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Time Machine and Mac backup options

In our digital age, the data we store on our computers is more than just information. It's our personal memories, our creative projects, our work accomplishments, even our digital identity.

Losing data, whether through accidental deletion, hardware failure, or unforeseen circumstances, can be a devastating experience. Yet despite the potential risks, many of us neglect the essential task of regular backups.

This guide will explore the backup options for your Mac, including Time Machine using an External drive or Network-Attached Storage (NAS) device as well as using iCloud. With these user-friendly and efficient solutions there's no reason not to back up your Mac.

Overview of backup options

There are a number methods available for backing up your Mac. Here’s an overview of the most common methods:

  • Time Machine using external drive. This built-in feature of macOS automatically backs up of all your files to an external drive. It's a comprehensive backup solution that keeps an up-to-date copy of every file on your Mac. As fast external hard drives have become cheaper and cheaper, it's a cost-effective investment in an external drive to give you peace of mind.
  • Time Machine using network-attached storage. NAS devices, such as those from Synology, provide a centralised location for backing up multiple devices over your local network. They're particularly useful for households and businesses with multiple Macs. This option requires slightly more technical knowledge to setup and maintain as well as being more expensive than a simple USB/Thunderbolt external hard drive.
  • iCloud. Apple's cloud service allows you to store and sync files across all of your Apple devices. It's an easy and convenient way to back up your data, especially if you're deeply integrated into the Apple ecosystem. iCloud only syncs user files with the server. No system files or system backups are performed. This means that if you needed to restore a Mac, you can only retrieve your files (such as your documents and photos) from iCloud, whereas Time Machine would create a "clone" of your Mac.

For many people, making use of both iCloud and Time Machine is the optimal solution. Time Machine for a complete Mac system backup and iCloud for having a cloud-copy of important files and seamless device syncing.

Time Machine

Time Machine is a built-in backup feature of MacOS. It can back up all of your files, including apps, music, photos, emails, and documents to a compatible external drive or a network-attached storage (NAS) device, creating a comprehensive "disaster recovery" of your files.

To get started with TIme Machine you will need a storage device such as an external drive connected to your Mac, a network-attached storage (NAS) device that supports Time Machine over SMB, or a Mac shared as a Time Machine backup destination.

Time Machine backup using External Drive

Ideally, your backup drive should have at least twice the storage capacity of your device. If your backup disk doesn't have enough space to fit in a complete backup, Time Machine will notify you. If the external drive is full, it will overwrite your oldest backups, making sure that the latest one is always available. The larger the drive you buy for Time Machine, the more backups you'll have before the oldest is over-written.

Once you've selected your storage device in Time Machine settings, Time Machine will start making periodic backups automatically. You can also manually start a backup whenever you want.

Learn how to back up using Time Machine with External Drive with this support article from Apple.

Time Machine backup using network-attached storage (NAS) device

Network-attached storage (NAS) is a dedicated device connected to your local network that provides data storage services to other devices on that network. It allows multiple users and devices to store and access data from a centralised location. NAS devices are particularly useful for backing up multiple Mac devices.

Network-Attached Storage is not only a popular choice for Mac users but also a versatile one. NAS devices, when configured correctly will be compatible with Time Machine. This compatibility means you can use a NAS device as your backup destination, just like an external hard drive but without plugging it in. Bear in mind however, that backing up across the network is much slower than backing up to a directly connect USB or Thunderbolt hard drive. Consequently, doing a full restore from a network backup is also much slower than from a directly connected hard drive.

To get started with backing up your Mac's data to a NAS device using Time Machine, you'll first need to set up your NAS and connect it to your network. Once your NAS is correctly configured and on the same local network as your Mac, in Time Machine settings on your Mac, you can select your NAS as the backup disk. Once set up, Time Machine can automatically back up your data to the NAS device, providing a centralised and accessible backup solution. Again, the first and any subsequent large backups using the network can take a long time.

Learn more about using Time Machine with NAS device with this support article from Apple.

Back up using iCloud

iCloud allows your Mac to store, sync, and backup your files across all your Apple devices. It's an easy and convenient way to back up your data.

First, ensure that you are signed in to your iCloud on Mac.

Once you're signed in, you can select which types of data you want to back up to iCloud as shown on the screenshot below.

iCloud Settings Screenshot

iCloud will then automatically and securely back up your chosen data to the cloud. You can also choose to have your entire Mac Desktop and Documents folders automatically stored in iCloud Drive. This means every file you store on your desktop or in your documents folder can be synced across all your Apple devices.

Learn how to sync Mac documents with iCloud with this support article from Apple.

Keep in mind how much remaining storage space you have on iCloud. You get 5GB of free storage with every iCloud account, and additional storage can be purchased if necessary. As of July 2023, here's a quick overview on iCloud pricing.


Price per month

Pricing as of July, 2023.

Summary and Comparison

Each backup method we've outlined - Time Machine, Time Machine to a NAS and iCloud - have their own strengths and drawbacks.

  • Time Machine using external drive is a comprehensive backup solution that keeps an up-to-date copy of every file on your Mac. Once set up, it works automatically in the background as long as your Time Machine drive is plugged in to your Mac. It's a great option for those who want a simple, cost-effective backup solution.
  • Time Machine using network-attached storage providse a centralised location for backing up multiple devices over a network. While being particularly useful for settings with multiple Macs that need to be backed up, they require more initial setup and maintenance than the often cheaper and simpler method of connecting a USB or Thunderbolt hard drive or SSD.
  • iCloud is easy to use and syncs your files across your Apple devices. However, it relies on having enough iCloud storage, which may come with additional costs if you need more than the free 5GB provided. There are very few Mac users who only have 5GB of files that they would like backed up and there is no method to restore your Mac from iCloud in the event that your Mac is damaged or has a catastrophic failure.

The importance of backing up your data cannot be overstated. No matter which one you choose, the most important thing is to ensure your data is regularly backed up. With the options outlined above, there's no reason not to back up your Mac. Choose the backup method that best suits your needs and rest easy knowing your data is safe and secure. If you have any questions or queries about what you've read, please get in touch with us by emailing Alternatively, please give us a call Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm on 0115 985 1797 so we can discuss your needs in more detail.