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How to use Time Machine on MacOS

Backing up your devices is a crucial step for keeping your most important data safe. It’s all too easy to lose years’ worth of photos, files, and other data because your hard drive crashes or your laptop doesn’t survive a spilled glass of water. To help you out, MacOS has Time Machine, which automatically backs up and saves your MacOS system versions. It’s relatively simple to set up, and accessing prior versions is a breeze.

Here’s a breakdown of everything you need to use Time Machine, from backing up your latest version to retrieving lost data.

Create a backup

To make a backup with Time Machine, you need an external drive. Any old hard drive will do as long as you can plug it into your device. If you have a recent MacBook, you’ll either need a USB-C/Thunderbolt SSD or a dongle that can connect to a USB-A device. We will also cover how to use a NAS device as well as another Mac as a Time Machine backup.

What hard drive should I get?

First, you will want a drive exclusively for Time Machine purposes, as it’s going to fill up rather quickly depending on your system’s size. The general rule of thumb is to get an external drive two to four times larger than the internal storage. So if you have a 500GB MacBook Air, you should look for an external drive in the 1TB to 2TB range at a minimum. This goes up if you plan on having a lot of huge files like 4K video or RAW photos.

In the SSD versus HDD debate, it’s really up to your preferences and individual needs. An SSD will be faster, but larger ones can get pricey. HDDs are slower, but you can get a lot more storage at a far lower cost. You can get an 8TB external hard drive for around $150, which is definitely the more cost-effective option.

You won’t have to worry about buying multiple drives, though. Time Machine will automatically delete the oldest backups once the hard drive is full. The hard drive size determines the “depth” of backups you can fit on to one device.

You may also have to reformat the drive once you’ve settled on one, as Time Machine can’t be used on a disk formatted for Windows. If you plan on using a drive you already own, make sure you find a new home for whatever files are on it.

Can I partition a hard drive?

The short answer is yes. That means you can use a drive for both Windows and Time Machine, and you don’t have to worry about Time Machine backups becoming overly bloated. Time Machine will work just the same, and it will start deleting old backups once it hits the maximum allotted storage of the partition. We explain how to partition your hard drive here.

Connect your hard drive

Once you have settled on which drive (or partition) you will use, it’s time to create a backup. Doing so is pretty simple. The steps are as follows:

Step 1: Plug in your external storage.

Step 2: Click the Apple icon in the top left corner and select Preferences > Time Machine.

Step 3: Click on the button that says Select Backup Disk. You will also want to check the Back Up Automatically box beneath the Time Machine logo.

Step 4: A menu will pop up showing the available disks to use Time Machine. Select the drive you want to use. You also have the option to encrypt backups, so only users with a password can access the backup. Once you are done, select Use Disk.

And voilá, your Time Machine backup is created. The initial backup can take a long time — usually no longer than five minutes. After that, Time Machine will back up automatically, and you can use your device as usual.

It’s worth noting that if you haven’t already formatted the disk for MacOS before doing this, you will be prompted to do so. You can erase it here and then proceed like normal. If you want to partition the drive, you will need to do it before this step.

If you want to exclude individual files from the backup to save space, you can pick and choose them in the Time Machine preferences. From the preferences menu, click the Options button, then click the add (+) button to add anything new and the remove (–) button to exclude items from the backup.

Alternative: Use Time Machine over a network

If you want to send a Time Machine backup to another Mac or use AirPort and other NAS devices, you can. The setup process is mostly the same, but there are a few things to keep in mind. Here’s what you need to do.

What is a NAS device?

NAS stands for the network-attached device. It can either be a server connected to your home network or a single hard-drive device. NAS devices come as enclosures and allow users to add in any drives they want. This lets users create their own personal cloud setup, so you don’t have to worry about services like Dropbox or Google Drive anymore.

If you aren’t looking for something that complex but like the idea of network storage, you can plug any hard drive directly into your router. Most routers have built-in NAS software and will do all the heavy lifting for you. As long as the devices support SMB (Server Message Block), they can be used as network storage devices.

If you have older devices like an AirPort Time Capsule or AirPort Extreme Base Station, those should still work with Time Machine as well.

Using another Mac

You can also back up Time Machine to other Macs. This is great if you have a Mac Mini with a lot of storage and you want to protect the data on your MacBook without buying a bunch of extra equipment. To set up your Mac as a Time Machine destination, follow these steps:

Step 1: Click the Apple menu and scroll down to System Preferences > Sharing > File Sharing.

Step 2: Near the center is the Shared Folders menu. Click the (+) button and select which folder should be the Time Machine backup.

Step 3: Control-click the folder and scroll down to Advanced Options and select Share as a Time Machine backup destination.

Once you designate it, the Mac should appear as a backup option when setting up Time Machine.

Backing up Time Machine over the network

You will go through the same steps listed above, but you should see your other Mac or NAS device appear as a storage option when you get to the hard drive selection screen. Just select it and run things like usual. The nice thing about Time Machine is there are hardly any extra steps to get alternative options like this set up.

If you want to verify your network backups are okay, press and hold the Option key, then select Verify Backups when the Time Machine menu pops up.

Now that your backups are up and running, let’s take a look at how to access and restore files and older versions of your Mac.

Restore a backup with Migration Assistant

If you need to restore an older version of MacOS, you will want to use Migration Assistant. This is great if you want to downgrade to an older version of MacOS or have some critical files that have been corrupted. Time Machine makes this process painless and straightforward. Just follow these steps:

Step 1: Make sure your Time Machine backup is plugged in or that you are on the same network as your backup location.

Step 2: Open Finder. On the left-hand menu, scroll down to Applications > Utilities.

Step 3: Click on Migration Assistant. When you are asked how you want to transfer information, select From a Mac, Time Machine backup or a Startup disk.

Step 4: Select Time Machine and hit Continue, then choose the backup you want and click Continue again. On the next screen, you can select what types of information you wish to transfer, such as user profiles or applications. Click Continue once you’ve chosen them.

If your backup doesn’t work, double-check to make sure it is properly connected. If it still doesn’t work, use Disk Utility to try to fix it. If that doesn’t work, you’ll likely have to reformat the drive and create a new backup.

Restoring certain files

You don’t have to restore your entire Mac to get back a few select items. You can dig into the backup data and retrieve files individually.

Step 1: Open Finder and navigate to the folder the deleted document was originally. If it’s an item from the desktop, you don’t need to go anywhere.

Step 2: Click on Launchpad (the rocket ship icon originally on the far left side of your dock) and navigate to Time Machine. Alternatively, get to Time Machine by clicking the Time Machine icon in the menu bar. If it’s not there, hit the Apple icon, then select System Preferences > Time Machine. When the Time Machine menu pops up, select Show Time Machine in the menu bar.

Step 3: Once Time Machine launches, it will show a visual timeline of backups. Use the arrow keys to navigate to the desired backup. If a backup is red, that means it is still loading or validating.

Step 4: Once you select a backup, you can browse through and select the missing items, then click Restore.

The missing files should be back in their original location. It’s that simple. If this doesn’t work or you have trouble, it may be easier to restore an entire backup.