How to Backup Macbook Pro to External Hard Drive, Pro Magic

By Simon Irons / September 3, 2018

A bit of Macbook Pro magic for you whether you have a Macbook Pro, Air, iMac to allow you to take your own local backups.

Because you never know when your iCloud backup might fail or be inaccessible if there is a network issue. or

you may just not like the idea of your backup being somewhere you can’t see or touch it.

It is always a good idea to have a local backup on an external hard drive just in case.

If you have a Mac that runs Mac OS Sierra or High Sierra indeed anything later than OS X Leopard, Time Machine will work for you as an

Alternative to an iCloud backup of your Macbook

The Four Things you Need for Time Machine

a. To back up to an external hard drive Time Machine needs either a directly attached USB, Thunderbolt or Firewire external hard drive.

Time Machine can also back up to a configured Apple Time Capsule on your network with a hard drive or an Airport Extreme with a hard drive attached. You can access my article on how to backup your Mac to Time Machine here.

b. Space on that hard drive or disk partition if you are using a partitioned disk,

that is at least as large as the hard drive you are backing up. It is really best to have about twice the space so that you can grow into your backup drive. You’ll hear why later.

c. The hard drive your backing up to formatted to Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system as that is what Time Machine is expecting to see and needs to use.

d. Sounds obvious, but I just thought I would state that you need a Mac running Mac OS X Leopard or higher. Time Machine software does not directly back up PC’s or work on PC’s.

Time Machine is a standard operating system utility provided in Mac OS. There is no additional software to purchase.

Once you have these four things in place you are ready to go, but first it is worth understanding a little about how Time Machine works and what it does.

How does Time Machine Work

Time Machine works first on its initial backup by taking a full back up of your hard drive. This can take some time depending on how many files you have on your hard drive.

After that backup Time Machine will take incremental backups. Backups of the files that have changed since the last time it backed up.

When you look at a Time Machine backup it is like looking back in Time, all your backups are time stamped with the latest showing first. Time Machine displays a view of your file system, like a filing cabinet and if you want to restore a particular file or picture you can by thumbing back to the version of the file you want and selecting to restore it.

Time Machine can also restore your complete hard drive – operating system and files.

Time Machine will keep hourly backups for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month and weekly backups after that, automatically as long as your backup drive is connected or if you are using Time Capsule and you are on the network.

Or you can have Time Machine remind you to do a backup and then plug in your external hard drive and select backup now and away it till go.

When your backup drive is full the oldest backups are deleted.

Remember earlier I said it is best to have a backup drive or partition that is at least twice the size of your internal drive?

This is why.

Time Machine allows you to go back through your backups as you need. Once the external hard drive is completely full with your backups, Time Machine will delete the oldest backup.

With a large enough hard drive, you can keep more without the risk of deletion. Deletion due to your disk being full.

This article covers backing up to a directly connected external hard drive, if you are using Time Machine to back up to Apple Time Capsule, take a look at this article.

How to Backup your Macbook Pro to an external hard drive?

1. Connect your USB, Thunderbolt or Firewire cable to your hard drive

If you are not sure how to get your hard drive connected to your Macbook Pro or

other Mac or

you know your external hard drive is not formatted to Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system and need a little help then,

take a look at my article here on the site on Connecting an External Hard Drive to Your Mac.

2. Sign into your Mac

Make sure your external hard drive is up working, lights on and fan spinning if that’s appropriate for your drive.

Also plug your Macbook Pro into an external power supply. Time Machine works when your Mac is powered, this stops a backup failing because you have run out of battery on your Mac.

3. Make sure you can see your external hard drive icon on the desktop.

It should look like this.

External Drive Icon On Desktop

External Drive Icon On Desktop

If the hard drive is not showing up then go back and take another look at my connecting up an external hard drive article as there will be some tips there for you on how to find it.

To use your external hard drive as a backup device you will need to connect it up to the Time Machine software on your Mac, which is really easy to do.

4. Open Up Time Machine

To link up your external hard drive to Time Machine the first thing to do is to open up and configure Time Machine.

Time Machine is the utility you can find at the top of your Desktop and it looks like the face of a clock with an anti clockwise arrow.

Time Machine At Top of Desktop

Time Machine At Top of Desktop

Click on the Time Machine icon and select Open Time Machine preferences.

If you can’t find the Time Machine icon and it is not at the top of your Mac’s desktop window you can find Time Machine via system preferences.

Click on Spotlight search

Spotlight Search Symbol

Spotlight Search Symbol

Type in System Preferences

Spotlight Search System Preferences

Spotlight Search System Preferences

Select System Preferences and within the System Preferences screen select Time Machine

Time Machine in System Preferences

Time Machine in System Preferences

Click on Time Machine and you are now in Time Machine and can configure the software.

5. Setting Up Time Machine to Backup Like a Pro

Once in the Time Machine preferences window –

If the big button for Time Machine is Off, turn it to ON.

You’ll also see toward the bottom of the window the check box to show Time Machine in the menu bar, you can toggle this switch on so that you can access Time Machine at the top of your desktop screen.

Click Select disk.

You will now see a selection of available disks for you to use. Your external hard drive should be on this list as one of the available disks. Listed by the name you gave it when you formatted it, or

you will see the partition if you have formatted a partition of the external hard drive to back up to.

Time Machine Available Drives

Time Machine Available Drives

Click on your external hard drive or partition and select the options you want for it if any for Time Machine.

For example if you want Time Machine to encrypt your backup there is a check box to enable you to do that. Give the drive a password and Time Machine will encrypt your backup.

