Inside Leopard's Time Machine: Backups for the rest of us

Think backups are a bore? Think again

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Even Spotlight searching is integrated with this approach. Search for an item within the Time Machine interface as you normally would. A single set of results is displayed for the backup you're currently viewing. Slide forward or backward through your backups, and you'll again see only a single set of results, appropriate to the newly selected backup.

Although Spotlight searches all backups, since it displays the results for only the currently selected backup, you may need to scroll through backups to locate a file if you aren't sure exactly when it was created, deleted or modified. Note, too, that using Spotlight from the Finder won't directly search Time Machine backups; to do that, you must launch Spotlight after you've launched Time Machine.

When you've found an item or items that you want to restore, the process is as simple as selecting it in the window and clicking the Restore button at the bottom of the screen. The item will be copied from the backup to the location on your hard drive where it existed when the backup was made. If a newer version of the file (or a different file with the same name) exists, you will be asked if you want to keep the newer version, replace it with the version from the backup or keep both.

For the most part, Time Machine is designed as a file-level tool that mimics the Finder. Only two other applications, Address Book and iPhoto, interact with Time Machine directly. This seems to be because both applications store information in a database or package format that would prevent users from restoring individual items to them from a file-level tool. IPhoto has always relied on a database to manage photo information, and in iLife '08, the entire iPhoto library, database and photos were consolidated into a single package file.

As such, Time Machine can be accessed from within either application, and contacts or pictures can be browsed in the same manner as files. More accurately, contacts and photos seem to be copied out of the backup versions and then imported into the current version. In the case of iPhoto, this means that restored photos are grouped as a new event rather than being restored to their original events (though they can then be merged into the original events after being restored).

Recovering from disaster

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While the sci-fi interface of Time Machine is great for using your backups as a safety net for individual files, the true test of a backup solution is its ability to restore from a catastrophic failure, such as the loss of a hard drive, severe operating system problems or even outright theft of a computer. This is where Time Machine focuses on functionality more than flashy interfaces. Even here, however, it remains relatively painless to use.

To restore a complete system, you'll need to boot from a Leopard install DVD with the backup drive connected to either the original computer or, in a worst-case scenario, a replacement computer. (Even though Time Machine can create complete system backups, they are not stored in a format that can be used to boot Mac OS X directly.)

Instead of proceeding with the install process, select "Restore from Time Machine backup" from the Utilities menu. The installer will search for hard drives containing Time Machine backups and allow you to choose an appropriate drive, if more than one is detected.

You are then presented with a list of backups by date and by Mac OS X version, which is nice if you are restoring after experiencing problems believed to be the result of an update. Simply select your backup and choose your target drive. Then wait while Time Machine restores your system, which may be a long wait depending on the amount of data.

Your complete system will be restored to the state it was in when the backup that you chose was performed. Unlike some incremental backup tools, Time Machine's complete restorations include only files that existed in a selected backup and does not include files from earlier backups that were deleted between the times when the backups were made.

If you chose not to back up system files or you are restoring to a different Mac model, you'll need to install Leopard before restoring. To restore user files and applications, you can use the Migration Assistant that runs during the Leopard setup process. Typically, the Migration Assistant is used to transfer documents, applications and settings from an older Mac to a new one. In Leopard, however, it can also transfer or restore items from a Time Machine backup onto a new or replacement Mac.

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