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4 Types of Backup Hard Drives for Mac

Posted on March 30th, 2017 by

Backup Hard Drives for Mac

Backups are a lot like insurance: it's imperative to have it, and you hope you never have to use it. Likewise, if you need to use a backup hard drive to restore your data, it can save you hours of time, money and headaches. We often remind you how important it is to back up your files, but it's not just the backup that matters. The media you use to store your data is critical!

There are different types of backup hard drives available for Mac. You can use external hard drives connected to your Mac, portable hard drives that you connect when needed, or network devices. You have lots of choice, but each of these devices works best in specific situations. So how can you tell which type of hard drive is best for you?

Choosing a hard drive to back up your data can be a quest in and of itself. This post highlights the different types of hard drives for Mac that you can use, and how to choose the best backup hardware for your needs.

1. External Hard Drives

External Hard DriveThe standard way to back up a Mac is to use a hard disk connected via USB or Thunderbolt. There are all kinds of external hard drives, from a number of brands. You can currently get a 4 TB hard drive for around $110.

Thunderbolt drives are on the more expensive end; in fact, they are priced at more than twice the average cost. Yet there's no real advantage to Thunderbolt as a backup drive. While the transfer speed can be higher than USB 3, it's only really useful if you're working on files on that drive, such as editing video.

You use an external hard drive for backups with an apps like Intego Personal Backup or Apple's Time Machine, but you can't use the same drive for both. So if you want belt-and-suspenders protection, it's a good idea to get one drive for each. Also, check how much data you have to back up, and buy a drive that has at least twice that amount of storage.

Time Machine saves older files, so your first backup will copy all your data, and subsequent backups copy new and changed files. You can make a similar type of backup with Intego Personal Backup, storing multiple copies of files, and even create bootable clones on an external hard drive for system failure insurance. Just be sure to take into account that you will create a lot more data over the life of the hard drive from the time you purchase it.

How long do hard drives last? I've had drives crash on me, but not for many years. I used to assume that hard drives could last about three years before they start developing problems, but newer drives seem much more reliable. That said, I've recently replaced my 5-year old media drive and backup hard drives with new 8 TB Seagate Backup Plus Hub drives.

Seagate hard drives are very quiet, and each one is also a USB 3 hub, with two ports on the front that you can use to connect another device or to charge your iOS devices. It's safe to assume that good drives will last about five years, but I don't recommended that you use them much longer than that; the risk of failure increases over time, and backup hard drives are too important to fail when you need them most.

2. Internal Hard Drives

Internal Hard DriveAll the drives mentioned in this article have enclosures, meaning they are contained in a device that has the connectors you need to use them. However, there's another solution: You can use a disk dock to house an internal hard drive. For example, this inexpensive Inatek disk dock has two bays, and lets you insert any naked hard drive in it.

The advantage is simple: Internal hard drives are a bit cheaper than those in enclosures. You can rotate several drives easily, with just one cable connected to your Mac, but you can't automate this process, as you can with external drives. Sure, you could leave two drives in the dock, but it's more efficient to use external drives if you want always-on backups. A hard drive docking station is a great device if you want to use a number of backup drives to store off-site. (I use one with a small drive to clone my iMac's internal SSD.)

There's one more reason to own a drive dock. If one of your external drives' enclosures fails, you can remove the drive and access it in the dock. This dock can handle both standard 3.5" drives and smaller 2.5" drives, and can even copy one disk to another without needing a computer.

3. Network Drives

Network DrivesAnother type of backup hard drive you can use is a network drive, or NAS (network attached storage device). This is a hard drive in a special enclosure that houses a full operating system, generally a stripped-down version of Linux. For example, I use a WD MyCloud EX2, which holds two drives.

When is this practical? If you have a laptop, and want to back it up without connecting anything, you can easily set up a NAS to take backups from both Intego Personal Backup and from Time Machine. Most NAS devices these days have user-friendly management, and configuration is simple. The WD device has a Mac app that lets users manage files, and most settings are managed in a web browser.

Even if you don't have a laptop, you might want to use a NAS to back up your Mac. It keeps your desk clutter free, and the device can be located anywhere in your home or office that is near a router or hub. And you can use it to store other files that you may want to share among your co-workers or family.

