The third line of defence: Remote backup

We've covered the quick ways to recover from a failed drive, and we've discussed live backups for the files you work on day to day. But a live backup won't restore a whole drive, and a local backup is still susceptible to bigger disasters, like fire, flood and theft. So to be absolutely sure you'll never lose a file, no matter what flavour of disaster, an off site backup is essential.

There is a lot of choice when it comes to online backup. They are typically great value, but restoring from this sort of backup is slow, potentially even weeks. So remote backups are not terribly helpful if you need to be up and running in a hurry.

The other thing to consider is how long it takes to complete the initial backup. If your connection is slow, it could be weeks or even months before everything is secured. Once that's done, it won't be a big deal to keep future updates secure. But flying without a backup for two weeks is not advised. So online alone isn't enough for full peace of mind.

Read next: Best remote backup options including:

  • Crashplan
  • Carbonite
  • Backblaze

The fourth backup type: archives

There is another kind of backup: archiving. The idea here isn't so much about immediacy and disaster recovery as being able to access documents you may have worked on a week, a month or a year ago.

As noted in Macworld's Complete guide to Time Machine Apple's Time Machine, built into OS X, can sometimes help regarding previous versions of documents that have been overwritten or accidentally deleted. While we wouldn't recommend using Time Machine instead of a cloning app, it's a good option to use alongside one. Never have multiple backup types going to a single drive, though, because if that hardware fails you lose all of your backups at once.

How to back up a Mac: Time Machine

Beyond Time Machine, there are third-party options for archiving. Get Backup Pro offers archiving as one of four different kinds of backup. Archives can be encrypted, compressed and versioned, depending on your needs, along with being broken down to fit on DVDs. (These days, we'd suggest just archiving to external hard drives, though, given their relatively low cost.)

Keep old Mac data safe, forever, when you upgrade

Another means of creating archives - albeit on an irregular basis - is to swap out your local clone backup whenever making a major upgrade, such as buying a new Mac or upgrading OS X. (In the latter case, note, we're talking about major revisions, such as Yosemite to El Capitan, not minor updates.) Get yourself a new external drive before such big changes, make a last clone of your old computer/OS, and prepare the clone to sit in a cupboard until it’s possibly needed again some day.

This might sound unnecessary and expensive, but it's smart for a number of reasons. First, you will now have a bootable backup that has an older OS running on it. If an app stops working or does things differently (for example, audio software not playing instruments in quite the same way as before), you can boot into an old drive and continue work.

Secondly, you will have a breakpoint from a certain date with all of your documents on, and can at any point fish out something you accidentally delete from your current Mac. Thirdly, it keeps your current backup drive hardware fresh.

How to back up a Mac

There are, however, things to be aware of when creating archives in this fashion. You must name your drive carefully and uniquely. Do not just call all your backup drives 'backup', because that risks user error when archives are plugged in again. (For instance, if you do a quick manual backup to the wrong drive, thereby overwriting an entire archive.)

Use the final backup date and/or OS as the drive's name, perhaps; also consider putting a sticker on the drive itself, on which you add these important details.

Additionally, avoid the temptation to keep these drives attached for any length of time. They should be used to quickly find an old file or briefly work on something that's not possible on your current set-up.

They're not there as a means to constantly access old data. (If you're constantly accessing certain files, that suggests they should be on your Mac’s internal drive, or a separate 'current' data drive always accessible to it.)

Finally, do check archive drives are working every now and again. At the very least, spin them up every year or so. If the drive no longer appears to be working well, consider replacing it and copying the data across if the archived data remains important to you.

In event of disaster

As noted earlier, there are potential issues regarding back-ups. Drives over time can become unstable and unresponsive; and if you're not paying attention during a tired evening working with multiple drives, you might accidentally overwrite a drive you'd intended to never delete.

In either case, it's imperative you immediately stop using the drive. The more a damaged drive is used, the worse it's likely to get. And, obviously, if you suddenly realise you're erroneously performing a clone to an archive drive, thereby overwriting data that's already there, stop the copy immediately.

There is no magic wand at either point. Chances are, you will lose some data and have to put in some work. Fortunately, software can often lend a helping hand. There are many products on the market for repairing and recovering Mac data, including: DiskWarrior; Data Rescue; FileSalvageDisk Drill; and Data Recovery.

The majority of these products provide a free, limited download, and then expect you to stump up the readies once they've proved their worth; and they all work in broadly the same way.

How to back up a Mac: Data Rescue

If you haven't overwritten your disk, but it’s going a bit screwy, these apps will attempt to repair errors and directory structures. If you're extremely fortunate, this might be enough to salvage your data, although note that the process of combing through the drive can take many hours.

If you're fortunate enough to find your drive springs back to life, immediately copy its data to another location. Do not expect it to continue working properly, even if it suddenly feels like new and is, for example, no longer making worrying clicking and grinding noises entirely at random.

Deleted/missing files are a bit different. In those cases, relevant parts of the directory structure are not possible to salvage, but the actual file data may still be lurking, awaiting digital oblivion.

Recovery software is designed to piece together such data, recognise file types, and then present the salvaged documents to you; unfortunately, any list will be devoid of context and file names. This means that you can wait a few hours for your drive to be explored, only to be faced with folders full of PDFs, JPEGs, text documents and the like, named along the lines of file00011566.pdf.

This can be a disheartening experience, but nonetheless at least gives you a chance to get important documents back, assuming you've the time to trawl through potentially thousands of documents. (Hint: Quick Look is very helpful when doing this.)

How to back up a Mac

As we said, most recovery apps will at least let you explore a drive, get the recovery process going, and then preview documents, all for no outlay. However, once you get to the point of saving any number of recovered files, you will have to pay something. (Data Rescue, for example, will give you 2GB for free, but then charges $49 for the next step, which is up to 250GB.)

Naturally, the cheapest bet in terms of time and money is to never find yourself in this situation; and so if you ever do, take a long look at your current backup and drive-usage systems and see if there are improvements you can make.

Read next: How to create a Mac recovery partition in El Capitan and Yosemite

Conclusion

If you want to be sure that your precious data - photos, music, videos and of course work - is safe from any kind of disaster, then there are multiple types of backup that will secure it. For immediate resurrection, with only minutes of downtime, a bootable local backup is what's needed.

To be sure that not even the last ten minutes of work is lost, some sort of live cloud backup will do that. To withstand fire, flood, theft or other apocalyptic happening, an offsite backup is the only way to be sure.

Mac Backup Guru offers the smartest way of achieving both bootable and incremental backups. There's a lot more choice for live backups, with some free options that may make one work better than others. I'm a long-time fan of the platform and company agnostic Dropbox, but it's at the top of the price scale. It does have a few more sharing options than the rest, but for those not already using it, it might not be enough to warrant the outlay. If budget is a concern or a free option is available, there’s nothing wrong with any of the other services.

For remote backup, Crashplan has the best options, especially for those with a willing friend to host a free backup. But even if not, the family plan to secure up to 10 computers, with unlimited storage, is pretty hard to beat.

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Plus: Have some geeky fun with this guide to using terminal on the Mac

Craig Grannell contributed to this article.