Review: Backing Up Your Mac, a Book by Joe Kissell

By Phil Davis

Joe Kissell (from Take Control Of Books fame) has published a new book about backups that has some excellent advice for us all. This is the first in a new series called Joe on Tech Guides. His second book in this series Maintaining Your Mac will be reviewed at a later time.

If you have never had your hard drive die, spilled coffee on your laptop, inadvertently erased your family photos, had lightning strike your house, had your computer stolen, or endured any number of other unexpected tragedies, then don’t bother reading this book. And don’t bother backing up your Mac. On the other hand, even though none of these may have happened to you so far, what are the odds that they might happen in the future. Are you that much of a a gambler?

After all most of us don’t wait until we die to buy life insurance. What would be the point. Maybe we should start thinking about Mac Backups as life insurance for our data.

Here is what Joe has to say about his book.

In my new book, “Backing up Your Mac: A Joe On Tech Guide,” I lay out a backup strategy that aims to be, shall we say, highly bullet-resistant. There are no guarantees when it comes to computers, and as Robert Heinlein once said, “It is impossible to make anything foolproof, because fools are so ingenious.” That qualification aside, the system I use personally and explain in my book offers Mac users a simple way to achieve peace of mind. As I often say, even if a meteorite destroyed my house and all my equipment (while I wasn’t at home, obviously), I have 100 percent confidence that I would lose absolutely no important data. (Nuclear war, a zombie apocalypse, or an asteroid strike might be too much, but then I’d have bigger things to worry about anyway.)

As I talk to people about my book, I frequently hear responses along the lines of, “Well, here’s what I do to back up my Mac. What do you think of my system?” More often than not, I don’t say what I think, which is “Wow, that is one of the stupidest strategies I’ve ever heard of.”

In the book Joe lists 11 Backup Strategies that we should avoid.

  1. Having no backups at all. Doing nothing is the worst way to approach backups. You will lose data at some point.
  2. Depending on data recovery apps or services. These are very expensive and not always successful.
  3. Wishful thinking. If you don’t save your work often, even the best backup scheme is worthless.
  4. Doing manual backups. Something is better than nothing, but in my experience, the day you forget to back up something manually (or run out of time) is the day you lose data.
  5. Using only Time Machine.
  6. Using only clones for backup.
  7. Having no offsite backups.
  8. Having only online backups.
  9. Relying solely on Dropbox (or similar services).
  10. Assuming Web apps don’t need backups.
  11. Thinking of RAID as a backup.

You can read more about what Joe has to say on TidBITS.. Don’t forget to read the comments at the end where readers provide a number of anecdotes that reinforce the need for backups.

Joe lays out a three-part backup strategy which is consistent with what I recommend and personally use. The strategy employs three different techniques which collectively provide nearly foolproof protection for your data. The rationale for this strategy is clear and compelling and Joe discusses the pros and cons of various options so that you have the information available to make your own decisions.

  1. Versioned Backups using Time Machine. Versioned backups provide multiple copies of each file so that you have both the latest version and numerous previous versions. This makes it easy to recover an older version of a file that you erased. These types of errors, usually caused by the computer operator (that means you), are probably the most common that you will encounter.
  2. Bootable Backups. Bootable backups are complete clones of your internal drive and, as the name suggests can be used to boot and run your computer in case of a failure. The backup is stored on an external hard drive and updated regularly. Trust me — if your hard drive fails, you will be exceedingly happy that you have a bootable backup.
  3. Offsite Copies.There are a variety of ways to achieve these and Joe’s book gives you a clear description of the options. Offsite copies are crucial in case of more catastrophic events such as fire, theft, flooding, lightning, and other things which can destroy both your computer and your local backups.

I would add one more component to the mix – test your backups. No matter how carefully you configure things you might get in a situation where you think backups are being made, but in reality they aren’t. This can result is extreme frustration, particularly when you were feeling so self-righteous about your backup strategy.

There are many good articles about backing up your Mac but I find this book to be one of the more complete treatments of the subject. It not only makes the case for “why backup” but it gives easily understood options for “how to backup.” And the book gives good coverage of the rapidly changing world of iCloud and other cloud solutions, the demise of optical storage, the rise of solid state drives, and other changes in the technological landscape.

Finally, the book advises you to periodically review your backup strategy to reflect changes in your system and advances in technology. I know that for most of us the topic of backups is boring. But so is life and health insurance until you really need it. Make sure that you are adequately covered – you won’t regret it.

Pick up a copy of Backing Up Your Mac: A Joe On Tech Guide and learn how to make the process a little less painful.

Bottom line: Highly recommended.