The College Student's Guide to Backing Up Your Apple Life

Photo Credit: Matthew Pierce, Flickr

Photo Credit: Matthew Pierce, Flickr

While it’s not super exciting stuff, backups are incredibly important. Every day I see a student come into our lab who is experiencing the woes of not backing up their data. Whether or not a file is backed up can be life or death, (figuratively speaking, of course) for a college student.

By the end of this post you will have the resources to put a multi-layered backup system in place that not only has your back (see what I did there?) in a data loss situation, but also allows you to access your files from anywhere. Let’s get started.

Mac Backups

You’ve just purchased your first Mac - what do you buy next (besides a case - take care of your stuff!)? An external hard drive. Hard drives have dropped in price dramatically over time and are now cheaper than ever. Pick a good brand - G-Drive, Seagate, Buffalo, or WD are good ones - and a good size (between 1TB-3TB is a good place to start), and you’re all set. Let’s get started with one of the most simple backup systems available for the Mac: Time Machine.

Time Machine

Time Machine is the built-in backup program for the Mac. It’s incredibly simple and works very well. If you are using a Mac, you need to be using Time Machine. Here’s how it works:

  1. Plug in hard drive.
  2. Time Machine recognizes your hard drive and goes to work, backing up your files.

See? Simple as that. If it’s your first time using Time Machine with your new hard drive, your Mac should ask you when you plug your hard drive in if you’d like to use it with Time Machine. This is a simple way to getting started. Depending on how many files you have on your Mac, it may take some time - so make sure when you get started you are able to leave your Mac in one place for the duration of the initial backup. Go out to a movie or go to sleep, and when you get back your Mac will be backed up.

Time Machine has an incredibly simple preferences (fancy name for settings) menu. To access it, click the icon that looks like a clock with an arrow around it in your menu bar - the top right side of your Mac, where the volume icon is - and click “Open Time Machine Preferences”. When the settings menu opens, you’ll see a few things:

  • The ON/OFF Switch - this allows you to turn Time Machine on or off. Typically leave this on.
  • The Backup Info Window - provides information about how much space is left for backups on your hard drive, and information about your oldest and latest backup. It also contains info about how often it will be backing up your data.
Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 12.38.00 PM.png
Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 12.37.34 PM.png

There’s one more thing we should look at before moving on - how to restore files from Time Machine. It’s pretty simple. Click on the Time Machine icon in the Menu Bar and select “Enter Time Machine”. This will take you to the restore system, where you can navigate through past backups to restore the files.

Backups are an essential part of a successful Mac user’s workflow. Thankfully we are in a time where our technology is more and more fail-proof, but a solid backup system ensures that in data-loss situation, you will be covered.

Cloud Data Backups

This is going to be a super short section. I’ve only got one point to make: start using some sort of cloud storage solution. Now. Whether it’s iCloud Drive, Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, SkyDrive, Box, or what-have-you, pick one and use it. Save your school documents there so that you can access them anywhere. Most services offer some sort of free tier that provides a small amount of storage, but throw $5-10 bucks a month at one of these services and you’ll have all the space you need. I wouldn’t recommend backing up a computer to one of these services but they are awesome for access-anywhere file storage.

You need this. Trust me.

Offsite / Online Backups

Before we dive into iOS backups, one more quick note: if you want to get nerdy with your backups, you should look into two areas:

  • Online Backup Services: Online Backup Services such as Backblaze and Crashplan run in the background on your computer and slowly backup your computer to the cloud. In case of data loss, you can download your files from these services or even order a flash drive or hard drive (for a fee) of all of your files. Look into it!
  • Offsite Backups: Another nerd tip: keep a backup of your computer somewhere else - whether it’s at your parents house or best friend’s dorm room, buy an extra hard drive, do a Time Machine backup, and leave it there. If things get real hairy or for some reason your backup goes kaput, you’ll be safe.

iOS Backups

You’ve got your Mac backup system rocking, now let’s focus on iOS devices: iPads, iPhones, Apple Watches, etc. iCloud and iTunes are the hubs for all things iOS backups. It’s super simple. You should be using either iCloud on your iPhone while you sleep (set it and forget it) or manually by plugging your device into iTunes, going to the iOS device section of iTunes and clicking backup. 10 minutes later and you’re all set.


Here’s the thing about backups - create a backup system that works for you. Ideally the system would be automated, or run it self (like Time Machine or even more so, Backblaze). Take an afternoon and think about the best way for you to backup your data, then put it into action.

Take it from a guy whose best friend spilt coffee into the back of his macbook the week of finals - a backup system is one of the keys to a successful college career. Trust me.