It’s really easy to set up Time Machine, the backup software that comes with every Mac. Just point it toward your external hard drive or Time Capsule, then let it do its thing. But how do you get your files back when things go wrong?
There are three main ways to do this:
- Revert all of your files to a given point in time, using OS X Recovery.
- Migrate your files to a fresh OS X installation, using Migration Assistant.
- Grab the files yourself, and put them wherever you like.
Here’s a quick rundown of all these methods, including a way to grab files backed up using Time Machine from within Windows.
Revert Your Computer Using OS X Recovery
Roll your entire system back in time, to a previous backup.
Your Mac comes with OS X Recovery, a hidden partition you can boot from in order to:
- Reinstall OS X completely
- Run Disk Utility, to partition and repair your hard drives
- Quickly get online using Safari.
- Restore your Mac using a Time Machine backup.
Obviously we’re mostly interested in the forth option here, but before we can do that we need to load OS X Recovery. Here’s how:
Most New Macs (Lion and later)
First shut your Mac down completely, then turn it on again while holding the command+r keys. This should boot OS X Recovery. If this doesn’t work, you might not have a restore partition – but don’t worry. You can boot OS X Internet Recovery by holding command+option+r when your Mac turns on. This will download OS X Recovery from the web and boot it.
For Older Macs
If you have an older Mac you will also need to boot from the Restore partition. Shut your Mac down completely, then turn it on while holding the option key. Pick the partition labeled “Restore”.
Once you’ve loaded OS X Recovery, click Restore From Time Machine and follow the prompts. Your Mac will be completely restored to whatever time you choose.
Restore Files to a Fresh Installation With Migration Assistant
If restoring doesn’t give you a bootable system, you can reinstall OS X and then restore your files using Migration Assistant.
Time Machine doesn’t back up your entire operating system – for a complete backup of your OS, you need a more in-depth backup strategy. So if you’ve completely replaced your Mac’s boot drive, or somehow managed to corrupt your OS X installation, restoring from Time Machine won’t work for you.
This doesn’t mean you can’t get your Mac back the way you like it – it just means there’s an extra step. To summarize, you need to:
- Reinstall OS X.
- Restore your backed up files using Migration Assistant.
We’ve already shown you how to reinstall OS X completely, using either your Mac’s restore partition, or with a tool like DiskMakerX (previously called Lion DiskMaker). Once you’ve gotten OS X installed, you can restore your files by running the Migration Assistant app.
You can find this program using Spotlight, or in the Finder by heading to Applications, then the Utilities sub-folder. Launch it and you will be guided through the process of restoring your files from Time Machine. As always, this might take a while.
Transfer Files to Your New Mac With Migration Assistant
If you just got a new Mac, you can transfer all of your files and settings easily from your Time Machine backup.
Speaking of Migration Assistant: if you’ve recently acquired a new Mac, this program can grab all of the files and (some) software from your Time Machine backup. This is the fastest way to get all of your files to your new Mac, so keep it in mind when you upgrade.
Grab Time Machines Directly With Finder
If restore isn’t working for any reason, or you just want more control over what goes where, it’s possible to simply grab your files directly.
Time Machine isn’t magic: it grabs your files, and backs them up. You can browse these files directly using Finder, and grab whichever ones you like. Then just click-and-drag to grab files.
If you only want certain files, or just want complete control over where everything ends up, using the Finder to browse or search your Time Machine backups is a simple alternative to Migration Assistant or OS X Recovery.
Grab Time Machine Files From a Windows Computer
If you don’t have access to a Mac, but need to recover files backed up by Time Machine.
If your Mac died, you might not necessarily replace it with another one. While Apple doesn’t offer a tool for restoring your Time Machine files on a Windows computer, it is possible.
You can use any of these methods to browse a Time Machine backup with your Windows computer. You can find all of your files, and grab the ones you want.
What Did I Miss?
No matter how much I research a piece MakeUseOf readers always manage to teach me something new in the comments. There are some great resources for learning about Time Machine out there, but I want to learn from you. How do you restore your backup data?
Oh, and Windows users: Windows 8 comes with a great Time Machine alternative, in case you didn’t know. Check it out if you haven’t yet.