Category Archives: Photography

Why You Shouldn't Totally Trust Time Machine

Over the past month or so we’ve had a bit of bad luck with our unibody aluminium MacBook. About a month ago it was midway through backing up, and suddenly we started to hear a worrying crunching noise coming from the hard drive. We then got the spinning beachball of doom, and the machine became unresponsive. Rebooting produced nothing, the machine just wouldn’t boot. We managed to get a Genius Bar appointment for the same day at the Apple Store in Bath, and headed down to get the bad news that the hard drive was totally gone. The team in Bath replaced the drive and we picked it up a week later.

However whilst it was a pain, it wasn’t too much of a problem as our trusty Time Capsule had been quietly backing up using the built in Time Machine software. Having got the MacBook back all I had to do was hook it up to the Time Capsule, boot the machine off the OS installation DVD, select the restore option, point the machine at the relevant drive and a few hours later the machine is restored – well almost. Following advice from Parallels I had been excluding the virtual machines we had installed – whilst this speeds up the Time Machine backups, it’s a total pain when it comes to a full rebuild.

Anyway, we hadn’t lost any data, as that sits in shared folders on the Mac side – it just took the best part of a week to rebuild the virtual machine, in between Beth using the machine. I also made sure that the virtual machines were included in the backup just in case it happened again.

And happen again it did! Barely two weeks later, just I had finished the rebuild, the drive died again, and the machine went back to Bath. The team carefully checked over the machine and concluded that it was just bad luck, a manufacturing fault on the drive, no problem, it was replaced for free and I brought the machine home and did the same rebuild process.

All appeared well until today, when Beth decided she wanted to upload some pictures from iPhoto and tried to open the application. However the application came up with a dialog saying it couldn’t find her library. Looking around the drive, mine was intact, but Beth’s was nowhere to be found. No problem, check the backup – again, nowhere to be seen – however the backups only went back to the rebuild, nothing from before. All Beth’s pictures from the last year were lost!

A surf around came upon this discussion on the Apple Forums – the only use of the computer Beth had made between the two rebuilds had been uploading pictures in iPhoto, and whilst Time Machine would have picked up the iPhoto database eventually, in the short time between rebuilds the database had not been picked up at all, and the older copies had dropped off the backup drive due to the volume of changes that the virtual machine rebuilds had produced.

So the really, really, REALLY IMPORTANT point to take away from this is that Time Machine CANNOT BACK UP CERTAIN FILES IF THEY ARE OPEN, the iPhoto library being probably the most important item. Whilst over time changes will be picked up, if you spend most of your time in iPhoto, you’re obviously running a massive risk that you will lose your valuable pictures.

There are ways around it – firstly, make sure that you take regular backups with iPhoto closed. I’d also recommend not putting all your eggs in one basket, and having a parallel backup strategy, which is what I do on our iMac G5. Alongside the same Time Capsule and Time Machine combination I use the excellent Super Duper! from Shirt Pocket software. The two bits of software are complementary. Whilst Time Machine is great for picking up accidentally deleted files, it is a bit tedious for a full rebuild. Super Duper! creates bootable clones of drives, which if the worst happens and a drive dies, you can just boot the clone. I have had a drive fail on the iMac G5, and Super Duper! was my saviour – one cloned drive copied swiftly back. Indeed Shirt Pocket software themselves describe such a complementary solution on their blog. Whilst obviously they want to sell software, I’m happy to recommend the strategy as well.

Sadly, whilst many of Beth’s pictures were safely uploaded to Flickr or still on the camera, they weren’t all there. Equally all the keyword, faces and places classification she had done is lost, so it is definitely a case of learning the hard way that we need the same complementary backup solution on the MacBook that we’ve been operating on the iMac G5.

Finally, just in case you didn’t get it TIME MACHINE CANNOT BACK UP IPHOTO WHEN IT IS RUNNING!