Why Apple’s Time Machine Utterly Fails User Needs

| Editorial

Apple's Time Machine backup system was born in a time (2006) when Apple realized that customers weren't routinely backing up their Macs. So a simple, stopgap system, with some novel features, was devised for the novice user. Unfortunately, over the years, the app hasn't progressed and kept pace with modern user needs. Today, most every tech writer says: Use it, but don't trust it completely. This is an unfortunatel situation.


During WWDC in 2006, along with the announcement of OS X Leopard, Apple's Scott Forstall noted that only 4 percent of Mac users were using automated system to backup their Mac's hard drive. He then introduced the new Time Machine app, which shipped in 2007, to solve that problem. The presentation is in this video starting at 31m:16s.

Time Machine: announced with OS X Leopard by Scott Forstall.

In addition to an regularly scheduled, automated backup that's incredibly easy to set up, Time Machine's killer feature was (and is) the ability to go back in time to resurrect accidentally deleted files.

Today, most Mac users know that they should just connect a local hard drive to their Mac and turn on Time Machine. When it works, which is most of the time, it's a joy to see.

Houston, We have a Problem

However, today, a decade after its introduction, there's a problem.

In recent years, our storage needs and corresponding devices have grown dramatically while Time Machine has introduced only minor new features—none that provide the user with clarity and confidence in the state of the backup nor meet modern operational needs.

Mac sales are surging, even cannibalizing iPads. Action is necessary.

For example, Time Machine doesn't, in normal operation, create a bootable backup of the internal drive. It can only restore a damaged (or new) internal drive from the Time Machine archive. Modern best practices always dictate that one use, for example, an app like Carbon Copy Cloner. This app does create a file by file perfect copy of the internal drive that's bootable. Also, Time Machine is primarily geared towards a backup of the main internal boot drive, not (selectively) all online drives.

Next, there is no easily digestible, user accessible log file available for inspection within the Time Machine System Preference. There is a backup file log maintained, (.Backup.log) but it's an invisible file, not intended for user inspection and the production of warm fuzzies.

Finally, there is very little in the way of diagnostics or feedback to the user about the integrity of each backup. In other words, the user has no usable tools within Time Machine. that can be used to verify the integrity of the current backup other than a casual visual inspection. If a Time Machine backup gets hung up or mangled, most users are left in the dark and find themselves forced to start all over, regretting that a possible valuable archive needs to be overwritten.

The Modern Dilemma for Apple

The state-of-the-art in Time Machine is that countless, indeed brilliant articles have been written over the years teaching us about its ins and outs. It does have its intricacies, especially when used with a network drive. Just one recent example is "What to do when mobile Time Machine backups linger and fill storage space," by Glenn Fleishman.

The issues is not that we cannot find and read excellent tutorial articles on how to deal with typical Time Machine anomalies. Rather, the issue is that Apple insists on keeping the service simple and intuitive and has failed, over the years, to migrate the user base to a higher level of sophistication and robustness. During that time, other products, for example, Data Backup 3 from Prosoft Engineering, have filled the gap for more assiduous users.

Apple has said, in essence, that they are only going to cater to the most basic needs of the average user and will leave more complete approaches to third parties. The Time Machine emperor, in essence, has no clothes.

The net result is that in most every modern article on Macintosh backups that I have seen, the author is (politely) obligated to point out that Time Machine should be supplemented by a second, more robust solution. In other words, Time Machine is a good first line of defence, but due diligence dictates supplementing it just to be sure.

This a difficult position for Apple to be in in 2016. The very app that every Mac user depends on has been labelled not good enough by the expert tech writers. The average customer is left to wonder why the flagship backup product from Apple is wanting and should properly be supplemented. What is it, exactly, that has restrained Apple from advancing the state-of-the-art of Time Machine? Why can't the modern customer can completely depend on it for all modern backup tasks?

After all, in the past, Apple has never been shy about creating terrific software that makes all the third party stopgap efforts appear obsolete, incomplete and awkward in their GUIs by comparison.

Benign Neglect

With this kind of neglect, modern Apple customers have come to the nagging realization that Apple has failed to up its game in that critical area of backups that they are now so keenly aware of—thanks to massive files and modern security issues. Mainstream users are left with conflicting advice, politically correct excuses for Apple's modest efforts, and the need to consult experts on the Web to bail them out of snafus.

Apple customers shouldn't have to wonder about all this. They should, instead, have the best backup software on the planet directly from Apple.

[Some image elements courtesy Shutterstock]

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Joe Holmes

To verify your Time Capsule backup, hold the option key while selecting the Time Machine menu. “Back Up Now” turns into “Verify Backups.” I have no idea if this is a good diagnostic, but it’s a (secret) option.

I wrote “Time Capsule” backup because the verification is grayed out if your Time Machine backup is to a drive outside an Airport Time Capsule.

