Apple Backup & .Mac

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My .Mac subscription will be up in May and I won’t be renewing it. When it expires the Backup software will revert to it’s trial version and only back up 100MB. So I decided to give Backup a final spin before that happens. I’m dropping .Mac because Backup is all I really use these days which makes it a $75 a year backup program ($100 list price) and there are better and cheaper options.

I’ve been using Apple Backup to backup my home directory, minus my iTunes library, to an external drive. A second backup plan backs up my purchased music to the same drive. I don’t back up my ripped CDs in order to save space on the theory that they’re also on my iPod and I can always re-rip them. I’ll probably regret that choice if I’m forced to re-rip them.

Important: It’s worth repeating – Apple Backup will only backup 100MB of data unless you also have a full .Mac account, even if you don’t want to back up to .Mac. There are hacks to get around this limit but I wouldn’t want to trust my data to a hacked configuration.

Backup’s Backup Strategy

The first backup for any backup plan is a full backup. All future backups are incrementals. An incremental backup simply backs up files that have not yet been backed up or that changed since they were last backed up. Manual intervention is required to do a new full backup and start over. So, unless you’ve got those unlimited disks Yahoo is using for mail you’ll eventually have space issues, even if it takes months.

If you backup to .Mac there is a selection in the Backup menu to “Remove iDisk Backups”. This will remove the existing backups from iDisk and then the next backup will automatically be a full backup.

If you are backing up to disk you must manuall delete the backup destination files and then manually do a new full backup (or visa-versa). If you do not do the full backup manually the Backup software will merrily continue to just do incrementals, never realizing earlier backups are gone.

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How Apple Backup Works – Setup

Apple Backup can backup to .Mac, to an external hard drive, to CD/DVD or just to disk. In the past versions of Backup I’ve had trouble backing up to CD/DVD. The typical problem was the program would hang or fail around the disk swap when the backup spanned more than one CD/DVD. Plus, CD/DVD backups aren’t the best solution for my disorganized personality since I’d probably lose them.

Apple Backup used the concept of backup “Plans” to define what’s going to be backed up. Some defaults are set up out of the box for the Home folder, iLife, Personal Data & Settings and Purchased Music and Video.

The following screenshot shows the pre-built backup sets that are available.

 

If you pick one of the pre-built plans it will pre-populated for those items along with a default destination and schedule. These can be modified, deleted or supplemented.

 

To add a new backup item click the plus sign below the “Backup Items” window. You can add “QuickPicks” which are searches to find files for specific applications or criteria. Software you buy can add their own quickpick(s) to Backup. Example of this are Bookpedia, CDPedia and DVDPedia in the screenshot below which were added by software I installed.

 

You can also include or exclude specific folders and files. Rather than going through the dialog boxes you can drag/drop files and folders directly from finder or in my case Pathfinder) directly to the plan.

 

And finally, you can create your own spotlight searches to select or de-select files.

 

Then you can configure a destination and schedule. Destinations include folders on your home drive, .Mac (your iDisk), CD/DVD, any internal/external drive, any connected USB drive or iPod. Schedules are every day, week, month, quarterly or semi-annually. You can also have multiple destinations and schedules per plan.

 

The main screen shows all your plans and you can also backup any plan on demand by selecting the plan and clicking the “Backup button”.

 

Restores

Restores are straightforward unless you want an old version of a file and aren’t sure when it changed. While the backups are incremental the restore browser displays every file in every backup set created after the file was first backed up. Plus, there’s no dates. For example, if I backup a file called “data.txt” on April 1st and I do daily backups the file will appear in the restore viewer for every day’s backup after April 1st even if it didn’t change. The file isn’t actually backed up each time, it just shows in the history. This can make it tough to restore specific files. You have to pick the latest date that you think has a version of the file you want. On the plus side, it will restore the file even if it didn’t change on exactly that date. It just means the file restore may be older than the dat you picked.

You simply pick the files or directories that you want to restore. Restoring them to an alternate location is an option (which should always be used).

 

Issues

I found that when backing up or restoring individual files (not directories) the spotlight comments were lost. Spotlight comments are stored in a separate (hidden) file in the directory. When restores were done by selecting directories the spotlight comments were restored. It appears Apple Backup soes back up the hidden files but only restores them when the restore is of the entire directory. It won’t use the data in those hidden files when restoring a single file.

I did not have any probems with the “Open With” settings (I made them non-standard for a couple of files) and the permissions. For the permission my restore was into the same home folder (same owner). The “Group” and “Everyone” permissions had been changed and these changes were preserved when restored to a new directory.

Apple Backup has a problem doing backups on computers that use sleep mode.

Summary

Pros

  • Simple to use when using .Mac.
  • Simple to use for DVDs/CDs if you avoid the incremental backups to CD/DVD and always do a full backup.
  • iDisk provides a nice solution for offsite backup of critical files. This is limited by the size of your .Mac account and what else you use if for. The base subscription has 1GB of space for backup, mail, iWeb, sync and everything else. More disk can be purchased. (See cons – iDisk backups are not encrypted which may be a concern depending on the files being backed up).
  • Software can add it’s own Quickpick to Apple backup which makes it easy to back up data for that software.

Cons

  • Apple backup doesn’t do a verify. And it’s “forever incremental” strategy makes me nervous that one hic-cup in the middle of the backup set could be disastrous.
  • Requires a .Mac subscription (not a negative if you want iWeb, mail or other features of .Mac which justifies the cost to you)
  • The “forever incremental” policy will continuously eat up disk space. How fast depends on how often files change. The ability to do a full backup once a month (or more often) as part of the regular plan, whithout manual intervention, is sorely needed.
  • Backup files are not encrypted on iDisk. While they are protected by .Mac security, if the security is breached the files are not protected. This is always a concern and more so since iDisk does have the ability to share some directories on the internet.
  • Lack of meta data backup unless it’s part of the file could cause a problem if it contains critical information.
  • The sleep mode issue (refer to the “Issues” section above.

Backups greater than 100MB requires a .Mac subscription which lists for $100. If you want a subscription try other retailers such as Amazon. My thoughts on .Mac are a different topic but in short, I’d only only recommend Apple Backup in certain cases for specific needs. The ability of the Backup software is nice but very limited and should only be considered a small part of the .Mac subscription.

If you do have a .Mac subscription and you aren’t doing any backups then you should start using Apple Backup immediately. But the lack of verifications and the “forever incremental” strategy keep me from truly recommending it even if you have .Mac, unless the low financial cost (since you already have it) is a priority over everything else. If you do use Apple Backup you should do a test restore at least once a month or simply delete the old backups and start a new set of backups every month. If space allows you should have overlapping backup plans where the same files are backed up to two locations (even if the locations are different directories on the same external drive) and then you can delete and restart one of the plans in alternating months so you have some overlap. If your backup sets are small you can use DVDs but with the size of media files on many Macs these days this isn’t realistic in both time and money. Swapping DVDs isn’t my idea of fun which means I’m less likely to do frequent backups.

There are other, relatively low costs backup solutions out there which provide a more robust and reliable feature set. I’ll be reviewing some in the next few weeks as I update my backup strategy.

Buying

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