Backup Part I: How to recover from a Mac crash

Let me begin with words to consider for all academiPad readers: It is not a matter of if technology will fail you, but a matter of when. And unless you enjoy rewriting your dissertation or journal submission from scratch, you must have a backup strategy in place.

Sure it is possible that your devices will never have a hard drive failure or be stolen.  For the lucky, you will never leave your phone in a taxi or accidentally drop it in the washing machine.  But for most, you will be faced with at least one type of “crash” in your future.   After recovering from a hard drive crash on my work computer recently, I thought a two part post dealing with the dreaded “crash” was in order.

The goal here is to spend some time thinking about a “crash” so that when one happens, you will be off to races recovering as smoothly as possible.

So as not to overwhelm ourselves thinking about the “crash”, the topic will be split up into two parts:

Part I – Mac crash
Part II – iOS crash


Backup your Mac

Recently, I ended up face to face with a technician at the Apple Store, hearing the words “your hard drive is done.  Ok if we put a new one in?”  Without even thinning about it I surprisingly calmly said, “yes” feeling great knowing all my data was backed up.  My backup weapon of choice is Dropbox.  For details on Dropbox, check out the academiPad summary here and if you haven’t already, do yourself a huge favour and set it up today for your main documents folder.  If not Dropbox, suggest something similar like Google Drive or Microsoft Skydrive.

With new hard drive installed I left the Apple Store and started to walk home.  It was then calm turned to a bit of panic:

  • Where are my Microsoft Office install DVDs?
  • What application do I need to install tonight before I go to work tomorrow?
  • What applications do I want to install on the weekend after I get through the week?

The panic is routed in the fact that I’m “knowledge worker” and I joke that without my computer I’m pretty much as useful as a crumpled up piece of paper on a desk.  Sure I can still talk to people and help them work through problems, but my computer is my main “production” device.  In order to get my computer back in working order I went through a number of steps.  My hope is that the headings and suggestions below will allow you to better prepare for your Mac rebuild:

List all your applications

To get started, go into the Finder and write out all the non-OS X standard applications.  For example, exclude things like iTunes, Calculator, Mail, etc.

Next, identify the applications that would need to be reinstalled immediately in the event of a crash.  For me, the list ended up being pretty short: Microsoft Office, OmniFocus, OmniGraffle, and 1Password.


Collect your materials

What you need to collect is covered by asking yourself and if needed, writing down the answers to these questions:

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  • Do you know where all of your install CDs/DVDs are for your software?

While a lot of software can be download online, my experience is that is usually faster and sometimes required to use CDs/DVDs for the larger installs.  I would suggest a CD wallet to store all of your discs in one central location.  Something I do now, but was pretty stressed having to look through multiple boxes and locations looking for my discs.

  • Do you know where the product keys / license codes are for your software?

I could not recommend 1Password more for its ability to track software installation data.  More info on 1Password can be found here


There are countless ways to backup your data and will not try to explain them here.  If are you are starting fresh, I would suggest learning more about:

I will say that in my opinion, Dropbox is the best solution for your primary documents folder.  The OS X and iOS backup : the ultimate guide article available here provides an overview of many options.


The Finder defaults I had set for myself I didn’t really think about too much until after I was faced with a rebuild of my work machine.  Following this article’s tips/tricks I had the Finder tricked out just the way I wanted in no time.  I still have yet to apply all of my preferences to my rebuilt computer and the psychology impact of constantly reminding myself of the crash by their absence is not to be underestimated.  In the “backup recovery cheat sheet” you will find a spot to list Preferences and Customizations.  Another example is your desktop wallpaper and Dock preferences, change those right away as I found it helped in making the machine feel like my computer sooner.


Screwdriver that will open your machine.  Suggest keeping factory-installed RAM if you upgrade.  While it was a very rare case, the Apple Store claimed that my third-party RAM was preventing their Lion images from being copied to my new hard drive.  Based on my experience, my suggestion is to always do a reinstall with factory installed RAM.


Your Next Steps

1) Backup!!!  Don’t let the determination of a ‘backup strategy’ be an obstacle to backing up.  At minimum, make a copy of your immediately important files and store it away from your main device.  If you haven’t done that lately, go and do it right now!

2) Create a “backup recovery cheat sheet” by answering the questions above.  Print it off and file away somewhere easily accessible.

3) Review your data and make sure have a backup location for each set.

4) Relax – when your computer crashes you are set with your game plan in hand

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  1. James says:

    The link provided in the section “Data” is wrong, no article can be found there.

  2. sara says:

    Thanks so much for this; much appreciated. Question: For a slight technophobe yet highly organized and productive person like me (who nevertheless forces myself to use lots of great software and apps because they help; but, I use them by the skin of my teeth, always feeling a bit out of my depth), is there any way to back up some sort of “mirror” of all programs, apps, files, etc. including how everything is organized and where it goes? In the event of a crash, I would like to switch a magic button and have everything exactly as it was before the crash. Is that possible? And if it is possible, is it also possible to safely create such a mirror in the cloud, so that if there were say, a fire, I could get a new computer, and push a magic button and have everything, all the crazy apps with their complicated hierarchies of information, all the thousands of word documents, the music, the photos, the videos, the password keepers, the hundreds of hours of organizing all of that into coherent folders/locations, etc. …. have all of it just magically reappear? TIA for your thoughts and answers. :), Sara

    • Jo says:

      Hi Sara,

      For your on-site backup, try Apple’s time machine or Get Backup Pro. Both work with an external hard drive plugged in via USB, and if you buy Apple’s Time Capsule things can go wireless very easily.

      For a cloud storage, check out mozy, carbonite and crashplan. All of those will cost you a monthly subscription fee.

      An alternative idea for off-site backups would be a small portable external hard drive that you use as a second backup with time machine or Get Backup Pro. You can store that portable hard drive at work or at a friends place. You would spend more money up front, but this money comes easily back over the first 1 to 2 years you don’t have to spend money on cloud services. Plus it will be faster to restore your computer when you need it, not only because of connection issues, but also because most cloud services only store data files I believe.

      I used to do cloud services, but I went away from this because of costs, speed and trust issues. My main machine is a laptop, so I backup to two external hard drives: one in my office, one in my home.

  3. Rob says:

    Might i suggest BackBlaze:

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