While Time Machine is a fantastic tool, it has some limitations. The utility’s archiving ability is extremely useful, but on the recovery end of things, Time Machine isn’t as flexible as power users may require their backup solution to be.
Primarily, a Time Machine drive cannot be plugged in and booted from. Bootable backups can be great for quick turn-arounds in the case of a failed or replaced disk. Simply plug in the drive, boot your Mac with the option key held down and boom — you’re off to the races.
(Obviously, you’re going to need a hard drive dedicated for this. We recommend one that is similar — if not the same — as your Time Machine drive for convenience, but just about anything will do as long as it’s equal to or larger in capacity than your boot drive.)
To create a bootable backup, we heartily recommend SuperDuper!, a $28 app by a company named Shirt Pocket. It’s an excellent way to diversify your backups beyond Time Machine. Moreover, there are some advantages to having a bootable backup of your Mac.
The latest version of SuperDuper (version 2.8 as of this writing) is fully compatible with Apple’s latest version of OS X, El Capitan.
(While we like the app a lot, we’ll be dropping the exclamation point from its name for the rest of the review.)
SuperDuper is very powerful and provides the tools needed to make backups easy and useful.
There is lot to SuperDuper, so let’s walk through things a bit.
Creating a Backup Job in SuperDuper
Creating a new job in SuperDuper is a fairly simple affair once you’ve got your head around the backup types and settings. The drop-down menus control what drives are in play, and once the job type (see below) is selected, clicking the Option button will show more … well … options:
The During Copy drop-down controls the type of backup that should be completed.
The first option — Erase, then copy — will take the most time, as it will wipe the target drive and copy every file and folder from the source.
The last two — Copy newer files and Copy different files — options work a little bit like Time Machine, but only in an additive fashion. SuperDuper will add files to the backup disk, but never remove them. This will eventually fill up the drive, and can make restoring data a little more difficult.
We recommend the Smart Update option because it’s the fastest and most efficient. Note, this will delete files from the target disk if they’ve been deleted on the source disk since the last backup.
In practice, this means that your SuperDuper backup is an exact clone of your internal disk as it was at the time of the backup operation. This isn’t a rolling backup with file history like Time Machine, so it’s best to use this in tandem with Apple’s built-in backup system.
SuperDuper can execute any number of actions after a backup is complete, such as sleeping the computer, ejecting the target drive, and more. We suggest taking a trip through Shirt Pocket’s documentation on SuperDuper to learn more about the application’s advanced features.
An Aside about SuperDuper Job Types
SuperDuper offers several different types of jobs, but for almost all users, the default of Backup – all files is just fine. This will back up everything on the source disk, making the target drive bootable, but SuperDuper offers several other job types:
Backup – user files — Backs up any and all home folders on the source disk, but won’t back up any application or system files. The target disk won’t be bootable, but this can be a great way to get critical files onto another disk.
SuperDuper can create Sandbox backups, which shouldn’t be used for normal backups. Here’s how SuperDuper’s support documents explain things:
A Sandbox is a bootable copy of your system, stored on another hard drive or partition, that shares your personal documents and data with the original. In the past, you might have stored this copy away in a drawer as a backup. With SuperDuper, you actually use the Sandbox as your startup volume.
You can safely install any system updates, drivers or programs in the Sandbox without worrying about what might happen to your system. If anything goes wrong, you can simply start up from the original system. SuperDuper has preserved it in its original, pre-disaster state – but all your new and changed personal documents are totally up to date. Within minutes, you’re up and running again – without having to go through a difficult and time-consuming restore process.
With all of that fine print out of the way, SuperDuper offers two types of sandbox backups. Both create backups of the user accounts on the system disk, meaning that booting another version of OS X — while bringing your files and settings with you — is easy. This is a great tool for testing newer builds of OS X, but is admittedly a feature for only the smallest number of power users.
As you might imagine, SuperDuper can restore files from an external drive.
While backing up, SuperDuper offers visual feedback as to what is going on:
SuperDuper can back up to a connected disk on a calendar basis, or can automatically start when a known volume is mounted:
The latter option is perfect for off-site backup drives. I keep a pair of hard drives in my office that contain copies of my home Mac mini and RAID.
Generally, I update these drives every other weekend, but it’s not always that regular. Even when I’m on the schedule, I may back up on Friday evening one weekend, but Sunday morning two weeks later. SuperDuper doesn’t care, though. Once my backup drive is plugged into my Mac, SuperDuper launches automatically and starts backing up after a short countdown period.
Recovering Data from a SuperDuper Backup
Bootable backups can’t be used with OS X’s built-in Setup Assistant like Time Machine can, but that doesn’t mean it’s hard to get data off a SuperDuper-run drive.
If you’ve got a new disk, or one that’s been freshly-restored, OS X can be installed via Internet Recovery or from any OS X installer.
If you’ve set up a bootable backup and need to restore all that data to a disk with OS X already on it, fire up the OS X recovery partition, and open Disk Utility. Once Disk Utility starts, select the drive you want to restore to, and switch to the Restore tab. Following the directions there will get things back in place easily:
If you don’t need to run a complete restore, files can be copied from a bootable backup drive in Finder without issue — something that can’t be said for Time Machine volumes.
SuperDuper makes a great side-kick to Apple’s backup solution, Time Machine. When used together, the latter’s archival format and the former’s versatile utility form quite the dynamic duo.
We have a whole section of our site dedicated to doing easy backups of your computer. For more information on backups, check out our main Backups Page.