Doug Petrosky

You bluster and say little! TimeMachine has saved thousands of users who would never use a “more robust” system. If “YOU” want to better protect your self you need a second backup. This can be something like carbon copy if you want but you could use that same second drive to have an OS loaded and simply restore your TM backup to it every night as well. Now you have a verified TM backup and a bootable backup.

Most people just don’t care to spend that much time and thus TM is what it needs to be.

John Martellaro

Joe Holmes: Yep. That checks the integrity of a sparse bundle TM backup file on a network drive.


Well said. Apple could have a much more robust backup system that was as simple to use. They have just ignored TimeMachine for far too long. My biggest gripe is that the backup database is apparently not very robust. I’ve normally gotten a couple of years out of a backup set. Then it corrupts and I have to start over. No the drive wasn’t full. Yes, this has happened on several different drives.

Paul Goodwin

For most users, something as incredibly simple to use as Time Machine is enough. If you put the better backup software in front of them, it’d be the deer in the headlights and they wouldn’t use it. It would be nice to have a few more features, but Carbon Copy Cloner, and ProSoft’s product are there for reasonable prices for the more technical users. Apple has always looked to 3rd party developers to be the higher tech focused suppliers. It doesn’t surprise me that Apple hasn’t developed Time Machine further.

Doug Petrosky

I have to say I’m with Paul on this.

I don’t doubt you geoduck, but I also don’t have enough evidence to be concerned. At home I back up 6 systems to a timecapsule and at work we back up 8. Never had a corruption and restored once at home and twice at the office over the past 4-6 years.

Just as my experience is not prof of reliability, yours is not prof of instability. The system is solid for most people I know, but any single point of failure backup solution is technically incomplete. So by definition TimeMachine should not be your sole backup solution, but for most it is a huge step forward from what they would have done otherwise.

There are a thousand other places I would have Apple spend it’s time before I pushed for a TimeMachine update.


What is the point of backing up to a device that lives in the same building as the device being backed up?


I have used Time Machine since it’s inception and it was never more necessary than last March when my house was broken into and my iMac stolen. Thankfully, the thieves just unplugged it from everything and ran out with it and a few things they could carry in their hands. Little did they know that one thing they unplugged was my backup drive. With the aid of insurance money, I had a new computer 2 days later on my desk, plugged into my Time Machine drive, and within an hour and a half, was fully restored to 99% original state. I had to reenter my passwords on apps. I did not have to reload a SINGLE piece of software, including all of Adobe CS6.

Why do I like it? I’ve been using macs for nearly 32 years, since my freshman year in college, and they’ve never been easier. Keep It Simple Stupid is still just as valuable today.

Brian Meola

So Apple has “utterly failed” it’s users because you can’t access a log file and they have a different way they want you to restore vs a bootable backup. And it took this long editorial to say that. This is so reaching it’s ridiculous. You shouldn’t even be booting from your backup drive and risk corrupting your backup. You should be transferring to the repaired or new drive first anyway. And that’s exactly the protocol Apple follows with TM. You can boot from the TM drive in order to recover the data to the other drive. Letting users run their computers from their backup drive doesn’t sound like a better plan for Apple at all. How many users are going to just boot from the backup for awhile because they can and never get around to fixing the actual problem? Then when the backup gets messed up, what are they going to do?? Sounds like Apple is forcing best practices onto their users to save them from themselves. As for the log file… If that’s something that you really need then that’s a fair point, but I’d hardly say Apple failed their customers because they can’t read a log file.


My experience is similar to geoduck. Time Machine is great, when it works, but it fails every year or two. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened at in inopportune moment, but it makes no sense that the problem can’t be fixed, and that the entire TM backup has to be redone. I know Apple can do better.

Paul Goodwin

I’ve had two incidents in the past several years of running 24/7 and backing up every hour with Time Machine to an external drive. One was a fault where the external backup drive got full, so I blamed Time machine. I didn’t lose anything because redundancy worked, my files were on the Mac’s drive. The other incident was the backup drive itself failed, and was a bad sector, non-recoverable, un-erasable, un-mountable etc.

It’s a simple system but it works because the loss of your data is the probability of failure of both the Mac’s internal drive and the external drive/Time Machine, and is the product of the failure rates of each part. Probably on the order of 1 failure per hundred thousand operating hours for the Mac drive,  and the sum of the external drive and Time Machine combo is perhaps 2 per hundred thousand. So the total failure rate is about 1 per 5 billion hours.

Because of that I don’t worry about losing data with Time Machine. I certainly didn’t like the drive crashing though after only a few thousand hours. But that was the first drive crash I’ve experienced since the early 1990s when I had the last one.


How do Apple Time Machine Protect from Silent File corruption? And how do you know if your restoration of Backup is not corrupted.

I also wish Time Machine will work with iPad and iPhone as well.


“Utterly fails user needs” is a bit over the top. High end Uber geek users, maybe, but they should be using the 3rd party software anyway. The average user will never look at a log file, or even know what the heck one is.