4. Portable Hard Drives

Portable Hard DriveYou may not want to have a hard drive permanently connected to your Mac. This is most likely the case if you have a laptop computer.

In this case, you can get 4 TB self-powered portable hard drives for around $120. For example, I have several Seagate Expansion 4 TB drives that I use for off-site backups. Other trusted portable storage options include LaCie Rugged drives.

These portable hard drives use USB 3, and are fairly fast, but they're also compact. Additionally, the fact that you don't need a power supply—they get power from the computer—makes them easy to use.

You could use portable hard drives with a desktop Mac, too. They're usually not as fast as a good desktop drive, but for backups, you don't need much speed. With portable drives, durability is your best friend, and keeping your data safe from water, dust and drops is critical.

Final Thoughts...

You shouldn't just use any old hard drive you have laying around for your backups; instead, you want to make sure that if you need to restore some of your files you have no problems. Hard disks eventually fail, and using hard disks more than a few years increases the risk of data loss. So if you have old hard drives, you should think of replacing them.

Furthermore, don't just buy one backup hard drive. If you really care about your data, you should back it up at least twice. Imagine your computer gets lost or stolen, or its drive crashes, and you find that your backup is unreadable... Having a second drive isn't too expensive these days, and it adds an extra layer of protection.

You can combine the above types of hard drives, too; for example, use a desktop drive for your iMac, and also have a NAS for a second backup, or use portable drives to have a second, off-site backup. Just in case. Because just like insurance, if and when you need it, you will never regret having it.

About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn is a Senior Contributor to Macworld, where he is The iTunes Guy. He writes about Macs, books, music and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of The Committed: A Weekly Tech Podcast, and a regular contributor to TidBITS as well as several other web sites and publications. Kirk has written more than twenty books, including Take Control books about iTunes, LaunchBar, and Scrivener. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →
  • deemery

    I’m a little surprised you didn’t discuss RAID enclosures vs single drives.

    As I recall, failure rates for hard drives starts to climb at the 3 1/2 year point, so that’s generally my planning age for replacement.

    My approach is to have a Time Machine backup for each machine, and also to copy each machine’s user data to a server with a RAID array. Each has advantages and disadvantages for both backup and restore.

    Finally, if you have an old Mac, actually doing a full device restore from a backup is about the only way to ensure your backups are actually working correctly.

    • Kirk McElhearn

      Raid is a much more complex subject, and perhaps that could be the topic of another article.

      Doing a full device restore is only useful if your backup is for the full device. I have separate backups for my Macs and for my media library. So I can’t really check the media library backup without checking each file.

      • deemery

        Yeah, for some large datasets, it’s useful to back them up separately from full volume/full device backups. It helps a lot of you know how that data is organized, e.g. how iTunes organizes and stores source files. (I used to do my own directory structure for music [genre-or-era /composer /performer /album], but the last year I started getting lazy and dumping new stuff into a single folder.)

        An article on RAID should include a discussion of HW vs SW RAID, where the vendor claims sometimes feel counter-intuitive to me.

        • Kirk McElhearn

          I wouldn’t trust software RAID.

          • deemery

            I was surprised when OWC went to software RAID for their newest enclosures.

          • Kirk McElhearn

            Really? That’s a bit surprising. But I guess it’s cheaper.

            FWIW, I only mention software RAID in passing, in part because of the high CPU hit it engenders. (The article will be published soon.) You can use RAID 0 or 1 with software, and that’s built in to macOS, but I still wouldn’t do it. No need to have the OS spend a lot of time on that.

  • Blinker

    Nice article, Kirk!

    Will a “Disk Dock” work to prep a blank 1TB Samsung SSD to upgrade the spinning hard disk in a Macbook Pro laptop? Can I swap them so the HDD then becomes the backup drive? Is MacOS DiskTools adequate for the job or should I use SuperDuper or CCC?

    Thanks, Bob

    • Kirk McElhearn

      If it has SATA connectors, it will work fine with the disc dock that handles both 2.5″ and 3.5″ drives. The one I mention does handle both sizes; some drive docks don’t.

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