My MacBook hard drive recently started making strange clunking noises and I knew at once it was a goner. I felt a brief surge of panic at first, as I’d just got back from holiday and imported a load of photos, but I had done a Time Machine backup to an external drive just a couple of days ago. It should all be saved.
Once I’d got a new hard drive sorted out, I thought, it was going to be a doddle getting back to where I was two days ago. How wrong I was!
First point: don’t try to save space by opting not to back up system files (as I did).
If you’ve backed up everything, you can choose to restore everything by booting from the Leopard DVD and choosing this option from the Utilities menu. If not, you find you can’t even get at your Time Machine backup without choosing to back up your virgin OS X installation to that disk.
I haven’t dared do that, because if you choose to start backing up a clean installation with Time Machine, what happens to your pre-hard disk failure backup? It’s not going to get deleted but presumably it becomes not the latest backup, but the last backup but one, which I assume complicates the restoration process yet further.
Second point: you can restore user accounts via the Migration Assistant in Utilities after you’ve got done a clean install and upgraded the system to the latest version, but this option doesn’t let you restore other data such as Applications.
If this option is made clear by Apple, I didn’t find it in any of the support documents I read. Instead, I stumbled across it during the first reboot and system setup after a clean install of OS X. At this stage, it does offer you the option of restoring non-user account files such as Applications – except it doesn’t work! When I chose it, everything froze.
So, to cut a long story short, I set up a temp account, upgraded to 10.5.4 and then clicked on the Migration Assistant in Utilities with the external drive with the Time Machine backup mounted. This gives you the option of restoring entire user accounts but nothing else.
Third point: did Time Machine really backup your account properly last time you did it? Check if you’ve done a lot of precious stuff.
So after numerous failed attempts and much swearing, I’d done a clean install, upgraded it and then restored the user accounts from an external drive using Migration Assistant. I thought I was finally back to where I was when the hard disk failed about a week ago.
I logged back in to my restored account and opened up iPhoto. We’d got back from holiday a few days before the drive conked out, and as I had had a new camera to play with, I’d taken loads of photos that I had spent quite some time sorting out in iPhoto. Fortunately, I’d done one Time Machine backup since returning from the holiday. It would all have been backed up.
Time Machine had restored me not to the latest version but one more than two weeks old. When I opened up the Backup folder, I saw why: the latest backup had failed and produced an XXXXXX.inprogress file.
The .inprogress file can be opened by right-clicking and choosing Show Package Contents – and the latest iPhoto libary with all the holiday photos was there. But simply it copying over didn’t work – iPhoto produced a “you don’t have permission” error when I tried to open it, which no amount of playing with permissions would fix.
Eventually I discovered the way round this. You have to copy files from the .inprogress folders to your account using Automator rather than dragging and dropping. Don’t ask me why it works but it does.
So how many hours did it take me to figure this out? I hate to think. I was hopping mad with Apple at the time, but the question I had to ask myself was this – without Time Machine, would my last backup have been two days before my hard drive failed?
Honest answer: no, probably more like two months at best.
So Time Machine did save my bacon. But restoring my system wasn’t simple, it wasn’t quick and it certainly wasn’t fun. Apple, I hope you can make it a lot better!