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Restore from Time Machine backups

Published on February 29, 2012 by in backup, security

You all use Time Machine on an external drive to backup your Mac, right? If you don’t, you use some other backup system that you’re happy with (ie: you back up at least once a day with it, you’ve tested it by restoring files from it to make sure you can get your data back, you know you can get your stuff back within a short time if it all goes horribly wrong).

If you don’t have Time Machine and don’t have another backup that you trust then stop reading NOW, go to an electronics store (Maplin’s on High Holborn will do and no, I don’t get commission from them.  They’re just near the various Inns) and buy an external drive at least the same size as your Mac hard drive*. Bring it back to chambers, plug it in to your Mac and start Time Machine running.  Buy a coffee on the way back too, it’ll take a while to back up your stuff and you might as well be comfortable as you continue to read (and I’ll do a more detailed post on backups at some point soon).

When it all does go horribly wrong (and it will.  There are two certainties in life: the death of any given hard drive, usually at the worst possible moment, and the taxes you’ll save as the new drive will be a deductible expense) then you’re probably going to have to get a new hard drive.  To be honest, hard drives are best considered disposable these days anyway. They should last at least a year – some will trundle on forever (I have the Little Laptop That Could still going at home, with the original hard drive. It’s about six or seven years old). Some will crash and burn in flames in a little over a year (less than a year and you should be able to claim on the warranty. If you kept all the relevant information, usually including your inside leg measurement and proof of the temperature in Hell on the you bought the drive).

Either way, you are pretty likely to end up with a shiny new hard drive in your slightly less shiny and rather less new laptop or desktop at some point.  Step 1 is to reinstall the operating system (probably OS X Lion at this stage, maybe Mountain Lion if you’re reading this in a year’s time). Step 2 is then offered by the system’s Migration Assistant: do you want to transfer your information from Time Machine or another disk.  Transferring your information from Time Machine is basically doing a restore from Time Machine.

That’s all fine, dandy and works.  But just one small solitary word of warning: if, for some reason, you:

  • have two computers with you in chambers (the one with a new drive that you’re putting everything back onto and, say, a laptop that you’re using to get some urgent stuff done whilst the new drive is restuffed with the operating system and your apps and data); and
  • they are both on the same wireless network

then be very very careful. Migration Assistant asks whether  you want to transfer your information from Time Machine or another disk.  When you select this option, the drives of any other Mac on the network will show up as well as your Time Machine backup.  If you happen to use the same name for all your hard drives (or am I the only idiot who does that?) it’s not necessarily going to be obvious that you picked the other computer instead of the backup.

No harm done if your laptop and desktop happen to be mirrors of each other anyway, but it took me an embarrassingly long time yesterday to figure out why my computer had apparently only done a partial restore of applications (my laptop has a fairly minimal set of applications, as it’s intended for lecturing etc and doesn’t have most of the additional utility/productivity apps I use on the main chambers machine).

I have now renamed the hard drive on my laptop.


*You have no idea what the size of your hard drive is? Right click on the icon for the hard drive on your desktop and select “Get Info”. The “Capacity” line in the window that pops up is the size of the drive. Pick a hard drive that’s at least that size or larger (eg: my drive reports that its capacity is 499.25 GB – so I need a backup drive that’s at least 500GB.  You might want to go larger because it gives Time Machine more room for old backups (I promise I’ll explain Time Machine in another post)).

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