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How to use Time Capsule & Time Machine to back up and restore your Mac

Could you handle losing data if something went wrong with your Mac or you accidentally deleted something? Did you know that you can safeguard your emails, photos or music tracks, or that important document you're preparing?

It's free!

Far too many people don't bother to take advantage of the free and easy functionality Apple provide to make backups; the facility is called Time Machine and it's standard with Mac OSX. This article aims to explain how it works.

Getting started

To start, just select a drive (internal or external) and Time Machine will take a snapshot of that drive every hour. After a day the intervals between backups will increase to every 24 hours, with the most recent 24 hour period having hourly backups. After a month, the interval between backups will be every 7 days. If the space allotted to these snapshots starts to run out, then the oldest weekly backup will be replaced with the newest.

When using an external USB drive, setup is child's play. Connecting the drive via USB will open up a dialog asking if you want to use that drive with Time Machine. If you confirm, the drive will be wiped first.

You can choose to exclude certain folders within the drive from the backups, but that's the end of the configuration possibilities. However, Time Machine is integrated with many programs as standard, and there is a 'Finder' feature that will also allow you to restore ANY file so long as it is on the drive.

Introducing Time Capsule

One drawback to using a USB drive is that backups will only take place if the drive is attached. Sounds obvious perhaps, and if you're a desktop user then you connect and forget, but if you're a laptop user on the go then your backup facility might be at risk if you forget your leads. So Apple have created the Time Capsule; a wireless router / hard drive combo that will work with both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks.

Simply connect this to your existing broadband modem, then and follow the set up instructions, including setting a password. You will have the option of either joining any current wireless network or creating a new one (we'd recommend doing the latter). Then, go to Systems Preferences > Time Machine > Backup Disk, then Time Capsule > Use for Backup, enter the password you just created and click Connect.

Whether you use the Time Capsule or a USB drive, the first time you create a backup will take some time. Typically this is a few hours, but it could take longer depending on the size of the drive and the amount of data. One tip when using the Time Capsule is to actually use an Ethernet cable for the initial backup to cut down the time. But you can of course keep using your Mac during the time that the backup is in progress.

Now, if the worst happens, you should be protected. So, if catastrophe does strike, what do you do?

Restoring the Drive / Reinstalling Mac OS X

First, you need to check whether or not you need to reinstall Mac OSX. To do this you should run the Disk Utility process, and you need to be in OS X Recovery Mode to do this. To enter Recovery Mode, restart your Mac whilst holding down Command + R. The first screen displayed when you do this should be called OS X Utilities, and from there you select Disk Utility, then the drive that you're concerned with, and wait for the system to assess the damage. You'll be prompted to Repair Disk if there are any problems with it.

If there are no problems with the disk, or Repair Disk has made no difference, then you should next try Safe Boot. To do this shut your Mac down, then hold Shift down whilst you reboot. This will take a while but might allow you to repair Mac OS X by removing some start up items. Go to System Preferences > Users & Groups and then choose your account. Then select Login Items and select Remove (it's the '-' symbol) to deselect options. Now restart your Mac normally.

If this hasn't worked, then there's one more thing to try. Shut down your Mac then restart whilst holding down Command + S to enter Single User Mode. You'll see a black screen with white messages; wait for the text to stop scrolling. You'll then see what is called the Command Line Prompt. At this point type 'fsck -fy' and then hit Return. You may have to wait for several minutes to see if this has worked, but you're waiting for a message that will state "...appears to be OK". Once you see that message, type 'reboot' and hit Return again. Your Mac should now boot as normal.

If none of this has worked then you are going to have to try to restore via Time Machine. Boot up your Mac into Recovery Mode as above, click 'Restore from a Time Machine backup' and follow the prompts on the screen.

Still no joy? OK, you are going to have to reinstall OS X totally. Assuming that you have an internet connection, then you'll need to do the following:

Boot into Recovery Mode again and select 'Reinstall OS X'. Let the wizard guide you through the process until you get to the window that asks you 'Do you already own a Mac?', choose YES to enter the Migration Assistant, and then select the 'From Time Machine Backup' option. This should return everything to normal, with all the data and files from your latest backup in (and you can select specific items to restore or the complete reinstall option).

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