Keeping a Hot Backup of Your Mac Hard Drive

Disk UtilityYou don’t really understand the importance of backups until your hard drive crashes. With most backups, you’ll need to reinstall the operating system and then restore all of your data. OS X comes with a handy tool that will let you create a live copy of your hard drive that can be started up and run just like it is your computer.

My Powerbook had to go in for some repairs a few months ago, but I couldn’t afford to be without my computer for 3 days. By creating a live bootable copy of my entire computer to an external drive, I was able to ship off my laptop, plug my hard drive into an old G3 iMac, and continue working just like I was on my Powerbook. It was slower of course, but I still had access to all of my data, programs and settings. When the Powerbook came back, I simply copied the external hard drive over my laptop hard drive, rebooted and continued working with very little downtime.

This feature is part of the Disk Utility application stored in your Application > Utilities folder. It is simple to use, but you have to pay attention to make sure you are copying your data in the correct direction–you don’t want to accidentally copy an old backup over your working data.

Drive ListingWhen you launch Disk Utility, it will show you a list of the available drives on your computer. In the example, I have my internal hard drive (a 74.5 GB hitachi) with a single partition called Macintosh HD. My 232 GB LaCie drive has three partitions, Test, Backup, and Storage. The Backup directory is where I want to put my data.

In the right hand side of the application, I’m going to select the Restore tab. I’m going to “restore” my internal drive into the Backup partition on my external drive. This will make the Backup partition into an exact copy of my local drive–even changing its name to Machintosh HD.

With the Restore tab selected I simply drag Machintosh HD into the source and Backup into the destination and tell it to erase the destination. At this point I always double check carefully to make sure my source and destination are correct and that I’m not accidentally going to overwrite important data.

Source and Destination

Clicking on the Restore button starts the process. It isn’t particularly fast. Ideally you should make the partition you are restoring to as close in size to the original in order for the transfer to be as efficient as possible.

Startup Disk

If you ever need to bootup the drive on another computer simply tell that computer to start using the external drive as the startup drive. This is done from the System Preferences using the Startup Disk icon.

Once you reboot the system, it should boot up using the external hard drive as if it is the system you backed up originally.

To restore from your hard drive, you’ll simply perform the restore process, but this time moving the data from your external drive back to your computer’s internal drive.

If you found this article interesting you might like the article about backing up DVDs to your hard drive: Travelling with Movies on your Mac.

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92 thoughts on “Keeping a Hot Backup of Your Mac Hard Drive”

  1. I use – it is free for academic use and cheap for others, it is easy to use and it does incremental backup so it works faster than copying the whole disk.

    Thanks for the link. I hadn’t heard about that program before. The biggest advantage of using the cloning method described here is the fact that the disk is bootable. (If my laptop is stolen, I can plug the drive into my Mac Mini and be up and running in a few minutes.)

    Do you know if Synk or Silverkeeper creates a bootable disk?

  2. One thing to note… there are some programs (eg Final Draft) that have authentication features that don’t copy over properly. If you have Final Draft ‘Authorized’ on your computer and it needs service that is going to require your hard drive to be wiped or whatever… make sure that you Deauthorize your computer before you wipe it. I know for a fact that the FD guys are real pricks about their proprietary copy protection.

  3. I think SuperDuper strikes a nice balance between power and simplicity, very inline with Mac thinking. Dave the developer of SuperDuper is also very responsive which makes using the app that much more enjoyable.

    The only thing I would say that is missing in my backup routine is the holy grail of “automated offsite” backup” (ie – backing up to a web server, etc.). Obviously, you can use services like iDisk for small jobs but creating mirrors of large hard drives is an issue because of space and bandwidth. Would love to see someone solve this one with an easy, low-cost solution.

  4. Has anyone used Backup 3.1 from Apple? Any opinions vs SuperDuper or CCC ? I’m just looking for an easy and non-Terminal way of doing things for the home user with way to much music and video to lose.

    Also, can I back up two different Macs to one big external drive? (Powerbook w/ 80gb HDD and iMac with 250 gb HDD and one 500 gb LaCie)


  5. maybe I’m the only person in the world who feels this way, but for me part of the magic of Mac OS X is that I don’t need to back up my whole hard drive. I’m using PSyncX to automatically (smart-)backup my user folder, and occasionally I’ll manually make sure that all applications which are difficult to get are also backed up. I just don’t feel like I need to back up all of Mac OSX systemfiles and other such data.

    Then again, I may be thinking this way because I have limited external data storage space, and I don’t claim to be an expert at all on this subject.

  6. Am I missing something here? To do a complete clone or restore backup of your harddrive, don’t you need to be running from another startup disk or cd to get all the system files that would normally be active and not copy?

