The Importance Of Monitoring One’s Backups

This week’s Tech Tip is a cautionary tale. Last week, I offered some guidance on how to prepare for a Genius Bar appointment and the importance of knowing that you have a current Time Machine backup of your Mac, before taking your Mac to the Genius Bar. Recently, I had two clients take their Macs to Genius Bar appointments. In each instance, Apple erased all of their data. One client, who I’ll call Bill, had a current Time Machine backup and we were able to use it to return his Mac to a functioning state after Apple returned it to him in a non-functioning state. The other client, who I’ll call Sally thought she had a current Time Machine backup, but, it turns out she didn’t.

Bill’s incident highlights the importance of know which version of the Mac operating system is installed on your Mac. Sally’s incident highlights the importance of knowing how to monitor your backup systems, backing up daily as well as the need to have a second, redundant backup system. Because she had Backblaze performing backups, we were able to recover all of her data, but she could have had a less stressful time if she’d really had a current Time Machine backup.

Incident #1 – Bill took his 6 year old MacBook Air to a Genius Bar appointment at a local Apple Store. The trackpad had stopped working. The Genius confirmed that the mechanical button in the trackpad had, indeed, stopped working consistently. The Genius proceeded to point out and enabled a feature of the Trackpad named Tap To Click. My client was pleased to learn about this feature, since it restored his ability to use his trackpad reliably. No repair was necessary!

However, the Genius noticed that the Mac operating system (macOS) had not been updated in a few years. The laptop was running OS X El Capitan (aka OS X 10.11). At the time of this incident, macOS Mojave (aka macOS 10.14) was the most current operating system. Trying to be helpful, the Genius recommended upgrading the Mac’s operating system and offered to do it. Bill agreed to this upgrade and left his laptop with the Apple Store.

Despite good intentions, things went off the rails. Upgrading the Mac’s operating system from 10.11 to 10.14 failed. This left the laptop in a non-functioning state. The laptop was unable to startup since it had only a partially installed operating system. An Apple Store employee called Bill to notify him of this problem and indicated that they would try to install an earlier version of the Mac operating system (macOS), but also indicated that the laptop might have some other hardware problem–which prevented the upgrade from working in the first place. A day or so later, Bill received another call from the Apple Store. He was informed that his laptop had a defective motherboard and the only option was to replace the motherboard, which is an expensive repair, or buy a new laptop. Understandably, Bill was not thrilled to hear this news. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that the Genius should have stopped after giving Bill an alternative way to use his trackpad. It’s not the Genius’ fault that the operating system upgrade failed. This was likely caused by a hardware problem with Bill’s MacBook Air.

Bill contacted me. He was distressed by Apple’s assessment that he would need to pay for an expensive repair or buy a new laptop. I asked Bill if Apple had tried to reinstall macOS El Capitan, since that was the operating system that the laptop had when it was brought into the store. Bill wasn’t sure but indicated that he would check with Apple. This highlights the importance of knowing which version of the operating system is on your Mac or iPhone or iPad when you take it into the Genius Bar.

Bill called Apple and tried to get a clear answer to this question, but was not ever confident that he got a clear answer. In the end, Bill picked up his non-functioning laptop from the Apple Store. I am displeased with Apple’s handling of the situation. They appeared to take no responsibility for turning a functioning Mac into a non-functioning Mac, even though it was their suggestion to upgrade the operating system. Instead, they only offered their customer two options: an expensive repair or a more expensive purchase.

Bill brought home his non-functioning Mac and contacted me. He asked if I had any other ideas. I asked Bill if he had a current Time Machine backup of his laptop. He indicated that he did. Using macOS Recovery, I was able to erase the MacBook Air, reinstall the operating system that originally came with the Air, OS X Yosemite (aka OS X 10.10). Then I upgraded it to OS X El Capitan (aka OS X 10.11). Then I used Migration Assistant to restore the most recent backup of Bill’s laptop onto the Air. Bill’s laptop was up and running with all of his data intact. Hallelujah. I did not do anything that the staff at the Apple Store didn’t know how to do. I think the Apple Store could have handled this situation better.

Incident #2 – Sally took her 2 year old MacBook Air to the Genius Bar. The keyboard had stopped working. The Genius confirmed the problem and Sally left the laptop with Apple to be repaired. A day or two later, Apple called her and indicated that they had replaced the keyboard, but they had detected other problems along the way and had erased her Mac. I wasn’t able to learn precisely what had occurred or why. Sally indicated that Apple had erased her data without notifying her. While this sounds atypical, it is what my client reports. Thus, Sally came home with a repaired laptop, but it did not have any data on it.

Before Sally had taken her laptop into the Genius Bar she had connected her USB hard drive to her Mac. She thought Time Machine had completed a backup of her Mac, but she didn’t know how to check on Time Machine. Sally returned to the Apple Store, with her USB hard drive. She was alarmed to learn that Time Machine had not completed the backup she had started. Instead, the most recent backup was several months old. Clearly, Sally does not connect her USB hard drive to her Mac very often! This highlights the importance of frequent backups. I recommend daily backups. Since it was the only choice, Apple restored the outdated data onto her Mac and Sally returned home.

Sally knew she had BackBlaze installed on her Mac, but wasn’t sure how if it had been running or how to restore data from it. I visited, verified that BackBlaze had been running. We were able to restore current versions of documents, downloads, photos, email messages, etc from BackBlaze. We replaced the outdated data with the current data. Of course, this took time and cost money. If my client had actually had a current Time Machine backup she could have avoided a lot of stress, inconvenience and expense. This situation shows the value of having a redundant backup system, such as a cloud-based backup system, like BackBlaze, which runs automatically.

It’s really important to have backups. You could accidentally throw away the wrong file and thus need to retrieve a few files from your backup. Your laptop could be stolen. Things could go wrong at a Genius Bar appointment. My point is that accidents happen without warning. Thus, it’s important to backup your Mac everyday. More importantly, you need to monitor your backups to know that they are successful. Also, please consider having redundant backup systems. You can learn how to monitor your backup systems, such as TimeMachine, CrashPlan and BackBlaze, by reading my previous Tech Tip about how to prepare for a Genius Bar appointment.