Beware, Time Machine users!

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.

It wasn’t.

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.


Time waster

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!


9 Responses to Beware, Time Machine users!

  1. John Quebedeaux says:

    I happened to search for how to use an inProgress Time Machine file and came across this. I want to thank you, despite that you had to agonize over it and discover how to do this the hard way (how did you ever come across using Automator?!!) that it helped me with the same issue.

    I had nearly a full backup of a volume that was going bad, recovery was not going well when i found I had an inProgress backup that was actually a good backup of all the good files. If it weren’t for your tidbit, i’d still be pulling my hair out trying to figure out how to get to my only good copy of data/files/etc.

    For what it’s worth, Thanks! John Q.

  2. Estephan says:

    Hi everybody,
    I have a very big and important problem and need urgent help.
    I have a time machine backup file that was not terminated correctly. It has the ending .inprogress I need to restore that file by all means as it is the only backup that was made. Does anybody have an idea how i can do that. There are videos in there that are not stored anywhere else and are extremly important. The .inprogress file is 194 GB bis, so hopefully the videos would be there…
    Thanks, Estephan

  3. Evan says:

    Because TM backups are made by an OS application, they are ‘owned’ by the root/ system. Automator was able to move the photos because it is also part of OS X, so it has root access.

    If you ever want to manipulate backups in the future, use Terminal and the ‘chown’ command (Google this so you understand the command first!) to change the ownership of the backup or .inprogress to yourself or the Admin group.

    Glad to hear you saved your photos!

  4. johan says:

    could you give anymore details about what you did when you say you used Automator?

    I too have files (and preferably the iphoto application) i need to access in an .inprogress file, but haven’t figured out how to copy them over. Thank you very much for your help


    • Grace says:

      Hi, I’m experience almost the same problem. Is there a more simplified explanation on how to use the automator program?

      Thk you. Grace

  5. Ashley says:

    Life saving advice!! For anyone else coming across this problem, here is a little more info on using the Automator app. I had never used it before I needed it for this purpose. I used two commands:

    Get Specified Finder Items
    Copy Finder Items

    Before I did this I had to use the ‘Show Package Contents’ to pull the files in question out of the .inProgress package.

    That said, I think Evan’s advice of using chown in the terminal window is probably a better way to go.


  6. Peter says:

    Hey, i had the same problem with the time machine not completing all the way and i can’t restore. I did what you did to look at the files, and i’d like to get some of them off the inprogress file, so i just wanted to know what exactly you did in automator to get the files (since i don’t know how to use automator…) Thanks.

  7. Alméti says:

    Thank you very much!
    I had the same issue and lost 10Go…

    I don’t know how you had this idea but I discovered Automator. It’s useful.

  8. bruce says:

    awesome… automator worked … it was able to retrieve my .inprogress file.

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