How to backup and restore your Mac and PC

I had a conversation yesterday about this very topic that made me realize it’d make a great article. So here’s how to backup — and if needed, restore — both your Mac and PC in a pretty much foolproof sort of way.

Before I start, let me clarify three things.

First, using backup software does not necessarily mean you can restore your entire computer in case it crashes, gets infected with a virus, or the hard drive dies. Keep that in mind! Backing up your files means just that: you’re backing up your files and can restore them, not your computer. The question you need to ask yourselves is: “Does my backup software let me restore my entire computer (operating system + my files) or just my files?”

Second, you’ll need a good backup device. It won’t do to have both your computer and your backup device fail at about the same time, or you’ll be nowhere. So make sure to get a good external drive with plenty of space (I use these) or to use a device that’s built to secure your data against hardware failures (like a Drobo, which I also use). Apple has just released a wireless backup drive called Time Capsule, which should work nicely with Macs.

Third, I’d rather not get into arguments about how some piece of software is better than that piece of software. The point is to make things easy for those of you that are confused by all the pieces of software out there. In the end, you use whatever software works for you, but remember that this is what I recommend. I don’t want to bog people down with doing their virus checks with Whodalala and their spyware checks with Whodalulu, and… I think you get my point. An all-in-one solution works best, especially something that you install and then runs automatically. I believe strongly in automating these sorts of tasks and making it easy for the average person to use the software, and I’ve written about this in the past as well.

How to backup and restore a Mac

Mac OS X Leopard’s Time MachineThis one’s really easy. Get Mac OS X Leopard and use Time Machine. It’ll do both file-level restores and full restores. It backs up your computer automatically every hour, and the first time you run it, it’ll do a full backup of everything on your computer. It’s great, I use it too, it works. In case your Mac should go kaput, you can restore it in its entirety after it gets fixed by booting up to the Leopard DVD and choosing “Restore System from Time Machine” from the Utilities menu. Should you only need to restore files, you’ve probably already seen the cool demo video and you know all about that.

Carbon Copy ClonerDon’t have Leopard? Still on Mac OS X Tiger? It’s okay. Use Carbon Copy Cloner. It’s wonderful, it’s free (you should donate if you find it useful though), and it can do full and incremental backups and restores. (Incremental means it’ll only backup or restore the files that have changed since the last backup or restore.) It works with both Tiger and Leopard, so you’re fully covered.

How to backup and restore a PC

This one’s a little trickier, but you just have to remember two names: OneCare Live and Norton Ghost.

Microsoft OneCare LiveOneCare Live is made by Microsoft and will do most everything PCs need: defragmentation, virus checks, spyware checks, firewall, and backups. What’s more, the software will remind you if you haven’t backed up or ran scans lately. It’s an all-in-one piece of software that I’ve used for over a year, and I like it.

A nice thing about its pricing is that it lets you use one license on up to three computers and manage the OneCare settings from a single machine. This means you can install it on your children’s PC and your wife’s PC and manage their security settings from your own machine. You can even schedule all three to back up to a central location like a network drive or a Windows Home Server.

The thing to keep in mind about it is that it does NOT do full backups and restores. It will only look for your files (documents, spreadsheets, movies, photos, etc.) and back those up to an external device. That means that unless you want to be stuck re-installing the operating system and applications every time your computer crashes, you’d better have something else to work alongside OneCare.

That certain something else is Norton Ghost. I’ve used it as well, and it sure works as advertised. Many system admins swear by it, because it makes their jobs a lot easier. The way to use it is to get your computer all set up and ready to go (with the OS, apps and latest patches and updates all installed), and BEFORE you start using it, ghost it. You can either boot up from the Ghost CD and clone your entire hard drive to an external device like a USB drive or to DVDs, or you can run the Ghost application right from the operating system, with your computer functioning normally while it’s getting cloned.

Once you’ve ghosted your machine, keep that ghost image safely somewhere and do regular backups with OneCare Live. If your PC should ever crash, you can boot up with the Ghost CD and restore it from its ghost image, then do file-level restores with the OneCare application.

Just remember, it’s important to ghost your PC at that critical point after you’ve gotten everything you need installed, but BEFORE you get it infected with something or installed stuff you’ll want to uninstall later, otherwise the ghost image will understandably be pretty useless to you.

Hope this helps!


13 Comments

  1. Is it possible to restore a Mac Time Machine (Leopard OS) to a PC (Windows 7)?

    My Mac died (a 3 year old iMac/Intel processor) The Time Machine backup is on an external drive. I would like to restore and use files to my PC laptop while the Mac gets fixed.

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    1. I don’t think that’s possible — well, I haven’t tried it myself. I suppose if you bought MacDrive for your PC and plugged in your Time Machine drive, you might be able to browse and copy over the folders you needed, but that’s theory at this point, I’ve never had that need.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your experience. I know the post is not recent, but you speak about something I have been searching for a long. I have a question to be added to Fielden situation: I have 2 pcs, 1 mac and 1 lacie ethernet external disc. That disc is the main place I put my files, and every machine can connect each other by ethernet through a router. If I do what yo said in the last comment, can I backup this external device aswell?

    For mac I have Time Machine and for PC I am thinking of buy SyncBack.

    Thanks a lot and sorry for my english. Hope be understood.

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    1. @rakeljuice, it sounds like you’ll need to have a backup device. Do you have one? Normally one backs up their files to an external drive or a network drive, but if I understand you correctly, you want to back up your external drive as well, in addition to your 2 PCs and 1 Mac.

      In that case, get a larger drive (I like the Drobo myself), and either share it out from one of your computers (doesn’t really matter which one), then start doing all your backups to it.

      The tricky part to backing up the data from your LaCie ethernet disc is to map it as a network drive onto one of your machines, then see which backup software allows you to back up its data to your backup device. I’m guessing Time Machine won’t let you back up network drives, so you’ll have to map it to one of your PCs and go from there.

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      1. Hi Raoul. Sorry for not having gave thanks yet.

        I have testing and conforming some ways to do this, and at last, I need one PC to be the server, and connect via ethernet the others. As you say, TMachine doesnt work in share discs, but it doesnt work in share computers, so I need to connect the Lacie direct to the iMac. The problem is that iMac has only one firewire, and a few USBs…..

        Im thinking…

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        1. You’re welcome, Rakel, and don’t worry. It’s always a juggling act as you work out these things, but you’ll get it.

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  3. Fielden, that depends on how you intend to network the drive. If you connect it to something like the Airport Extreme, you can format it from the Mac. If you’re going to connect it to another networking device, one that shares it out from itself, it may need to format it using its own wizard, and in that case, you’ll need to consult the user manual that comes with that device. If you’re going to share it out from the PC, you can format it in NTFS, because once you share it out over the network, the Macs will be able to write to it. I wouldn’t advise formatting the drive in FAT32, because that file system has a 4GB limit on individual file sizes, and you may run into issues if you have any files larger than 4GB on your machines.

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  4. Raoul:

    Thanks so much for your reply.

    How should I format the drive? And should I format from the Mac or from the PC?

    Thanks again for your help!

    Best,

    Fielden

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  5. Fielden, that’s simple. First make sure the drive you’re going to use has enough space to back up all three computers, by adding up the space used on each one to get a total of space that you’re going to need to have at a minimum. Now make sure the drive has at least 50% more space than that.

    Second step is to network it, unless you want to traipse around the house with it all day long, hooking it up to each computer. You should be able to see it in your local network (if not, you’ll need to do some troubleshooting).

    Now set up Time Machine on the two Macs to back up to it, and set up your PC to back up to it as well. They won’t overwrite each others’ files, since each writes to separate folders.

    Realize it’ll take a few days to back up the computers for the first time, depending on the speed of your network and the amount of data that needs to be backed up. After that, subsequent backups should take a lot less.

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  6. Thanks for your article. It answers many of my questions on the subject. To a point…

    I want to use Time Machine to back up two Macs and also back up my wife’s PC onto the same drive. What do I need and what do I need to know?

    Thanks,

    Fielden

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  7. Right, I’m using that instead of OneCare on my PC at work. It appears to have the same functionality as the backup feature of OneCare on my XP laptop, so that’s a bit confusing. To make things even more confusing, OneCare will work on Vista as well…

    Microsoft really needs to do some work differentiating their many offerings. They’re just confusing people, and putting out multiple versions of this and that (like Operating Systems and Office Suites and other pieces of software) doesn’t make things any easier.

    On XP, OneCare will replace the XP SP2 firewall with its own, which is newer, but I’m not sure how it’ll work on Vista and whether or not the functionality won’t be the same. Although it will also provide the added benefit of regular defrags and anti-virus/anti-spyware checks.

    This is why I say just install OneCare and use Norton Ghost, and be done with it. Stressing about what each feature does or does not do, and what’s duplicated or not between OneCare and Vista and XP is too much for most people.

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  8. Vista comes with what appears to be a quite good backup and restore program. I say “appears” because while the backup software has worked as advertised, I haven’t had the opportunity to use the restore utility. Of course, I hope the “opportunity” never arises, but geek that I am, it WILL happen. Such is life on the bleeding edge of tech.

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