Time Machine. A giant leap backward.

Boy did Apple ever get that slogan right. Let me preface this post by first stating this; I truly had high hopes for Apples new Time Machine found in the new Leopard OS Xhad. Now that I got that out of the way, I can comfortably start my rant.

Time Machine for OS X Leopard sucks! No, it more than sucks; it sucks the biggest suckiness this side of suck universe. There is more suck packed in this one app than all of the os’s that Microsoft has ashamedly released in the last decade. I had suspected some of Time Machines downfalls in an earlier post postulating that Time Machine could in fact instill a very false sense of security. I have successfully realized the hard truth in this fact.

First let me tell you what Time Machine is good for; retrieving one, or perhaps a small handful of misplaced files or pictures or movies or schematics for building a HAM radio or whatever… Let me tell you how Time Machine does this; all space flight through starry backdrops aside, Time machine effectively uses Finder to dig through another disk or partition on, or mounted near your computer, looking for previous states of your current or selected location or file. Once you find a state that give you warm fuzzies knowing you won’t have to retype your entire book report or PHD thesis, you select “restore” and watch as Finder copies that file or picture or yada yada, into the present state. That’s right, “copies”. As in you open one Finder window and copy one thing from one location to another. Herein lies the problem. Finder is not the most adept tool for restoring or copying in this instance because, despite it’s ability to do so, Finder won’t preserve all of the touch data (Unix and Linux touch command that controls the attribute, modified, accessed and created dates) which can seriously mess up other backup and syncing programs that you should be using in addition to (or because of) Time Machine.

Further to this, Finder is acting as the user when performing this copy action. This is fine if all you need to restore is your files or pictures or movies or letters to Grandma… but Finder is tragically under-authorized to restore important things like user settings, application states, support, caches, preferences, (and the list goes on)… anything that might require root or admin access. Anything in the ~Users/adam/Library, for instance, and that is exactly the sort of inadequacy that might prompt me to exclaim things like “Time Machine sucks”.

When, you might ask, would one ever find themselves needing to restore their user Library folder? Well here is the scenario that had me pulling my hair out (noting that I take full responsibility for my stupidity but also noting that something similar and equally as tragic can happen to anyone). Those that follow me on Jaiku might recall a lot of talk last week about me rebuilding G4’s, moving G5’s, setting up Mac Pro’s, etc… Last week, an employee of a print and graphics outfit, for whom I do contract design, got a new Mac Pro. This spurred into motion a great shift of computers that involved no less then 5 computers as the now unwanted G5 made it’s way downstream, bumping another G5, a G4 PowerMac, a G3 PowerMac and a dead slot load iMac further down the chain of their useful lives.

Since I spend a great deal of time at this firm, and don’t own a MacBook Pro (a full Mac Pro sits happily upon my desk in the home office) I have managed to happily exist by syncing my home computer with whatever machine they’ll seat me at via a firewire drive I carry with me. I sync with Chronosync, a brilliant and powerful, hassle free application. The machine I had been using at the firm, until the arrival of the Mac Pro, was a G4 PowerMac (we’ll talk about the joys of working on a Mac Pro at home and a G4 at the office in future rants) but I was now about to move everything over to the G5 that was now available.

Migration assistant had served me well in the past and had done it’s job as expected in this instance as well. One thing I had overlooked, mind you, was the small but important issue that the touch information was altered to the extent that Chronosync would now view everything on that G5 as being newer than what was on my firewire drive, and I had Chronosync set to automatically sync as soon as the firewire drive was detected. I initially thought this wouldn’t be much of an issue since both machines, at the firm and at home, were in sync… or so I thought.

To shorten this story a bit, I’ll jump right to the part where I discovered that the caches, preferences, user settings and application states tend to have a way of resetting, or forgetting themselves in the process of moving from a G4, to a G5 to a firewire drive to a Mac Pro. Odd but totally true (yes I did already own up to my stupidity so you can just shut up now). What I was left with was a Mac Pro full of what it now considered unregistered software, empty address books, no bookmarks… Kind of puts a kink in productivity as I sure you can imagine, so I set forth to recover my entire user from Time Machine. Sure I could have just used my other Chronosync backup disks, but Time Machine seemed like a cleaner solution… at the time. Not to mention that Steve Jobs made it look so easy and fast.

So I just jumped into Time Machine, selected a state that my user was in earlier that morning, clicked restore and without a trial sync, file scan, folder analysis or any process that would do any sort of pre-check to see what complications might arise before beginning the process, time machine set my request into action. I identified immediately that all that was taking place was a “Finder copy” and knowing how Unix works (over writes instead of amends folders and folder contents) I immediately panicked. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

Time Machine, or the Finder as it were, chugged along happily for a few brief minutes before stopping to inform me that Finder does not have sufficient permissions to copy to the Library folder… after it already over wrote the folder itself with nothing inside. Not good. A messy situation just got much, much worse. Many people might not realize how critical the data in their user Library is. In short, your computer ceases to be anything you once knew and loved. The computer doesn’t really know who you are anymore. Applications don’t know you and many won’t even launch. The whole experience is unlike anything you may have had on a computer before. It is not a good experience at all.

How can Apple call Time Machine a backup and restore utility when it’s got no safety checks in place, no trial-sync, no scan, no prior assessment of any kind? How can Apple call Time Machine a backup and restore utility that replaces entire folders in true Unix fashion instead merely replacing files within? How can Apple call Time Machine a backup and restore utility that does not have sufficient permissions to restore anything, anywhere anytime?

Lucky for me, I am very conscientious of my data storage, maintenance and security and was able to recover my entire user from a Chronosync backup and was back up and running in a matter of hours. But had I not had an alternate plan and been like any average user out there, I would be screwed! So let this be a lesson to you; Time Machine might look cool but be very careful on what you are entrusting to it. It might cause more harm than good.

[tags]Time Machine, OS X, Leopard, Chronosync[/tags]


Adam Merrifield


5 thoughts on “Time Machine. A giant leap backward.

  1. boot from the leopard install disk , use time machine restore, it then has full root access

  2. @steeple, yeah but not the simplest solution by any means. Any other half decent backup suite can restore at the click of a button.

  3. if you wanted your g5 to be a copy of your g4, just clone it. take Carbon Copy Cloner ( a free app from the internet) and start up the g5 in firewire disk mode. connect the computers with the firewire cable, and use Carbon Copy Cloner on the g4. Select to copy the g4 and the destination to go to the g5, then click clone. after about an hour or two, you can start up your g5, and it is the same as the g4! If your g4 didn’t have leopard, you could install it on your g5 and have the same everything! (apps, bookmarks, files… this is how I got Mac OS X Leopard on my PowerBook G4 800MHZ (lower than min, requirements but still works fine)

  4. @Daniel; That is the same as using migration assistant (in Utilities or when installing a new OS) which went off without a hitch with the exception of the bsd tags and touch data not remaining intact (CC Cloner actually preserves very little of this data if any at all). Getting a copy of the user account form one machine to the other was never the issue and in fact I was successful moving accounts from a G5 to a Mac Pro, then a G5 to another G5 and finally a G4 to a G5. After which I was able to just throw a disk from a G3 directly into the G4 and was finally done. So no, account swapping was not the issue. Syncing a newly swapped account with an identical account at home was where the trouble came and mostly because the touch data was altered entirely on the recently swapped account while the account at home had what was truly the newest files. So not to say you were missing the point of the whole article but you kind of did because the account swapping was not the issue at all.

    FYI, see this chart to gage how accurate each backup/cloner software is:

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