How to Backup Files on a Mac Disk

It doesn’t take much time to learn how to back up a Mac computer—certainly less than what it takes to recover lost data. In this article, we describe multiple tried-and-tested backup methods so you can choose the one that fits your needs the best. Of course, it’s always a good idea to combine multiple backup methods for extra redundancy.

Backup DMG
How to Backup Data on a Mac Disk

Sooner or later, all hard drives begin to fail. Maybe opening files begins to take minutes instead of seconds. Maybe you start to hear strange noises coming from inside your Mac. Maybe you begin to see strange messages about corrupted files.

Instead of shrugging off these early warning signs, take action to back up data on Mac quickly. As long as your Mac is still running, you can use Disk Drill Mac data backup software to create an exact snapshot of the hard drive, also called a disk image, so that you can recover it later.

Disk Drill makes the creation of OS X backups quick and painless. The software copies every bit of data stored on the hard drive, including areas marked as free space, ensuring that even recently deleted files that haven’t yet been overwritten are not left behind. As such, it allows you to perform data recovery with Disk Drill and restore missing files right from the backup disk image.

Why You Should Back Up Your Mac

Data loss knows no mercy, and it has a tendency to come when you expect it the least. By regularly backing up your MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, iMac, Mac mini, or Mac Pro, you can avoid losing important files whose recovery otherwise wouldn’t be possible even with the best data recovery software.

Emptied Trash bin

Emptied Trash bin

Once emptied, the Trash bin folder, whose purpose is to temporarily store deleted files, can be recovered only using specialized data recovery software, and the results are not guaranteed, especially not when a TRIM-enabled SSD is part of the equation.

Erased or formatted partition

Erased or formatted partition

It doesn’t take much to make a mistake and accidentally erase or format a wrong partition. But with a complete backup at hand, you should be able to recover the entire content of the partition without any issues.

User error

User error

If only users never made any mistakes, data loss wouldn’t be such a widespread and costly issue. Unfortunately, users do make mistakes, which is why it’s so important to know how to backup MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, Mac mini, iMac, and Mac Pro.

Physical damage

Physical damage

Data loss can often be addressed using data recovery software, but not if its cause is physical damage. In such cases, your best option is to recover lost data from a backup.

Device theft

Device theft

Thieves are attracted to Apple devices as bees are to flowers. While a backup won’t give you your beloved MacBook back, it will at least make it possible for you to recover lost data.

File corruption

File corruption

Depending on its extend, corruption can make important files inaccessible, and it’s not always possible to repair it using first- and third-party tools.

What You Need to Do Before Backing Up Your Mac

Just like it’s a good idea to wash your car before taking it in for servicing, there are certain steps you should always take before backing up your Mac. If you do, the chances of you experiencing issues during the backup process are guaranteed to drop down significantly.

Get rid of junk files

Get rid of junk files

There’s a good chance that your Mac is full of junk files, such as downloads you don’t need anymore, duplicate files, and app leftovers. Junk files have no place in your backup because they would only make it larger, so you should get rid of them. Disk Drill comes with multiple extra free tools that can help you effortlessly find and delete all junk files, so make sure to give it a try.

Check available storage

Check available storage

While the best backup software applications check how much storage space is available before the backup process begins, it’s always a good idea to check available storage space manually. The easiest way to do just that is by launching Disk Utility and choosing your backup storage device from the left pane.

Make sure your backup drive is properly formatted

Make sure your backup drive is properly formatted

It goes without saying that your backup drive must have a functioning partition on it otherwise you wouldn’t be able to copy files to it in the first place, but there’s more to it than that. You also need to use the right file system for the job because not all files systems are supported by all operating systems. We recommend exFAT for the best cross-platform compatibility and APFS for Mac-only backups.

Save your work

Save your work

For your backup to contain the latest versions of important files, you need to first save your work. Why? Because many applications store document changes in a temporary storage location that may be excluded from your backup, and some even store changes only in system memory.

Close as many running apps as possible

Close as many running apps as possible

To avoid software conflicts and other issues during the backup process, you should close as many running apps as possible. When we say close, we actually mean that you should terminate them (such as by pressing the CMD + Q shortcut) so that they’re not running at all. You can open Activity Monitor to see all running processes.

Pick the right time

Pick the right time

Backups sometimes take a long time to create, especially when backing a lot of small files to a slow hard drive. That’s why you should always pick a time when you know your Mac won’t be needed. By starting the backup process at the wrong time, you might be tempted to interrupt it just so you can use your computer as you would normally, and that’s never a good idea.

How to Back Up a Mac with Disk Drill

Thanks to Disk Drill’s Byte-to-byte Backup feature, it takes just a few clicks to create a complete backup of your Mac and store it someplace safe. Should anything happen to your Mac, you will be able to restore all data with ease.

