Select Page

Backups, we all know we should and many of us neglect them because it is too fiddly, too slow, too much trouble, whatever. One of the things that I love about OS X is Time Machine, Apple’s built-in proprietary backup software, because it runs in the background without you having to think about it, let alone actually do anything. It is also one of the things that I find most frustrating about Apple.

As long as the backup disk is available, directly attached or on your LAN, Time Machine (hereafter TM) backs up changed files every hour. So that you can retrieve several versions of a file it keeps hourly backups for the last day, daily backups for the last month and monthly backups until the disk is full. When the disk is full it creates space by deleting the oldest backup first. Apart from making sure that the backup disk is on there is user intervention required. Backup as it should be.

Of course, backups are useless if you cannot retrieve files. With TM you click on the tool bar icon, select “Enter Time Machine” and then are presented with a Finder window for each backup, most recent first, presented in a stack. Using Finder you navigate to the files/folders that you want to restore, select them and click restore. If you want an earlier version of a file you pick one of the other backup sets in the stack using a timeline on the right side of the screen. The stack of Finder windows flies past you in a rather pleasing graphic reminiscent of the Star Trek “warp field” effect.

All in all, pretty easy and intuitive. The trouble starts when you want to do anything of a more administrative nature, for example move the backup to a new disk or use it for a new computer.

Last week the hard drive on my iMac filled up, which was a shock as I thought 1tb was plenty of space. That also meant that the 2tb disk in my Time Capsule (a wireless router with hard drive, specifically designed for Time Machine) would be filling up, especially as it also had backups for my daughter’s laptop and my own. When I checked I found that TM was now deleting versions from only a few weeks back. Not good. Time for a replan to address both issues. The result is a) using a 1tb external drive with the iMac, which will back up to b) a 1½tb external drive added to the Time Capsule and c) another 1½tb external drive on the Time Capsule to serve as backup for my laptop and my Mac Mini when it re-enters service. My daughter’s laptop will have to survive with the external drive that I bought her for backing up.

Yesterday I began to put the plan into action. First I cleared data from the external drives, previously used for extra storage and backup for the Mac Mini. Next stop was “node zero”, the meter cupboard where the Time Capsule lives. Here I put up a small shelf where the external drives will stand and set up the first of them. So far, so good.

Now, I wanted to move the earlier backups of my laptop to the new drive, but how? The Mac 101 article on TM does not tell you how to do this (it covers moving from a directly attached external drive to another and from one TC to another. A search on the internet revealed lots of people asking the question, some rather complex replies and a few horror stories. Eventually I decided to try a variation of both the methods in Mac 101 and dragged the releveant sparsebundle (the large file that holds the backup) from the TC to the attached drive; some hours later that was done. Now, I checked that my laptop could backup to the new disk and then open the backup using Time Machine, both were OK.

Now, how to delete the old backup? Another search revealed various answers and more horror stories. The best route appeared to be opening the old backup and deleting the backup from with Time Machine. However, I could not see how to open the old backup. Another search. Eventually I discovered that you need to Option click on the TM icon. Next to delete the backup: for this you must navigate to the backup bundle and then click the cog wheel to select “delete this backup”. Well, that didn’t work for me. I sat for a long time watching the TM screen do absolutely nothing. Eventually I cancel out of TM to find a small window with an error code. HTF was I supposed to see that? According to my research, if it does work you may then have problems with athe sparsebundle file as it will not get any smaller, requiring some work in Terminal. Finally I deleted the sparsebundle using Finder – which some posts advise against – and so far all is well.

My point is that this is all ridiculous. I understand why Apple wants to keep the basic Time Machine UI simple but to leave users scrabbling to find how to do not so unusual admin tasks is pretty bad. Have an “advanced” tab or an “admin” mode. Include functionality to open another backup within TM rather than when you launch it (at least mention the latter on the website), have a function to relocate a backup and so on.

It is fair to ask what a similar process would be like with Windows. For basic user backup and retrieval of files I think TM is incomparable, especially because it is built around the Finder window that users will be familiar with. However, on the admin side, I think  things would be better, especially if using third party software. Please Apple, why do you not mention this in your online help? I should say that my in-depth knowledge stops with XP so things may have improved since then.