Restore from backup - bringing a Mac back with Time Capsule

My brother called and told me my mom was in the hospital. At 80 her health has been declining pretty rapidly so I immediately booked a flight to California, planning to spend a week there to help my brother with both her and my father. Needless to say I had a lot on my mind as I rushed to the airport in the wee hours of a Tuesday morning last week.

Back at home my wife's MacBook sat at her desk, left on overnight like she often did so that when she woke up in the morning a quick shake of the mouse would brighten the screen and allow her to check e-mail. From what I can tell in the hourly backup logs, at roughly the same time my aircraft lifted off the runway the 120GB hard disk in her MacBook crashed.

When I checked in with my wife that night to update her on my mom's status, she told me that her MacBook was dead.

Me: "Dead?"
Allison: "It's just got a gray screen. I've tried restarting it and that's all that comes up."

Of course, this has to happen when the only techie in the family leaves on a weeklong trip. Fortunately for us my wife's MacBook is backed up regularly using Time Machine pointing at a Time Capsule. To make a really long story short, I tried to get our 14 year old daughter to install a replacement drive into the MacBook. The salesman at BestBuy sold her the wrong drive so after trying to jam a PATA drive into a SATA slot, she gave up until I returned home.

Bringing Back a Dead Mac
When I came home from California I promptly returned the incorrect drive and picked up a Western Digital 320GB black drive instead. Fast, high capacity, good reviews and I've had excellent luck with WD drives in the past. The installation was a snap as I've done this before.

I did encounter a problem when I first tried restoring my data though. Having purchased a number of different Macs over the last two years, I had quite a few OS X install disks lying around, including several for MacBooks since my wife and both daughters have them. Apparently I was using the wrong one because it would not allow me to do a restore from the Mac OS X Install Disc. Once I figured out the correct disk everything went much more smoothly. If you have multiple Macs you may want to label your disk sets to ensure they match up w/ the right Mac.

First I used Disk Utility to format the drive as a single large partition using Mac OS Extended (Journaled). Next, from the OS X Installer menu I ran the restore utility. By following the prompts I was able to select our Time Capsule and choose the correct bundle on it for my wife's machine.

Though I normally access the network from her machine using WiFi, I took a standard ethernet cable and plugged it directly into the Time Capsule to help speed up the process. It ended up taking about 3 hours to restore her machine. Once restored a quick reboot returned her machine to its pre-hard-drive-crash state.

The Importance of Backups
Do yourself a favor right now: check the status of your backup and—if you're the techie in the family—do that for all the computers in your home. Make sure it's running properly and that you have a basic game plan for the day your primary (or secondary) hard drive fails. Your hard drive will eventually fail. It may not happen for ten years, several months or as you are reading this but it will eventually fail.

As more and more of our lives are captured digitally, backups are more important than ever. If all you do is set up Time Machine to point at a remote drive at least you have something to fall back on.

And for those that are interested, my mom is doing much better. My brother and I moved our parents into assisted living apartments. They have help with meals, medical care on site and lots of other folks to interact with. It's the ultimate backup system for the elderly.

Do you have a backup technique you use that may help others? Please share it below!


Nicholas Tolson said...

I have two Macs, a MacPro desktop and a Macbook Pro.

I backup all my priceless stuff (music, photos, work files, etc.) to an external hard drive as well as off-site via Mozy. This comprises almost 200gb of data, and it all sites on a drive separate from my boot drive. My boot drive gets backed up via SuperDuper to another internal drive, so if the primary drive fails, I can be up and running in minutes. I also test this secondary boot drive every so often to be sure this backup plan actually works (crucial step many don't do). I don't off-site backup this boot drive, because there's nothing really valuable on it. Worst case scenario is that I have to spend a couple hours reinstalling and updating OS X if both drives fail at the same time.

I actually don't backup the Macbook Pro at all. It's my portable machine, so any working files are synced (and thus backed up) via Dropbox, so I also have them on my MacPro and in the cloud. Again, if this HD goes belly up, all I have to do is re-install the OS and (just a couple) apps, and I'm good to go.

Not perfect, but it protects the things I need to protect most.

One final note is that I have lived through multiple HD failures - both in a corporate environment and personally - and it royally sucks - and as David said, it DOES and WILL happen to you. Don't say we didn't warn you.

Robert said...