Step 1

Install and launch Disk Drill

You can download Disk Drill for free from its official website. The Byte-to-byte Backup feature is a free extra, so you don’t have to purchase a license to use it. To install Disk Drill, open the downloaded installer file and drag the Disk Drill icon to the Applications folder.

Install and launch Disk Drill
Step 2

Connect an external drive

Next, you need to connect a sufficiently large external hard drive to your Mac. The drive should be at least as large as the hard drive you want to back up, but it’s even better when it has plenty of extra storage space. With your external drive connected, you can go ahead and launch Disk Drill. Keep in mind that Disk Drill will ask for the admin password when launched for the first time.

Connect an external drive
Step 3

Create a byte-to-byte backup image

To create a byte-to-byte backup image, select the Byte-to-byte Backup feature from the left pane and choose the drive you want to back up. Click the Create backup button and specify where you want to store the backup file. When backing up a drive encrypted with the Apple M1/T2 security chip, Disk Drill will warn you that the backup image probably won’t be recoverable. Unfortunately, this is a downside of using full-disk encryption, and there’s nothing that can be done about it.

Create a byte-to-byte backup image

Other Ways You Can Back Up Your Mac

Byte-to-byte backup images created using Disk Drill make it easy to recover even from the most serious data loss situations, but they’re not your only backup option. Let’s take a look at five other ways you can back up your Mac.

Method 1

Manually Back Up Important Files to an External Storage Device

To back up important files so they can be recovered even if your main hard drive stops working, you actually only need a suitable external storage device, such as a USB flash drive:

  1. Plug in the external storage device to your Mac.
  2. Open Finder and navigate to the folder where the files you want to back up are located.
  3. Copy the files to the clipboard (CMD + C).
  4. Navigate to the external storage device.
  5. Paste the files from the clipboard (CMD + V).

Sure, there’s nothing convenient about manually backing up files like this, but the method doesn’t require any setup and it just works.

Manually Back Up Important Files to an External Storage Device
Method 2

Set Up Time Machine to Automatically Back Up Your Data

All Mac computers come with a backup application called Time Machine. You can configure this backup application to automatically back up your data to an external storage device:

  1. Open System Preferences.
  2. Go to Time Machine.
  3. Click Select Backup Disk.
  4. Choose a suitable backup disk and click Use Disk.
  5. Wait for Time Machine to create the first backup.

What’s great about Time Machine is that it gives you the ability to recover specific versions of backedup files.

Set Up Time Machine to Automatically Back Up Your Data
Method 3

Back Up to iCloud or Some Other Cloud Backup

It takes just a minute to back up files and folders to Apple’s cloud storage service, iCloud. Data in iCloud can be accessed from anywhere and any device, so recovering them is easy. To enable iCloud on your Mac:

  1. Open System Preferences.
  2. Click Apple ID.
  3. Select the iCloud option from the left pane.
  4. Sign in with your Apple ID if asked to do so.
  5. Enable and configure iCloud Drive.

Of course, you can use any cloud storage service you want—not just iCloud. Some of the most popular options include Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, and Dropbox.

Back Up to iCloud or Some Other Cloud Backup
Method 4

Create a Bootable Disk Image Using Third-Party Software

Besides Disk Drill, there are various other third-party backup software solutions that can create byte-to-byte backups, and some can even create backups that are bootable.

One such third-party software application is Carbon Copy Cloner, whose latest version automatically uses Apple's proprietary APFS replication utility (ASR) to make an exact copy of the source.

Create a Bootable Disk Image Using Third-Party Software
Method 5

Buy a Network-Attached Storage (NAS) Device

A network-attached storage device, or NAS for short, is basically a file storage server that can be connected to your home network and accessed from any device on the same network. That’s right, NAS devices let you back up your MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Mac mini, or Mac Pro to a remote location wirelessly using Time Machine or any other backup software.

These days, NAS devices are fairly affordable (at least considering what they can do), so the convenience they provide is well worth the investment. Popular manufacturers of NAS devices include Synology, QNAP, Seagate, WD, and Buffalo.

Buy a Network-Attached Storage (NAS) Device
Method 6

Build Your Own Raspberry Pi-Powered NAS

Entry-level NAS devices from renowned brands are fairly affordable these days, but there’s one even cheaper option when it comes to backing up data to a network-attached storage device: you can build your own using a Raspberry Pi.

Basically, the idea is to connect a suitable hard drive (or two or ten) to a Raspberry Pi and then use a Linux distribution called OpenMediaVault to handle the software side of things.

OpenMediaVault is an extendable network-attached storage (NAS) solution with support for services like SMB/CIFS, SSH, (S)FTP, and DLNA. It’s perfect for home users and small businesses because it works out of the box and can be easily configured using a web-based interface.

Since a brand-new Raspberry Pi 4 costs $55, you’re looking at a very small investment, especially if you already own a suitable storage device and the few extra bits and pieces required to put this project together.

