Riding in the Time Machine

November 7, 2007, 12:37 pm

tm.jpgAs a sort of Part II of this post about my experiences with Leopard, I wanted to go into detail about Time Machine, Leopard’s always-on backup utility. When I first heard about this app coming in Leopard, I wasn’t excited; how excited can you possibly get about a disk backup utility? But this ended up being one of the Leopard features I looked forward to having the most, because it meant I could finally cross off that “Make backup of hard drive” task that had been sitting in my OmniFocus task list for… you don’t want to know how long.

It turns out that Time Machine does a decent job of what it is supposed to do — but there are some downsides and some things that aren’t working for me as advertised.

My plan was to put Time Machine to work using this 500 GB Iomega USB hard drive that I purchased over the summer specifically for archiving video, class files from the past decade, and other stuff. Upon plugging the drive in, Time Machine asked if I wanted to use it as my Time Machine backup drive. I said yes, and immediately the backing up began. But a few minutes into the process, the backup abruptly stopped and gave me a generic failure message. This continued to happen after trying again a couple more times.

A little Googling later, I had found the problem — my hard drive was formatted using a generic FAT32 filesystem, and Time Machine only works with Mac OS filesystems. I reformatted the hard drive using Disk Utility, using the Mac OS X Extended (Journaled) filesystem, and plugged the drive back in — and Time Machine proceeded without a hitch. I had thought FAT32 was something like a generic filesystem, but Time Machine is picky about such things. So if you’re having trouble getting Time Machine to even get off the ground, try reformatting using a specifically Mac OS filesystem.

When the external drive is plugged in, Time Machine makes a backup every hour for 24 hours, and then once a week and once a month for archiving purposes, until the disk is full. The peace of mind that comes from knowing I have hourly backups for one day, and archived backups waiting in the wings, is quite amazing. It’s especially nice that once you have Time Machine configured, you pretty much just forget about it and let it do its job.

And if I ever had to restore from a backup, I’d just click on the Time Machine icon in the dock, and then the magic happens:


You just select the version of your system you want to restore from, and click-and-drag files or select “Restore” to restore the whole thing. It’s simple — but oh, the visual effects. Cheesy beyond belief. Apple, come on — what happened to the simple, minimalist design I’ve come to love from you guys? Moving stars in the background? Please.

Apart from the cheesiness of the visuals, there are some issues with how Time Machine works on my system which might be common to others.

First of all, my laptop gets hot when Time Machine is running. Really hot — it actually becomes uncomfortable to use the machine because of the heat, and who knows what it’s doing to the insides of the computer. Here’s an iStat nano readout on the temperatures of the laptop under normal use without the Time Machine running a backup:


And here’s what it reads when Time Machine is running a backup:


That’s a 40-degree temperature swing on the CPU, and that temperature is pushing the boiling point. Macbook laptops were known to run hot when they first came out, but Apple released a firmware update that fixed the problem, and I had not noticed any unusual heating since then — until now. This may be because I am using a particular USB drive — or just a USB drive, period.

Second, the laptop slows down noticeably when the backups are being made. Again, could be because of my use of a USB drive, but I’ve never noticed a slowdown before when using this drive.

Third, I noticed that every time Time Machine attempts to make a backup, it is backing up about 16 GB of information. I know I don’t have that much stuff I use regularly on the hard drive, so I tried to tell Time Machine not to back up certain things. Apple supposedly has this covered, saying on their Time Machine page that

By default, Time Machine backs up everything on your Mac. But if you want to exclude certain files, that’s easy enough. Just go to Time Machine preferences, click Options, then select the folders you wish to skip. You can also delete a single file or folder that you’ve been backing up — and delete it from all of your backups going back in time.

So I tried to tell Time Machine not to backup my Parallels Desktop folder, which has a full installation of Windows XP that I don’t care to keep backed up all the time. That ought to knock a few gigabytes off the backup list. But here’s what I get when I follow Apple’s directions:


Everything’s grayed out — I can’t select anything to exclude! If I try an end-around to get to my Documents folder by going through Macintosh HD > Users, I get this: files-2.jpg

All the folders I want to enter are denied.

The 16 GB size of each download, coupled with the less-than-optimum speed of file transfer using the USB drive, means that each backup takes 20-25 minutes to complete — and only 35-40 minutes until the next one, which in turn means that about half the time my laptop is running hot and slow because of the near-constant backing up.

Any hints or suggestions on how to fix the heat problem, the slowness problem, or the can’t-select-files-not-to-backup problem would be most appreciated.

So Time Machine definitely solves a serious problem for me and other busy people — the problem of making the time to have regular, frequent, systematic backups of our important data. But it comes at a price, at least in the meanwhile until I figure out how to work around the problems.

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