If your computer is stolen, damaged, or otherwise incapacitated, you can always repair or replace the hardware and software. But what about your data – those photos and videos of your kids, the big proposal that’s due on Monday, or the half-finished novel you’ve been writing for years? Without good backups, you could lose all your hard work and precious records forever.

The next version of Mac OS X will include the backup software Time Machine, but can you really afford to wait until then? And what if your backup needs go beyond what Apple’s program can handle? Here are our tips for backing up your data.

Back up everything

If your hard drive suddenly dies, the quickest way to get up and running again is with a bootable backup (also known as a duplicate or clone). You store this complete exact copy of your startup volume on another hard drive. If disaster strikes, start up from that drive, and you’re back in business. If your entire computer is kaput, just move the drive to another Mac.

We would recommend bootable backups for almost everyone, but they have some downsides. First, they can be expensive: you’ll need a second hard drive that can fit all the data that’s on your main drive. Second, this type of backup can take several hours to run. Because of this, you may choose to update the backup less frequently, which increases the likelihood that you won’t keep current with recently updated files. But even with these disadvantages, bootable backups are incredibly useful in the event of major hard-disk troubles.

What you need If you have a desktop Mac with space for a second hard drive inside, you can add a new internal drive to store bootable backups. However, we recommend an external one. It’s easier to move between computers if necessary, and you can store an external drive in a secure off-site location for extra insurance.

External hard drive

Creating the backup Because OS X relies on many files that are ordinarily invisible or that have special ownership and permissions settings, you can’t create a bootable backup simply by dragging files from one hard disk onto another. You need special software to do the job for you. The best tool for making bootable duplicates is Shirt Pocket’s £15.28 SuperDuper (www.shirt-pocket.com). SuperDuper is fast, accurate and easy to use.

A solid second choice is Mike Bombich’s free Carbon Copy Cloner (www.brombich.com), which also does the job but has a trickier interface. Neither of these tools offers scheduled archives or network backups. If you want more than the basics, you’ll have to cough up for a full-featured backup program.

After disaster strikes When the time comes to start your Mac from the backup drive, make sure the drive is connected and powered up. Turn on your Mac and hold down the option key until icons of the available startup drives appear. Select the external drive’s icon and then press return.
Once you’re running the system from the external drive, use Apple’s Disk Utility
(/Applications/Utilities) or a third-party utility to try to repair your main drive. Assuming your internal drive isn’t physically damaged, you can duplicate your external drive back onto the internal drive to restore it to a bootable state. (See ‘Diagnose hard-drive disaster’ at macworld.com/2278 for advice on dealing with faltering drives.)