Build Your Own Raspberry Pi-Powered NAS
Method 7

Automatically Back Up Select Folders

It’s always best to back up your entire Mac because you can then easily restore it to the last working state even if something goes horribly wrong and the operating system stops working correctly, preventing you from accessing your data.

But there are also many good reasons to back up only select folders, such as when working on an extra-important project. In such situations, software like ChronoSync can be worth every single dollar, allowing you to synchronize two folders and create redundant copies of your files.

We recommend you use it to create two sets of backups: one stored locally on your Mac, and the other one stored offsite.

Automatically Back Up Select Folders

Solid-State Drive (SSD) vs Hard Disk Drive (HDD) for Backups: Which Is Better?

When it comes to choosing a backup drive, you have two basic options: SSDs and HDDs. Let’s take a quick look at each of these two options.

Frequently Asked Questions

Updated on by Disk Drill Team

How do I back up files on my Mac?

You can back up files on your Mac using Apple’s own built-in backup feature, called Time Machine:

  1. Connect a suitable backup drive to your Mac.
  2. Launch System Preferences and then click Time Machine.
  3. Click Select Backup Disk and pick your backup drive.

Keep in mind that the first backup can take a long time to create, especially if you have many files on your computer.

What is the best way to back up my Mac?

Here are the best ways to back up a Mac computer in 2022:

  1. Best automatic backup solution: Time Machine
  2. Best for byte-to-byte backups: Disk Drill Drive Backup
  3. Back cloud storage: iCloud
  4. Best open-source: Duplicati
  5. Best proprietary: Carbon Copy Cloner

How do I back up my Mac to an external drive?

You can back up your Mac to an external drive using Time Machine, a built-in backup feature that lets you automatically back up your personal data:

  1. Connect your external backup drive.
  2. Open the Apple menu and select System Preferences.
  3. Choose Time Machine.
  4. Click Select Backup Disk and add the external backup drive.
  5. Check the Back Up Automatically box and close the Time Machine window.

In fact, Time Machine only works with external drives (and shared network folders), connected using either USB or Thunderbolt.

Can you back up a Mac without an external hard drive?

Yes, you can back up your Mac without using an external hard drive. There are many backup tools, such as the byte-to-byte feature included for free in Disk Drill, that let you save your backup to any suitably large storage device. Alternatively, you can also use a cloud storage service like iCloud, Microsoft OneDrive, or Google Drive.

Can I backup my Mac without using Time Machine?

Absolutely! You can, for example, use the byte-to-byte backup feature in Disk Drill:

  1. Launch Disk Drill.
  2. Select the Byte-to-byte Backup option from the left pane.
  3. Read the text and click “OK, let’s do it” if this is your first time launching the feature.
  4. Select the partition you would like to back up.
  5. Click the Create backup button and specify where you want to store the backup.

How long should a Mac backup take?

That depends entirely on the size and speed of your hard drive. If you have a Mac with a very large hard drive, then a full backup may take several hours, especially if the hard drive isn’t an SSD.

How do I manually back up my Mac?

There are many ways to manually back up a Mac, but it’s never a good idea to rely on just one backup method. Instead, you should combine several methods to achieve redundancy. Here’s an example of how you can do just that:

  • Create local backups of important files using Time Machine.
  • Use iCloud or some other cloud storage service for offsite backups.
  • From time to time, use Disk Drill’s backup feature to create a byte-to-byte backup of your system drive.

What size external hard drive do I need to back up my Mac?

That depends on how you want to back up your Mac. If you want to create a full backup of the entire system drive, then you need an external hard drive that’s at least as large as the system drive. But if you just want to back up select folders, then even a small USB flash drive should be enough to get the job done.

How do I back up my entire Mac to an external hard drive?

You can easily back up your entire Mac to an adequately large external hard drive using an application like Disk Drill, which lets you create a complete backup of your Mac with just a few clicks:

  1. Install and launch Disk Drill.
  2. Connect an external drive.
  3. Select the Byte-to-byte Backup feature.
  4. Click the Create backup button.
  5. Select your external drive.

How do I back up an external hard drive to an external hard drive on Mac?

There are two basic ways to back up an external hard drive to an external hard drive on Mac:

  • You can manually transfer its content using Finder.
  • You can use specialized backup software.

The second approach offers several advantages, such as the possibility to automate the backup process to keep the two external hard drives in sync.

Disk Drill is a thorough scanner

Use Deep Scan feature for those times when there is hardly any file structure left. Disk Drill will scan through the raw data on your hard drive no matter if it is FAT, or NTFS, or something else. It will work file fragments into a single structure and will look for the binary signature of the lost files. Once Disk Drill recognizes a sought for file signature, XLS, DOC, AVI, MP4, JPG, and other formats recovery goes quite fast.

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