I'm the house techie so I get to figure out all the back up stuff. We have all laptops: 1 MacBook Pro and the rest XP. I use the Mac's Time Machine to back stuff up locally. I sync the rest of the computers in the house to it using Jungle Disk or Dropbox then use Jungle Disk to back up the stuff synced to mine to the cloud.

It's convoluted but it works for having stuff on hard drives, backed up in the house for easy retrieval, and backed up remotely in case of disaster or theft.

Robert said...

Glad your mother is doing better

Paul Russo said...

The best backup technique by far is Time Machine. Nothing I have ever come across has even come close. Some of my clients want to get more sophisticated, but I advise even them to start with Time Machine then add other backup options.

Still there are problems. The biggest problem lies with Time Machine itself. David, you alluded to it in this blog entry. I have tell people this one over and over and they still don't do it:

> check the status of your backup

The problem is that there is no _obvious_ indication that the backup has failed. Most people, even ones who know better, ignore the error indicator in Time Machine menu. They're busy and easily miss it. I've done it myself. Only when they get the message that the backup has not been done for 20 days, do they call me. But this message is easy to dismiss in a rush, so sometimes they wait even longer.

In case anybody is wondering why the backup might fail, here are some common reasons for individuals:

- Time Machine backup setting is simply turned off.
- The backup drive is disconnected.
- The backup drive is connected, but the power is not.
- The backup drive is connected, but the disk has been ejected.
- The backup drive image on the Time Capsule has been corrupted.
- The Time Capsule is not available as a backup because the computer's WiFi is not connected to the Time Capsule. Instead it's connected to the neighbor's WiFi.

Another issue related to this one is that when someone travels with their laptop, it's usually not connected to a Time Capsule or to a backup drive. During this time, there is a different but similar looking error indication in the Time Machine menu. This error indication is normal during travel, but it can desensitize someone to the indication that there is no backup at all.

It's impossible for normal people to distinguish between the indicator saying it's not backing up at this instant because of travel, and the indicator saying it's not backing up at all. It's also impossible during travel to tell when the last backup occurred.

Businesses sometimes have more complicated reasons but in the end they are similar.

Anonymous said...

Make sure you have *two* backups (e.g., 2 Time Machine backups) in two different locations, such as home and work, just in case--knock on wood--something bad happens at the location where you have both computer and backup.


Paul Russo said...

Yes two backups at separate locations is a lot better than one.

I did once have have had two hard drives fail simultaneously, one was the backup of the other. Lucky for me, that although the first failed instantaneously, the second failed over several hours allowing me to copy the data to a third drive.

I have also known people who have had their computer stolen along with their backup. Bad. Try to keep your backup drive physically away from your computer, especially when traveling.

It's a shame that Time Machine doesn't work automatically with dual backups. To make dual backups work, the settings must be manually changed each time the disks are swapped. I doubt that many people would do this reliably.

The best way that I've found for businesses, is to have a Mac OS X Snow Leopard machine acting as a backup server. For under ten machines, the server version of OS X is not required, and neither is a fast machine. Everyone backs up to the drive on the backup server. The server itself has a time machine backup to a separate disk. So this makes dual backups.

For offsite backups, this disk is periodically swapped with another disk. The preference changes are still necessary, but it does work if the person who makes the swap and the changes is charged with the responsibility to be sure it's done properly.

Still, somebody must be responsible for doing this on all machines:

> check the status of your backup

David Alison said...

@Robert: Thanks for the kind words about my mom.

@Paul: Some great info in there - thanks for including that. I agree, for the average person Time Machine is outstanding.

@Mike: Also wise words. Sometimes HDs fail because they are involved in a house fire.

Ian O said...

I back up my MacBook to a 2-disk mirrored RAID attached to a MacMini server plus a SuperDuper ext HD from time-to-time. The RAID is because back in January my 2-year old Time Machine died to a corrupted sparse image. The worry at the back of my mind is that if (when) one of my RAID disks fails to, say, a head crash it shouldn't be a problem restoring from the mirror, but if the failure is another corruption, is it possible that I will find 2 corrupted sparse images?
Anyone struck this situation?

SBBrit said...

I use Time Machine on a 3.5" external, but I also have a second backup disk, which is a 2.5" SATA just like the internal on my Macbook Pro, this one I clone using Super Duper (an app I can't praise enough and the Dev is very responsive) Last time a HDD died on me I popped it out and popped in the clone and everything was fine, took all of 5 minutes. All my important work is also backed up to Dropbox and MobileME so I can access from any computer just incase my Hardware has a catastrophic failure.

