How to Back up Mac Files

How to Back up Mac Files

Not sure how to back up files on your Mac? Or, have you neglected to set up your backup drive?

Don’t put it off! When my computer hard drive failed (after six years) I could have been really stuck. Fortunately, I found someone who was able to retrieve the data. But, if he hadn’t… well, I would have been well and truly up a creek with no paddle.

Once I got the drive (an Iomega  1 TB drive), I was a bit concerned about how to set it up properly. I got a Windows drive, which I had to reformat for my Mac. I was nervous about the whole thing, but it turned out to be pretty easy to do.

This page will show you how to reformat your new drive (if necessary), how to back up your Mac files, and also some tips for choosing the right hard drive (if you don’t have one yet).

How to back up your files with Time Machine

  1. First, connect your back up drive to your computer, using either a USB or a Firewire port (depending on the drive).
  2. If you’re using Time Machine for the first time, open it from the dock.
  3. Select “Backup Disk.” Choose your new drive and click “use for backup.”
  4. If you’ve bought a Mac formatted drive, you can skip this step. If you have one that’s formatted for Windows, you’ll need to erase the Windows formatting so that it will work with your Mac.  Time Machine will prompt you to reformat the disk (pick Mac OS Extended Journaled format). This will take a few minutes. Check the second video on this page to see how to do that.
  5. Once the drive is reformatted or connected (depending on which sort of drive you bought), Time Machine will back up your entire drive – the OS, your programs, your files, everything. This could take some time (depending on how much data you have). It’s OK, though, you can do other things while it hums in the background.
  6. Congratulate yourself.  After this, Time Machine will automagically back up anything you change.

Choosing the Right Backup Drive

When I first started looking, I thought finding the right external drive for my needs would be simple. It wasn’t.

There were lots of external drives (without much explanation of why they were different). Prices and ratings were all over the place too. Some drives only came with one year warranties?!?

I wanted one that was at least three years. Others had extra software – which in some cases you couldn’t even delete. I wanted to pay for a hard drive, not for crummy software!

I think I spent over two weeks reading reviews on Amazon!

 I ended up with an Iomega Prestige 1 TB drive   My Mac only has a 320 GB drive, so I figure I’m set for a long, long time. 1 TB is the equivalent of 18,500 hours of mp3 files, 4 million photos, or 1500 hours of video. Note, there is a newer model (with USB 3.0 speeds, but it’s getting poor reviews).

Will a backup drive take up lots of space on my desk?

It’s called a desktop drive, which sounds large and bulky – but it isn’t at all. It’s actually quite small, sleek, and compact. It’s not super-portable, but you could carry it around if you wanted to. The actual dimensions are 4.4 x 6.1 x 8.9 inches; and it weighs a little over 2 pounds.

Is the drive loud?

There’s a low hum (not noticeable unless you’re paying attention) when it powers up, but it’s very quiet otherwise.

Can you turn it off?

This is rather nice. You can turn your drive off at night to save power (and when there’s nothing to backup). Just don’t forget to turn it back on again in the morning.

Can you get extra backup space?

If you want backup for your backup, this comes with free 2GB of online storage for super-important files.

How do you format a Windows drive to work on the Mac?

If you decide to get a Windows drive to back up your files, you’ll need to know how to reformat it to work with your Mac.  This handy video gives you step by step instructions on how to do that.  Bookmark this page so you can find it again when you’re ready.

What should you look for when choosing a backup drive?

  1. Buy a drive with at least double the capacity of your computer’s hard drive.
  2. Get one that plugs in. Sometimes, the USB drives are under-powered and you need two ports to run it. This means fewer ports for important things (like your printer).
  3. Look for an extended warranty. Most are only one year. I got an Iomega drive because it had a three-year warranty (with registration).
  4. If you buy an Iomega drive, register it at and get the extended warranty.
  5. Check the backup software. Reviewers of  some Windows formatted Western Digital drives complained that the drives included “crappy” backup software that couldn’t be erased. Why clutter up your machine with software you don’t want?
  6. All the drives themselves are actually made by Seagate or Western Digital. The rest is branding, pricing, design, and service.

If you’d rather not go through the bother of reformatting your new drive (or if you’re nervous like I was), you can get this  WD Backup Drive instead.  It’s pre-formatted for Mac, so it will work right out of the box. Designed to match your Macbook, it includes a 3-year warranty (with registration). At just under 5 ounces, it’s easy to carry with you. Features super-fast USB 3.0 data transfer, and has the option to use encryption. Since it’s portable, it’s powered by a USB cable, rather than a plug.

How can you tell how much space is left on a backup drive?

Right click on the drive image on your Mac’s desktop. Select “get info.” Ta daa!!


I love to cook (and eat). Luckily, I live in New York City, where there's lots of wonderful food. My cat, Paris, thinks it's all for him!

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