For Apple users, there are two built-in ways to do back up your data on Mac: iCloud and Time Machine. Though very different in execution, both provide a simple and affordable way to keep your data protected.
In this post, we’ll explain the pros and cons of each so that you can decide which is the right way to protect your data.
- How does iCloud Work?
- How does Time Machine work?
- Time Machine vs. iCloud: Which is better for backing your data up?
- The best Time Machine hard drives for Mac
How does iCloud Work?
Most of us understand the concept of a data cloud by now, but few of us actually know how they work. How does Apple store millions of users’ data, how does Apple avoid losing files, how are these files secured, where are they kept, how do they know which files are yours, and what happens if Apple stops offering iCloud?
We won’t get into all of these questions in this article, but they’re the sorts of questions you should be asking when you sign up for a cloud service like iCloud.
Getting into the nuts and bolts of it, iCloud (and services like iCloud) work via servers. A “server” is just a computer that’s meant to be accessed over the internet rather than in person. Apple has warehouses around the world that are stuffed with servers, providing them with more bytes of data than you can imagine. And each of these servers is connected to the internet.
When you use iCloud to backup your iPhone or store your photos and email, your files are copied from your iPhone or Mac, uploaded over the internet, and copied to one of Apple’s servers. These servers are backed up frequently and replaced whenever they fail, which makes it next to impossible for your data to be lost or deleted.
How does Time Machine work?
While Time Machine is also used to back up and store files, it takes a much different approach. If you’re not familiar with Time Machine, it’s a feature of macOS that automatically backs up all of your files to an external drive every hour or so. The idea is that if you were to throw your Mac into a lake, you would still have all of your data from at least within the last hour safely stored on a Time Machine drive.
All you need for this feature to work is an external drive that is configured for Time Machine. We’ve listed a few of these further down in the article, though you can find them online by searching for “Time Machine drives”.
It’s important to note that Time Machine doesn’t literally back up every file every hour. Instead, it only backs up the files that have changed in the last hour. So if you haven’t done anything in the last hour, your Mac will probably only need to back up a few megabytes. On the other hand, if you just updated to the latest version of macOS, Time Machine will need to back up several gigabytes.
Time Machine vs. iCloud: Which is better for backing your data up?
So now that we’ve covered how iCloud and Time Machine each work, it’s time to get into which is better. The truth is that, at this point, both are extremely solid ways of keeping your data safe. Time Machine offers a more flexible, hands-on approach, while iCloud is a simple, set-and-forget data solution.
The drawbacks of iCloud are pretty surface level. It has a fixed fee, unlike Time Machine, so it will be more expensive in the long run. It doesn’t offer version control, so you can’t view hourly versions of a particular file like you can in Time Machine. And it doesn’t back up everything, only the files that you store in it. If you threw your Mac in a lake after backing up to iCloud, you would only be able to retrieve the files stored in your iCloud Drive; your Mac’s data itself, however, would largely be gone.
Time Machine, on the other hand, has problems that aren’t as immediately apparent. First, every data drive, whether it’s solid-state or hard disk, is going to fail eventually. That means that one day you will lose all of your Time Machine data unless you back up that data as well. You also have to maintain and set it up yourself, which can be especially tricky if you’re dealing with network-attached storage.
And, finally, everything is local when you use Time Machine, meaning that you can’t access the files stored in Time Machine on other devices. iCloud, on the other hand, allows you to stream your data from any Apple computer.
The ultimate solution is to use both if you can, as this offers the best of both worlds. That means storing all of your files in iCloud Drive and backing up your computer to Time Machine. If that’s not an option, however, here’s a quick guide to decide which is right for you:
- You should use iCloud Drive if:
- You want a simple solution
- You don’t care about version control
- You don’t have that much data
- You like being able to stream your data
- You should use Time Machine if:
- You want a hands-on approach to data storage
- You care about version control
- You have a lot of data to back up
- You prefer to keep your data local
The best Time Machine hard drives for Mac
Setting up iCloud storage is a pretty straightforward process. You just choose the amount of data that’s right for you and then move your files to the iCloud Drive folder in Finder.
Time Machine, on the other hand, is a bit more involved, especially since you have to pick out the right external drive. Many drives are not compatible with Time Machine, so you’ll need to shop smart. Below are some of the best Time Machine drives currently available.
All-purpose SSD: Samsung SSD
Long the go-to for Time Machine users and data hoarders in general, the Samsung SSDs are affordable, durable, simple, and extremely lightweight. Even the 1TB options are only slightly bigger than a normal thumb drive. If you aren’t sure which drive to get and want something that “just works”, Samsung’s SSDs are the ones to pick.
Budget Backups: Western Digital HDD/SSD
Another popular choice among data hoarders is Western Digital, known for having great customer service, long-lasting HDDs, and super affordable prices. They also have a wide variety of options, from small, portable drives to massive, 6TB NAS drives.
Just know that if you decide to get an HDD (which uses a spinning disk) that these are not meant to be portable and are prone to breaking if jostled roughly. This is true for any HDD, not just Western Digital products.
Network-Attached Storage: Synology Diskstation
Using Network-Attached Storage, or NAS, is like setting up your own personal iCloud at home. It’s a backup drive that you plug into your WiFi router, allowing you to access your files from any device connected to your WiFi network. Setting one of these up is a bit more complicated than a standard drive, but it’s also much more rewarding.
By setting up a NAS, you can use Time Machine wirelessly, which is as cool as it is convenient. We recommend grabbing a Synology Diskstation, as these not only come with a lot of reliable storage, but also other features that capitalize on its streaming capabilities. Just make sure that the Diskstation you by comes with hard disks, unless you prefer to buy disks separately.
Rugged Drives: LaCie HDD
Last but not least is the always famous LaCie HDD. These are one of the most popular Time Machine drives available as they are exceptionally rugged. They are drop, shock, dust, and rain resistant (though not water-resistant, mind you) which makes them perfect for tossing in your bag and hitting the road. If you’re someone who travels a lot, the LaCie HDD was made for you.
Does Time Machine back up iCloud files?
Time Machine backs up every file on your Mac by default, which includes iCloud files. That means every file you store in iCloud Drive, as well as other iCloud services (like Photos and Calendar), are backed up to Time Machine. If you delete something in iCloud (such as a Reminder) you can recover it with Time Machine.
Should I use Carbon Copy Cloner or Time Machine?
There are other apps available for Mac, like Carbon Copy Cloner and SuperDuper, that perform a similar role to Time Machine but with tweaks that might make them better for certain users. In our opinion, none of these other solutions is outright better than Time Machine; it comes down to researching and finding the solution that is right for you. Just keep in mind that moving to a third-party solution could complicate your data hoarding process.