I care for about 25 Macs using Time Machine at work (dept won’t pay for anything else). And it has not failed yet. I use it to build new machines, archive Users who have left the dept, transfer user folders to a new built base OS, never had a failure (knock on wood, but not my fault if they refuse to pay for more). For home users, it’s a real blessing and a no brainer to run. Has helped me save many tragedies through the years.

The worst TM practice I saw someone else do (disregarding my warnings), and it bit them in the ass, was partition a Mini’s HD, and use one partition for Time Machine. And yes, of course as fate would have it, THAT was the rare Apple HD that failed, killing the back up with it. Illogical as Spock would say.

Old UNIX Guy

In response to muppetgate’s question about why do a backup to a device that lives in the same building…

Obviously, you do need to have some sort of offsite backup to protect against fire or tornado or whatever.  But let’s just say that you decide to turn on parental controls because you’re concerned as to why a family member is religiously deleting their Safari history.  And let’s just say that you realize that you no longer need to do so, so you go into parental controls and click the little “-” sign, thinking that that will turn off parental controls.  And then you realize to your horror that what that actually does is delete the account!

And let’s just say you don’t have a Time Machine backup of that users’ account…

Not that I know anyone who has had anything like that happen to them…  wink

Old UNIX Guy


Why has Time Machine been neglected?  Simple, it’s a Mac thing and - despite what Apple says - the evidence is clear that they don’t care about the Mac.  Now if this was something relating to iOS or the Apple Watch you can bet that it would get immediate attention.

Want another example of something basic that doesn’t work on the Mac anymore?  How about e-mail?!?  El Crapitan has introduced a memory leak if you try to connect to a standard IMAP account.  I’ve seen Activity Monitor report my Mac as using as much as 45 GB of RAM!!

I filed a bug, my bug was closed as a duplicate of another bug, but of course I can’t see that other bug ... and as of 10.11.3 they still haven’t fixed this garbage.

Think that would be allowed to happen on iOS???


The only quibble I will bring up is that the title of the article does not sync with the article. Utter failure would suggest Time Machine meets none of the backup needs of users. There are a number of references and points made in the article that makes this this seem misleading. Perhaps it is just hyperbolic.

I have used TM since it was released. It has served one important need easier than any other backup software I have used. Many times I have used it over my other backups to bring back a file that was deleted. I continue to use it for this reason and others. I have a bootable CCC backup as well; but thankfully have never actually needed it. The only HD failure I have had since the release of Time Machine was rescued by TM.

John Martellaro

skipaq: Think of it like this. You go into a dealership to buy a new car. The salesman says, “Remember, it may not start when you need to go to work each morning. I strongly suggest that you buy a second car just in case.” That’s the kind of failure I’m referring to.


I find your headline overly dramatic. I’ve used Time Machine 3 or 4 times to recover and it has worked flawlessly. Of course secondary ways of backing up is always recommended and the tools are out there to do so. However Time Machine works as advertised quite nicely.


I think your car analogy is accurate to a point. I need my car to get to work. It’s mission critical. My mac? not so much.

At work? Yes, it’s mission critical so I have separate backup and I backup to the cloud for off-site protection.

At home, I also use Dropbox for critical financial files etc. I just trust that the encryption is enough. But this Dropbox folder is also backed up by Time Machine so the critical files exist in 3 places.

If my boot drives dies, I will have to wait until I replace it to be back in business, but that’s OK, I’m not running a nuclear power plant here, just reading e-mails from Mom and balancing my checking account.

And speaking of Moms, mine loves the simplicity of her Time Machine backup. She does not want to learn about backup logs or bootable clones. She’s happy her pictures are on iCloud and Time Machine. I think Apple has it about right.

And, they do better than for my Mom than they do for my Windows using relatives.


Thanks, John. I got the gist of your article. I agree that it is foolish to make TM the whole of a backup strategy. I just think that TM still meets some of my needs.


I agree with John.  Time Machine is better than nothing of course. But it could be so much better.


As you may recall, TM was launched with big fanfare for it’s visual appeal.. the ability “scroll back” like the Star Wars total graphics..  Beautiful to behold, but in the end, not very useful, and not very fast.

I tried TM on several occasions, but never feel comfortable with what it was… and was not doing, so migrated to CCC years ago, and suggest that app for my tech clients to use as well.

Nicolas diPierro

More importantly, this maybe-dependable-maybe-not solution is also Apple’s CYA last resort for every issue they don’t want to waste time troubleshooting with you.

“Reinstall the OS and restore your backup.”

An unreliable backup I argue is worse than none at all, because it gives a false sense of security. This unreliable backup that’s essentially completely opaque in its functionality means it’s unreliable AND you don’t know why or how to fix it. Even Keychain First Aid output a little list of results. (Someone must have told Apple there was still something useful there, because now Keychain First Aid is gone entirely in 10.11.3)

Michael Mears

You’ve done a swell job of advertising paid programs. Yay capitalism disguised as good advice.

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