I recently switched my backup tool from Apple’s Time Machine to Arq Backup which for my needs is clearly better. And once I’d realized that, I wondered whose needs would be best served by Time Machine. To be honest I’m having a hard time with that.
Time Machine setup · I’d used Time Capsules and Airports for many years and then switched to a Synology DS416j with mirrored 6TB drives. It took a little jiggery-pokery to get the Macs and the Synology talking nicely, but then things seemed to work for a while. But not recently. At regular intervals Time Machine says something like “Time Machine has enthrophased the gnocchometric continuum, and you need to back up from scratch again.” Maybe the part before backup from scratch was actually “monophorically phosphorylated the interpretive-dance phlogiston”; can’t quite remember because, whatever it was, that’s how much sense it made.
We have a pretty fast home network but also really big disks, so start from scratch meant multiple days waiting for that do-over backup to do its job. This is not a confidence-building experience.
Arq · On a parallel timeline, at some point I’d asked the world “What’s good Mac backup software?” and a lot of people said “Arq.” OK then, I signed up and paid and gave it a whirl. Because I’d somewhat lost faith that I had anything useful in terms of Time Machine backups, I went and bought a 2TB USB drive at the nearest drugstore and plugged that in. I have to say the onboarding user experience could be better; Arq’s terminology for what you’re backing up from and to is not as self-explanatory as one might like. But I’m pretty sure I figured out the right incantations.
Once running, the Arq user experience is vastly better than Time Machine’s. It tells you what it’s doing, and what it’s doing takes what seems like a reasonable amount of time. Time Machine never tells you anything actually useful about what it’s doing or (all too often) why it can’t, with the unifying theme being that whatever it does or fails to, the process takes hours.
But nobody cares about backup! · The only thing anyone cares about is restore.
I have verified that I can restore data from Time Machine; the only times I’ve done so have been when migrating from one Mac to another. It works fine but (like everything else about Time Machine) is painfully slow and opaque. I also have read enough testimonials from Arq users to be convinced that it’ll do the job when I ask.
What is Time Machine for?? · The hero moment is that Finder view replicated back over a timeline, so you can go find the version of any file at any date and bring it into the present day like, you know, a time machine. Like (I suspect) most people, I was dazzled with the UI the first time I saw it. But, in all those years the number of times I’ve used that restore mode is: Zero. As I said above, I’ve done a wholesale restore to a new Mac once or twice: for this purpose the fancy UI is irrelevant.
With a little thought, it becomes obvious why I don’t need the timeline.
What files on my computer do I care about?
Photographs, which I load into Lightroom and (mostly) edit. Lightroom edits non-destructively by recording deltas against the RAW file. All I really care about is the most-improved version or the original RAW. If I want to try another treatment of the photo, I make a virtual copy. The net effect of all this is: All I ever care about is the most recent version of any of the files. So the timeline buys me nothing.
Work documents, which we collaborate on and version like hell. We do this mostly with WorkDocs, which keeps all your doc versions somewhere in the cloud. All I really care about is the current working version that might be ahead of what’s in the cloud, so once again, only the latest. So the timeline buys me nothing.
Code, which is hosted in Git, and all I care about is what’s in my own workspace, because it might be noticeably ahead of the last commit. So the timeline buys me nothing.
Blog pieces, which live on both my MacBook and the tbray.org server. The process of getting them ready to push feels like monotonic improvement; I’ve never felt the slightest urge to dig up an old version. So the timeline buys me nothing.
That leaves one category where the timeline might be a winner: Deletion protection. Surely, if I delete some file then regret it, wouldn’t it be handy to scroll the timeline back to just before and pick it up? I guess this might be true for some people, but there’s this: I never delete anything. Seriously, if you’re going to erase data you should think hard first, and that thinking is a waste of precious time and brain bandwidth, because data is cheap to keep and the cost of being wrong is high. So the timeline buys me nothing.
[Now, there’s an exception. Things you really want to delete because they are evidence of sketchy sex kinks or premature antifascism or whatever. Protip: Put this kind of thing somewhere that isn’t backed up.]
Conclusion · Arq is great. A little bird told me it’s the product of a one-person operation and not a VC-funded aspirational Bay-Area Unicorn (the Internet needs more of those). Another little bird recently told me Arq got a serious look-over from a pretty elite OpSec group who said “LGTM” (the Internet needs more of those).
If you have a Mac and your data-handling practices are like mine, I advise sending Arq some money.
Bonus · In 2006 I wrote about Protecting Your Data, on mostly the same subject. Dedicated readers may enjoy tracking the evolution of my thinking on this subject.