Anonymous said...

Good to hear your mother is doing better.

I learned a lesson about checking your backups. I do not have a Time Capsule. I backup my MacBook Pro to an external drive so I just run it manually once a week. I would start it and walk away. I did not notice it was finishing pretty quickly.

There's one thing that everybody needs to know about using Time Machine. It finished pretty quickly because it was just backing up the changes on the system not my home directory. It wasn't backing up my home directory because I had File Vault enabled. It can only back up your home directory when you are logged out if you have File Vault enabled. I've never read anything about that anywhere. I looked on Apple's Support site and it does say something about that. How many people go to Apple's website before they use something? It's so easy to use so you don't need to.

Luckily I didn't loose too much. My email and bookmarks are stored on the server. I only had File Vault enacted for a few months when I needed to use my backup when I installed Snow Leopard. I decided to run a clean install instead of an archive and install like I did with Leopard. I thought starting completely fresh would be good. Luckily I burned my photos to DVD or I would have lost those which included by wedding and honeymoon photos. Apple should have some kind of warning pop up when you enable File Vault.


Bry said...

I just upgraded my MacBook's drive to this same drive a few weeks ago, certainly noticed an improvement in speed associated with move from 5400rpm to 7200rpm. I restored my machine from a Time Machine backup, I couldn't believe just how easy this was.

Unlike when I used to do the old 6 monthly reinstall of my Windows PC (for speed recovery!), which also subsequently involved installing all the patches, reinstalling all the apps, then applying all their patches, the process of restoring from Time Machine only necessitated my spotlight indexes being built from scratch. The whole process post-hard disk being replaced, was 1 hour. Can't speak highly enough of this whole experience, 1 hour vs the usual 4-5 hours I certainly appreciate the saved time.

Matt said...

I'm a SuperDuper user myself-- I've got two external firewire HDs, and one of them is a bootable clone of my hard disk. SuperDuper has a 'smart copy' feature, so updating the clone takes about 15-20 minutes. And it works-- when the HD in my iMac failed (around a year ago) I just booted off the external drive, and that was that.

KC said...

Did you try Diskwarrior to repair the drive first?

Tom Zimmer said...

I recently started to run out of space on my internal 500GB drive in my iMac, which is backed up onto a Time Capsule. To resolve the space problem, I installed an external drive, backed up to it and selected it as the boot disk. I configured Time Machine, or thought I had, and went my merry way. Later I found out that Time Machine was backing up my internal drive, instead of the new external drive. I actually had to reformat the Time Capsule to get it to backup the right drive. I probably didn't have to do that, but i couldn't figure out a way to get it to backup my external drive.

brian said...

Great post, David. A question for the group: Is a 7200 drive THAT much faster than my current 5400 MBP drive?

David Alison said...

@Brian: There are a few factors that impact the performance of a hard drive: platter speed (rotation), seek time and the type of interface used—in the case of newer Macs it's PATA.

The biggest impact that the drive speed has is on larger files. When you open or write something large to disk (say digital media, photos, video, etc) you'll see a noticeable improvement. Generally speaking a faster drive will have a quicker seek time as well, which has the biggest impact on general performance.

Usually though the performance difference you will observe in real world conditions is not dramatic, but it is noticeable. Hope this helps!

brian said...

Thanks, David. Since I do pretty basic stuff on my MBP, I don't think a faster drive will do much for me.

BK Bazhe - said...

thank you

Mark Husson said...

Thanks for the great post and great news about your mom!

I use ministack hard drives from OtherWorldComputing. I don't think there are comparable hard drives or customer service (I seriously don't work for them).

I use Super Duper to clone a bootable drive and it works flawlessly and time capsule with another ministack (3tb). My time machine kept filling up even after configuring it not copy non-essentials so I rely more heavily on the super duper backups which have saved me more than once.

David Alison said...

@Mark Husson: Thanks Mark. I've heard nothing but glowing reviews of Super Duper and I've purchased a few things from OWC and they came through fine—haven't had to test their customer service.

I think the challenge for all of us "techies" is to ensure all of the "non-techies" that come to us for help are running a solid backup plan. Most of the non-techies I know don't even think about it.