Time Machine flaws raise reliability questions

The Baltimore Sun

Losing personal data stored on a PC - your music, your photos, your financial records - is one of the worst nightmares that can befall a computer user.

Though for years experts have repeated the mantra of backing up PC data frequently, few users did so. When hard drives fail - an unpredictable eventuality - they take all your data with them to their digital grave.

That's why Apple developed the automated backup feature Time Machine, introduced with Mac OS X Leopard. In concept Mac users need only attach a spare hard drive, switch on Time Machine and never worry about losing important data again.

But a spate of bugs with Time Machine has me wondering whether I can fully trust it. If nothing else, backup software must be absolutely reliable.

The bug that caught my attention affects my Mac Pro. Since installing the incremental 10.5.3 Leopard update (released May 28), Time Machine occasionally craps out in the middle of one of its hourly backups.

It presents the following message: "Unable to complete backup. An error occurred while copying files to the backup volume."

Not exactly reassuring, eh?

I always click on the "OK" button and have noticed the next hour's backup usually goes without a hitch.

Still, it makes me wonder if all my data is getting backed up properly. Has some of it become corrupted? How would I find out? Ferreting out the problem files would be no trivial task - I have over 400 gigabytes of data on my backup volume.

As an issue discussed on blogs and in forums since the 10.5.3 update appeared, it clearly affects a fair number of Mac Pro owners. Some advise deleting the partial backup file from the backup volume, but others say that's only a temporary fix.

Some have expressed hope the 10.5.4 update - rumored to be coming in mid-July - will resolve the issue.

I realize that no software is perfect, but Apple needs to be particularly careful with Time Machine. Users have reported an assortment of bugs with the feature since Leopard's introduction last fall.

In fact, the very 10.5.3 update that appears to be causing the current problem with Mac Pro models included no less than seven fixes directed at Time Machine issues. The most ominous: "Addresses reliability issues when performing a full restore from a Time Machine backup."

Few things breed misgivings over backup software like "reliability issues." And while Apple almost always fixes such problems eventually, the company's habitual refusal to acknowledge whether it's aware of an issue and whether its engineers are working on it leaves users frustrated and confused.

At this point, I plan to continue using Time Machine on my Mac Pro while crossing my fingers my data is safe. But just in case I'm also going to dust off my copy of Super Duper! to run a second backup to my external network drive.

Wasn't Time Machine supposed to make performing backups easier?

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