Folks with good Mac backup plans can be smug. Give them a chance, and they'll tell you about the virtues of backing up your OS X data. About the terror of losing treasured photos. And about how there are two kinds of people: those who back up their Macs and those who eventually wish they had.
Get past the self-satisfied pronouncements, however, and these people are sharing hard-earned advice. Hard drives and storage devices fail. Software updates go wrong. Files get misplaced or are accidentally deleted. If you don't have a current copy of important files, when disaster happens, your files are gone.
A solid Mac backup plan doesn't have to be complicated. In fact, the easier a plan is to set up and follow, the more likely you are to use it. Because when you go to install a new version of OS X or sync your music in the cloud, you want to make sure you have a current backup of your files.
As part of your plan, seriously consider having multiple versions of your backup files. You don't necessarily have to follow every step we've outlined here, but combining several steps offers backup redundancy in case of a big data disaster. And finally, be sure to periodically check your backups. Try restoring files and starting up from your clone backup just to make sure everything is working as it should.
One of the joys of using Yosemite OS X is you are already on the path to a good backup plan. Apple tries to make it effortless for you to back up data using its iCloud services. iCloud doesn't collect copies of everything, but if you are using Apple's OS X apps, you can turn on a few checkboxes and start backing up photos, music, documents, calendars, Safari bookmarks, Keychain data, and more.
To back up photos from the Photos app, for example, go to System Preferences and iCloud, click the Options button next to Photos, and select iCloud Photo Library.
Since you are already in the iCloud pane of System Preferences, click the checkbox next to iCloud Drive and then click the Options button to select which app documents you want backed up.
With iTunes media, items you've purchased from the iTunes Store are stored in iCloud and downloaded to any device you've set up to work with iCloud. For your non-iTunes-acquired music (songs from CDs, for example, or from other music services), you need a subscription to iTunes Match, which for $24.99 a year lets you store your entire iTunes song catalog in iCloud.
Using iCloud is a solid and easy way to start a backup plan, but to back up all the files and folders on your hard drive, check out OS X's Time Machine. Time Machine creates snapshots, or copies, of the contents of your hard drive over time, allowing you to step back through time to find and retrieve documents, folders, and apps.
Apple tries to make using Time Machine effortless: when you plug in an external hard drive, Time Machine offers to back up everything on your Mac. Click the dialog box's Use as Backup button, and Time Machine starts making periodic backups.
Backups take place in the background, and as long as your Time Machine external drive is plugged in, or as long as you are using an AirPort Time Capsule, Time Machine will create snapshots of your drive.
If you need to restore files or your system, launch Time Machine and use the timeline to navigate to the item you want to restore.
Using Time Machine is a snap, and it comes free with OS X, so it's a key part of a Mac backup plan. But if your internal hard drive dies, you'll need to reinstall your OS and restore your files and apps from Time Machine on a new drive before you can get running again. That will take time.
Some third-party backup apps can shorten the recovery time and make a hard-drive crash much less frustrating.
Backup software Carbon Copy Cloner and SuperDuper let you create a bootable clone (an identical and bootable copy of your hard drive), which allows you to quickly recover from a disk crash. Plug in the backup external drive, restart from your bootable clone, and you are back up. As the clone has copies of everything on your internal drive, you can also use it to grab copies of your files.
Carbon Copy Cloner, SuperDuper, and other third-party backup apps let you schedule backups, so the software can run at the end of the day, for example, or during off hours.
We've looked at using iCloud, but you have other choices for storing files in the cloud. First let's look at a few easy but limited ways to handle storing files remotely; then we'll consider industrial-strength methods.
With Dropbox, you can install the desktop app and then keep important files in the Dropbox folder on your Mac to sync them with the Dropbox website. It's not a foolproof part of your backup plan, as you probably aren't going to put everything in your Dropbox folder, but you get 2GB of free storage and can share files with other Dropbox users.
Google Drive gives you 15GB of free online storage. While it's great for storing data from your Google Drive apps and Android devices, you need to manually upload non-Google files.
Microsoft's OneDrive offers a similar service. If you're using Office 365, you get 1TB of cloud storage to back up and share Office files.
Prepare for the worst
Keeping copies of backups close by is convenient. If your hard disk dies, you have quick access to your replacement files. But, say, your house floods or catches fire or, here in San Francisco, the land opens up and swallows your office -- your computer and your backups may be lost.
To prepare for the worst, take the next step and store backups remotely, using a dedicated online backup service. CrashPlan for example, gives you unlimited online storage starting at $59.99 a year for one computer. Backblaze has a similar plan for $50 a year. Both give you control over when and how often you back up. For other online backup services, see our backup basics for Windows.