How to Back up Your Macintosh Computer

When the unexpected happens to your Mac, it might be too late to worry about saving your data. Read on to learn how to back up your Macintosh computer.

Saving the data on a computer comes in two varieties, on a disk at your home, or in the cloud on the Internet. Both have advantages and disadvantages. You might want to consider backing up your most important information in multiple places.

Time Machine and iCloud are both accessible in System Preferences.

What to Backup

In a very general sense, the main categories of information on your computer are your applications, documents including spreadsheets, photos, music, calendars etc.

You do not need to back up information that you access via the Internet. Email is generally located on the Internet, on the computers of your email provider. Gmail is stored on Google’s computers. email is stored on AOL’s computers. Unless you have explicitly stored copies of your email on your computer, the email is stored in the cloud already and there is nothing to back up. The same is true of banks or stores that you log into using a browser.

Most people do not need to back up their applications. These will generally be recoverable via the Internet or using the CD/DVD that they originally came on. Each person should make sure they know how they would replace the apps they use if they needed to do that.

Photos, Contacts, Notes and Calendars are most commonly stored in the cloud. This allows them to be shared between a phone and a computer. The main cloud services used for this are iCloud, Verizon Cloud, Google. If stored in the cloud, these items do not need to be backed up from your computer.

The main items to back up on your Macintosh will be files such as text documents, spreadsheets, PDFs, photos not already in the cloud and any files from special software that you use like Quicken, Photoshop, Lightroom etc.

External Drive Backup

An external backup drive is usually one that you plug into your computer. There are wifi enabled drives that you can plug into your router. These are accessible using the wifi network. Either drive can be set to copy everything on your computer, or only your most important files. This process can be automatic using software that comes with the drive or your Mac, or you can do it manually.

This is an easy and inexpensive way to do backups. The main shortcoming is that it is stored in the same location as your computer. If something happens to your computer, like water damage or a fire, then this external drive may also be lost in the same incident.

Let’s look at the options.

Manual Backup

Any files on your computer can be copied from your Macintosh hard drive to the backup external drive. You can drag a file or folder from the hard drive to the external drive. This will make a copy of the file or folder on the external drive.

The shortcoming of manual backup is that you have to remember to do it regularly, and you have to remember which files are important and where they are located.

Automatic Backup

The easiest automatic backup on a Macintosh is to use Time Machine. Time Machine is part of the Macintosh operating system. Time Machine uses any external hard drive that is either plugged into the Macintosh, or accessible via WiFi. Backups are done automatically and incrementally. The first backup will be a complete copy of the selected materials. Additional backups are done on a periodic basis. Hourly backups for the past day, daily backups for the month, and weekly backups beyond that. The oldest backups are deleted when your backup disk is full, making room for the newer backups.

These automatic backups allow the user to completely restore their entire system on another computer if needed. It also gives the ability to step back in time through these backups in order to find a file that needs to be restored.

Select your external drive and click on Options to select what should be backed up.
Everything will be backed up EXCEPT the folders listed here.

To restore a single file or group of files when you are using Time Machine, click on the Time Machine icon in the menu bar and then choose Open Time Machine.

This shows a series of overlapping Finder windows. You can go into the folders in the same way you do using Finder. You can go back in time either using the timeline on the right of the screen, or using the arrows next to the Finder window.

When you find the file you want to recover, single click to select it and click Restore below the Finder window.

To exit Time Machine click Cancel below the Finder window.

Cloud Backup

The cloud is any computer that is accessible via the Internet. Some common cloud storage options for backing up a Macintosh are

  • iCloud
  • Dropbox
  • Google Drive
  • Box
  • Microsoft OneDrive

Each service offers some level of storage for free, and then charges for additional storage. See our post about cloud storage.

Cloud storage can be the primary storage location. If iCloud Drive is turned on, the contents of the designated locations on the Mac will be moved to the iCloud. Copies will be kept on the Mac only of files that have been accessed recently, and this will depend on the amount of storage on your computer.

You can see in Finder that these files are now in the location iCloud Drive.

Cloud storage can also be used by copying files to the cloud, thus creating two independent copies. Dropbox is often used this way. By dragging files or folders to DropBox from the computer, you will create a copy at that moment. Changes to either file will not be reflected in the other.

Dropbox with user created folder that contain copies of files from the computer.

Cloud storage is accessible from any computer connected to the Internet. You can log into the cloud storage website from a phone, tablet or computer and access the files stored there.

Log into and you can see all of the items stored there.

Click on the iCloud Drive to see the folders included there.


Backups are incredibly important to have. Good backups will depend on your needs. You should think about what is replaceable, what is important to you, whether you need copies of different versions of files, and how long you will need them to be kept. Then you can determine your storage needs, and choose a backup method.

If you would like some help with this process, just call or email and we’ll be happy to assist you! If you have specific questions, or if our terminology isn’t clear, please use our contact form to send us a message. Thank you!

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