folders" format, unlike other backup solutions that store backups in proprietary archives. As such, you can easily access them via multiple routes: The Time Machine interface, the Finder, and even third-party solutions that agree best with your approach to retrieving backed-up files.

The Time Machine interface.

The key when using Time Machine is that all backups are searched for or otherwise located through the Time Machine interface itself, and not through the Finder. Therefore, when using this approach you must first go to the location on your hard drive where you expect to see a particular file. This is now your "destination" point, where files you select in Time Machine will be restored to.

The second step is to invoke Time Machine and while the current folder will still display, you are now looking at your backups for the current location, and can navigate through them for a history of content changes to the current folder. You can also search for a particular file in the Finder search bar within Time Machine. The search will look for files on the backup disk, from which you can choose the desired one and click restore to save it back to the current "destination" Finder folder.

The Finder.

While using the Time Machine interface is our recommendation, if you prefer the approach of first finding the backed-up file and then restoring it to the location of your choice, you can do that through the Finder without invoking the Time Machine interface.

To do this, open the Time Machine disk and open the "Backups.backupdb" folder (you cannot search from the root of the Time Machine drive). Then either manually locate the desired backup or do a search for the file using the Finder search bar. If you search for the file, be sure the Time Machine backup disk is selected for searching by clicking the "Backups.backupdb" button next to "This Mac." Additionally, we suggest you sort the list by "Last Opened," so you will have an idea as to which of the search results are more recent backups than others.

From here, you can use quick-look or a desired application to preview the document and then restore it to a desired location by dragging and dropping it, or by highlighting it and pressing command-c to copy and then command-v with the destination folder in focus to paste it in that location.

Third-party solutions.

There is a third-party software package called "BackupLoupe" that among other features allows you to browse your Time Machine backups in ways that may agree with you more than the default Time Machine interface. If the Time Machine interface does not work well for you, give this package a try.

Be sure to check us out on Twitter and the CNET Mac forums.

Topher has been an avid Mac user for the past 10-15 years, and has been a contributing author to MacFixIt for just over a year now. One of his diehard passions has been troubleshooting Mac problems and making the best use of Macs and Apple hardware both for family and friends, as well as in the workplace. He and the newly formed MacFixIt team are hoping to bring enhanced and more personable content to our readers, and keep the MacFixIt community going here at CNET. If you have questions or comments for Topher or the other MacFixIt editors, feel free to contact us at

  • Michael Stancato
  • BackupLoupe
  • Twitter
  • CNET Mac forums
  • More from Late-Breakers
  • Close
    Autoplay: ON Autoplay: OFF