Keep your password safe. Mac OS is one of the most secure operating systems. You loose your password – you loose your backup.

Select Use Disk

And Time Machine is now configured to use that disk or partition for backup.

6. Kicking off Your Backup

You can if you wish keep your external hard drive connected and leave it up to Time Machine to decide when to kick off the next backup.

or

You can ask Time Machine to back up now

You do that by

clicking on the Time Machine icon at the top of the desktop

Time Machine At Top of Desktop

Time Machine At Top of Desktop

Remember that option to show Time Machine in menu bar I suggested turning on earlier? If its not at the top of your Desktop you can go back to Time Machine preferences and toggle it on.

and click on the icon and select backup now and Time Machine will gather information about your internal disk, prepare the backup and start backing up.

You can check the progress of your backup by clicking on the Time Machine icon.

If it’s the first backup or you haven’t backed up for a while then the preparing stage may take some time. Don’t worry let Time Machine do its thing.

And there you are, Time Machine is backing up your hard drive nicely.

7. What Happens When Time Machine Has Completed your Back Up

You can check by clicking on the Time Machine icon and it will tell you the progress of the current backup if it is still doing it, and time of the last back up if its done.

The other thing to watch for is the external hard disk icon on your desktop having an Orange color when it is connected but the backup isn’t done yet.

The Icon turns to Green when the backup is done.

You can now –

8. Disconnect the External Hard Drive

To make sure you are not accidentally corrupting the information on your external hard drive it pays to disconnect it properly. This is done by ejecting your external hard drive from your Mac.

Hover over the Icon for the External Drive on the desktop. Right click and select the Eject option.

Right Click to Eject External Drive

Right Click to Eject External Drive

or Go to the finder window and click on the arrow to the right of the drive name to eject the drive.

Wait a few seconds for the icon to disappear.

This enables the Mac to write whatever it finally needs to to the disk and leaves everything in a consistent state. You may hear the fan wind down or the light on the hard drive flicker and go dark.

Now you can remove the USB, Thunderbolt or Firewire cable from the computer and the power cable if you have one for the external hard drive you are using. You can now safely put the disk away where it won’t get knocked or banged around.

Other Time Machine Questions Answered

How Long Does it Take to do a Backup?

This is a difficult question to answer, it depends on the speed of the disks, both in your Macbook or other Mac and the speed of the disks of the external hard drive.

It also depends on how many files you have to backup.

The very first back can take a while, so leave your Macbook Pro, plugged in and set it off overnight.

You can of course use your Mac while it is backing up, the back up may take slightly longer.

When Should I do a Backup?

Depending on how important your files are and how much work you are doing on your Macbook Pro at least weekly if your external hard drive isn’t continually plugged in.

Other than that I would suggest

A backup before any revision upgrade of your system files – you never know. a new version may break something and at least you will have a backup to go back to.

When an important piece of work has been done. If it’s important, back it up.

If you start to have any issues with your Macbook’s internal hard drive, do a backup.

What does Time Machine Backup?

Everything unless you tell it not to, Operating System, photos, music, documents. Everything on the internal drive.

If you wish to exclude a directory from being backed up go to Time Machine preferences, click on the options box, click the plus sign and enter the directory names you want excluded there.

Does Time Machine Backup Photos?

Oh yes, Time Machine will backup all your photos on your internal disk. And if you backup your iPhone and or IPad photos to your Macbook or Airdrop your photos to your Macbook they will be backed up as well.

How do I Cancel a Backup Once it has Started.

Select the Time Machine icon at the top of your desktop the option to skip the backup will be there once the backup has started.

What if my Macbook Pro goes Into Sleep Mode

If your Macbook Pro enters sleep mode while the back up is underway the back up will continue as long as your Macbook is set up to ‘power nap’.

Power Nap is a mode the Macbook can go into when it is plugged into the mains, the Macbook will sleep but continue backing up.

Power Nap is set up under Systems Preferences, Energy Saver. The box must be ticked to enable Power Nap.

Only newer Macbooks support Power Nap.

If the option isn’t there for your Mac and it’s your first backup and you expect it to take a while, then its best have your Mac plugged into the mains power and to disable sleep mode in Energy Saver. Then you can leave it safely backing up and you can re-enable sleep mode once the large backup is done.

Otherwise with no Power Nap enabled the backup will continue when your Macbook next wakes up.

What if I want to Use Multiple External Drives for Backup?

Repeat steps one through to eight to set up the second external hard drive. Then you can use two external drives interchangeably for security of your backups.

What about the new APFS (Apple File System)?

Something to know for the newest Mac’s and those of you who have recently upgraded to Mac OS High Sierra. High Sierra uses APFS (Apple File System) by default on Flash drives and SSD’s (Solid State Drives).

Apple has moved/is moving to APFS because it is faster, more efficient and secure than the Extended (Journaled) file system (HFS+). Great you say, but what about Time Machine?

On upgrading to Mac OS High Sierra, High Sierra will automatically convert on upgrade flash storage and Solid State Disk drives to APFS.

Mechanically based hard drives will remain Mac OS Extended (Journaled) File Systems.

The however is Time Machine does not support APFS formatted drives for backup right now.

If you have a SSD drive that you wish to use for Time Machine, you will need to format it to Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system, and then you can hook it up to Time Machine and you’ll be good for your backups.

Final Comments

And now you should be backing up your Macbook Pro like a Pro – you have your piece of Pro Magic – If you need an external hard drive to backup to you can check out my selection of the top drives here.

I hope this article sees you happily backing up all your files. Just like a Pro.

And if you want to find out how to share an external hard drive between a Mac and a PC you can find out how.

 

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