  7. A combination of ditto and rsync works well for me as a home user. I would refine this somewhat if I had to use this process in production.

    What I am using
    System Version: Mac OS X 10.3.9
    Kernel Version: Darwin 7.9.0

    Disk Utility failed to produce identical permissions on target image and rsync failed to produce all files and identical permissions on target.

    I felt good about the image produced and maintained by this method and created a few scripts to do this.

    Start with clean partition about the same size as your system and uncheck (Ignore ownership on this volume) in (Get Info) for the volume.
    As the (root) or (sudo user) create the initial silver image using following method.

    1.) /usr/bin/ditto -rsrcFork

    Critical System dirs and files are, you may have a few more under / but not needed.


    /usr/bin/ditto -rsrcFork /Applications /Volumes/”Backup Image 1″/Applications

    2.) After this you create the missing links

    cd /Volumes/Backup
    ln -s private/etc etc
    ln -s private/var var
    ln -s private/tmp tmp
    mkdir dev Volumes Network

    3.) bless the services to make bootable
    bless -folder /Volumes/”Backup Image 1″/System/Library/CoreServices -bootinfo /usr/standalone/ppc/bootx.bootinfo

    4.) Keep the User Dirs in sync using rsync and use ditto for movies the under user homes.

    rsync -avz –delete -excluded –exclude=”Movies/*”
    /usr/bin/ditto -rsrcFork

    Example: rsync
    /usr/bin/rsync -avz –stats –delete –exclude=”Movies/*” /Users /Volumes/”Backup Image 1″

    5.) Update the System Dirs and files as needed using ditto. To be safe always delete the dir trees that will be replaced ditto will not set permissions on directories if they are not removed.

    Hope this helps out.
    Nelson L. DeYoung

  8. opps this is the cmd I use to rsync user dirs

    /usr/bin/rsync -avz –stats –delete –exclude=”Movies/*” /Users /Volumes/”Backup Image 1″

  9. Sounds useful i can’t count the number of harddrive crashes i have had over the last 5 year. Always useful to have a full backup of your drive

  10. I was very pleased when this worked for me, enabling me to put a complete, bootable copy of my internal hard drive onto my LaCie firewire 800 external drive.
    First time it did not work. The “restore” to the external drive appeared to work fine, but when I tried to boot from it, it would not. I have an Intel-based Mac, so the partition format is different from PowerPCs etc. The newer partition format is known as GUID partition table. The prior format was Apple Partition Map.
    The LaCie external drive was preformatted for Macs, but with the Apple Partition Map. I repartitioned it to GUID Partition Table, repeated the “restore” to it, and when I tried to boot from it, it worked fine, with my complete system apparently in place.
    Just wanted to pass on the tip to anyone else who may experience a “non-boot” problem.

  11. Call me stupd but im a little confused.
    If i use disk utility to copy m harddrive to an external hard drive why do i need CCC or SuperDuper to backup my disk???
    I simply want to be able to back my docs/movies/music to my external hard drive. Should i use disk utility or download CCC? Thanks

  12. Has anyone had problems trying to get this to work? I am using an intel based mac, Mac OS x version 10.4.9 and a LaCie firewire external drive. I have a lab of these and would like to get a backup of one before they are used. The problem that I am having is it gets halfway through the copying process and then i get an error that says Restore Failure An error (2) occurred while copying. (no such file or directory). Any idea’s on what i am doing wrong?

  13. Same thing is happening to me. I get the same error code as Jeremy. The only difference is that I am using a Maxtor external drive on my powerbook G4 running OS X version 10.3.9. That and mine doesnt even get half way though the copying process. The error comes up the second the copying begins. Someone care to help us out?

  14. Same as Jeremy and Alex. I’ve tried many times and I get the “no such file or directory” error either immediately or after half the operation is complete.

  15. Same problem with the error (2), the exact text of which is:

    restore failure:

    an error (2) occured while copying. (No such file or directory)

    Tried from multiple systems, multiple drives, intel, PPC, OSX 10.4.9, 10.4.10, from the internal hd to external firewire, from external firewire to external firewire, no love all around.


    Any suggestions appreciated.

  16. Hey,

    I bought a new hard drive to put in my Macbook (160GB Seagate). I want to take my old 80GB out and then copy the contents to the new one. I want to do this without installing OS X on my new HD. However that means I will not have access to Disk Utility on the Macbook only through the old HD (which will be converted to external).

    I heard a rumour that when a new HD is inserted in a Macbook and you boot it with the external plugged it, the Macbook will ask if you want to restore from this external HD. Is this true? Please provide some guidance.


  17. I was using the function discussed above to back-up my drive, but it gave me an error message saying that “An error (2) occurred while copying. (No such file or directory).

    Can anyone explain this to me, and how I can resolve this?

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