Time Machine is the embodiment of the Zen-like statement that you must go forward to back up. It's also a component of Apple's four-month-old...

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Time Machine is the embodiment of the Zen-like statement that you must go forward to back up. It’s also a component of Apple’s four-month-old operating system, Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5), which lets you back up your Macintosh with the least fuss combined with greatest access of any archiving system I’ve ever used.

Don’t get me wrong about other backup software. I’ve been using what is now called EMC Retrospect for Macintosh since the early 1990s (www.emcinsignia.com/). I have spent or caused companies I owned or worked for to spend many thousands of dollars on Retrospect over 15 years — and never regretted it.

But Retrospect has always been made for geeks and techies, not the average person. I tried to get my mother-in-law set up with a basic version of it that required inserting a rewritable CD and occasionally swapping in a new CD. It never took: the few steps and clicks needed were a few too many.

No-click solution

That’s where Time Machine shines. It’s a no-click solution, once it’s set up with a few clicks. I have tested one-button backup systems that use software tied to a button on a paired hard drive; these work fine, but you typically have to launch software, set up automated launches or remember to push the button.

In contrast, Time Machine doesn’t have a button and doesn’t occupy your attention while operating. It just backs up. (OK, Apple added sort of a button after Leopard’s initial release; more on that in a moment.)

Setting up Leopard goes like this. Plug in a drive. Open System Preferences from the Apple menu, and click the Time Machine icon. Click the giant, friendly switch from Off to On. Select the drive you just plugged in. Never think about it again. There are some refinements, but that’s the basic procedure.

Time Machine does require the $129 Leopard, if you didn’t buy a recent machine that included the new OS; you can also pay $199 for a five-user family pack. The price of Leopard is justified by Time Machine alone.

Time Machine also requires a separate hard drive, a networked Macintosh also running Leopard with a drive shared across the local network, or Apple’s Time Capsule, which just shipped. With a shared network drive or Time Capsule, you can back up multiple Macs to a single drive.

Incremental backups

Time Machine performs incremental backups, which means that the first time it backs up your system to another disk, the system copies everything. On subsequent backups, it copies only modified or new files. Through the Time Machine system preference pane, you can choose to exclude mounted drives, folders or individual files.

Because Time Machine adds files only as you change them, you could buy a backup hard drive for your own system or a networked Leopard machine that’s two or three times larger than the combination of drives you’re backing up.

A 500 GB external drive can cost as little as $150 to $200 with USB 2.0 and/or FireWire interfaces. One terabyte (TB or 1,000 GB) drives cost about $350 to $400.

Unlike with Retrospect and other more advanced packages, when a drive fills, Time Machine won’t offer to continue on another drive; instead, it warns you, and then starts deleting the oldest duplicated files it has retained, while still keeping a full system backup.

Apple added a Time Machine menu in the system menu bar in its latest Leopard update, version 10.5.2, which lets you see the backup status, and choose to back up immediately. You can also use the menu while holding down the option key to restore files from Time Machine backups made on other computers.

The backup part works without any intervention, but restoring files you’ve deleted or changed is usually one of the more irritating pieces of using backup software.

Time Machine simplified this by using Apple’s Finder — the part of the operating system that lets you organize files — as a metaphor for restoring files.

To start restoring files, you select the Time Machine icon in the Dock or select Enter Time Machine from its system menu. The Desktop moves out of the way, and the background is replaced with a star field, a list of dates (from oldest to newest) with tick marks on the right side of the screen, and a bar at the bottom with Cancel on the left and Restore on the right. When you start, the middle of the bar is labeled Today (Now).

You can use the time index at right to step or jump backward through available backups and then navigate through folders to find an earlier version of a file you changed or any version of a file you deleted.

Spotlight also works, showing you files that match text you enter based on the current date you’re viewing.

Select the files or folders you want to restore, click the Restore button and sit back. Leopard sticks the files back in their original location, overwriting newer versions if they exist.

Restoring an entire drive is also fairly easy, as these things go. With a total system failure, you can boot from the Leopard DVD and choose to restore from a Time Machine backup. You can also use Migration Assistant to move your files from a current machine to a new one using a Time Machine backup.

While Leopard has its quirks, the 10.5.2 release — a free, huge download to for all Leopard users — seems to have cleaned up bugs and added options to turn off some of Leopard’s most annoying features.

After using Time Machine on two of my computers, I can finally recommend Leopard, in part, to take full advantage of Time Machine’s backward thinking.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists