How to start using Time Machine on your Mac

Keeping your files and preferences safe is easy

Something as simple as plugging your backup drive after an important work session can make the whole difference when you have an accident with your Mac. This is a simple guide to help you getting started with Time Machine, Apple's own built-in backup software.

Time Machine will take care of your documents, photos, music and even your desktop configuration. This is to guarantee that in case something goes wrong — blame the children or the cat — everything can go back to normal with no effort. Remember, it doesn't cost much to be safe. Having even a basic backup strategy is something priceless for any computer user.

The first step is to get hold of an external drive that you will use only for Time Machine. You won't be able to change any file there or to drag items manually. This will be a hard drive dedicated to Time Machine. There are very affordable options out there with great capacity and the fast transfer speeds USB 3.0 provides. To get started with a decent backup strategy, go for something simple from a reliable manufacturer.

Notice that if your drive comes formatted to be compatible with Windows you don't need to erase the contents using the Mac's 'Disk Utility' — Time Machine will take care of this. Some manufacturers sell drives slightly more expensive just for being compatible with OS X. You can format a regular Windows drive when you get home for free!

Plug & backup

Once you get your portable hard drive you're ready to go. Connect it to your Mac and you'll be immediately prompted if you'd like to use this as your Time Machine drive. Click 'Use as Backup Disk' to continue. At this point you could get a warning message saying the disk needs to be erased and be formatted properly to be used with Time Machine. Just accept.

The next window you see is Time Machine's pane from System Preferences. Here you can switch on and off the app with that slider on the left that you should leave on. There are a couple of useful things in this window that you might want to check out now.

1) Space available

Under the name you have given to the Time Machine drive you can see the available space for further copies. This is important because once the space runs out, Time Machine will begin deleting older archives. If you don't want to lose your old backups, note that Mountain Lion allows you to use multiple drives so you can share the load.

2) Oldest and latest backups

Time Machine will make a copy every hour for the last 24h if you leave the drive plugged. After that, these copies will be daily for the next month and weekly until the space runs out.

3) Add a shortcut in the menu bar

I'm not very fond clutter on my menu bar so I have this disabled. What you get is a Time Machine icon next to your date and time and speaker volume that gives you quick access to some commands. From that contextual menu you can ask Time Machine to begin copying even if it isn't scheduled.

Every time the Time Machine is saving the icon will begin spinning. I find this very distracting. If you do as well, remember this pane in System Preferences is the place to disable it. If you still want to see the status of your Time Machine drive, the Finder will also show a spinning icon she the drive is working.

4) Exclude items from backups

There are some type of files, such as your Download folders, that will take up space and that aren't going to be so critical. Think of big files and folders on your system that you might have on a different drive already.

After considering these four points you're ready to begin your first Time Machine copy. As you can see, this is done already for you and if you've done this correctly your next backup should begin in less than three minutes.

Remember the first time it's going to take a while as it's copying everything. Next time, it will only copy the files that have changes — hence the need to keep copies quick and short by doing backups regularly. Hey, and if you're very organised, you can also set a reminder on iCal!

Warping back in time

The grooviest part of backing up with Time Machine is recovering your files 'warping back in time'. You can launch the app directly from Launchpad on your dock (rocket icon) or typing 'Time Machine' in Spotlight (the magnifying glass on the top right of your desktop).

Launching Time Machine with your backup drive connected will allow you to navigate back in time on your system. Open a window in finder, for example, and you scroll through older versions of the finder. Genious!

This space-themed presentation is a little gimmicky but the system works very well. Being able to see the changes in a file in the past five hours have saved me from more than one heart attack.

OS X makes it very easy to backup the system and avoid disappointments losing precious digital memories, often irreplaceable. This guide shows how easy and how little it requires from you to keep everything save. The way I do it? I keep my Time Machine drive labeled as such, always sitting at my desk. At least once I week, maybe while watching some videos, I remember to plug it. I hope a simple setup like this works for you too.