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  1. Computer Skills
  2. OS X
Computers

Clone a Mac with SuperDuper!

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:MediumLanguages:

SuperDuper! is an application that makes a perfect clone, of a Mac’s hard drive, on a different hard drive. When you use it to back up a Mac, it copies the entire operating system—along with all the applications, files and almost everything else. This gives it a couple of advantages over other backup solutions such as OS X’s built in Time Machine.

In this tutorial I’ll show you how to start using SuperDuper! clones as a backup, how to access the backups—if you need to—and how to restore from them.

You Never Need a Backup—Until You Do

Backing up is the digital equivalent of eating kale—everyone knows it’s a good idea, all the experts rave about it and yet, almost nobody does it. 

The problem is that modern computers are so good that it is very easy to go years without ever needing a backup; you might lose the odd file that you accidentally deleted but, for the most part, you’ll get by okay.

When disaster does strike, and it will, the work you’ve done, photos you’ve taken and movies you’ve downloaded are wiped in one fell swoop. You’re, digitally, back to square one.

All of this can be prevented with a solid back up plan. Tuts+ author, Marius, has written a great tutorial on creating a totally foolproof backup system. If you want to ensure you never lose a single byte of data, read his tutorial carefully.

Cloning Explained

OS X’s built in backup service, Time Machine, is great. Where it really excels is keeping versioned backups of your files and applications over time. If something goes wrong with an application update or you misplace a file, it’s easy to use a Time Machine backup from a week, a day or an hour ago to sort everything out.

Time Machine, unfortunately, does not back up the operating system files. If the worst comes to the worst and you need to restore your entire computer, you first need to reinstall OS X—which if you have a Mac without a recovery partition, involves a five gigabyte download—and then restore everything from Time Machine.

I had to do this once and it was an overnight process for a 128GB MacBook Air; I can only imagine doing it with a computer with a multi-terabyte drive. With a SuperDuper! clone, the operating system is backed up alongside the user files. To perform a recovery, all you have to do is reverse the cloning procedure and copy all the data back from your backup to the Mac.

Further, while you can access the files you’ve backed up with Time Machine using someone else’s Mac, you may run into issues where they do not have the right applications installed, or the right privileges to access your files. 

With a SuperDuper! clone you can even boot directly from your backup. You use someone else’s Mac as a dumb terminal to access a perfect copy of your out-of-action Mac.

Preparing the Backup Drive

You need a second hard drive to which to backup. Unless you’re using an older Mac Pro or you’ve built your own Hackintosh, this is most likely going to be an external drive. It needs to be at least the same size as your Mac’s main drive; anything smaller and it won’t be able to contain the clone.

  • Plug the external drive into the Mac and open Disk Utility. It’s in the Other folder in Applications.
  • Select the backup drive from the left sidebar and navigate to the Partition tab.
  • In the Partition Layout dropdown, select 1 Partition. Give the drive a descriptive name and select Mac OS Extended (Journaled) from the Format dropdown.
  • Click Apply and wait for a few moments for SuperDuper! to do its thing.
Configuring the backup drive in Disk Utility.

The backup drive is now configured.

Creating the Clone Drive

SuperDuper! is a free app—although you can unlock some, useful, extra features with a one-time $27.95 payment. 

Backing up my OS X drive.
  • Download a copy of SuperDuper!
  • Agree to the licensing terms, drag the SuperDuper! to the Applications folder and run it.
  • To create a clone, select your main hard drive in the first dropdown menu, the backup drive in the second and Backup – all files in the third.
  • Click Copy Now and let SuperDuper! work.
SuperDuper! doing its thing.

Once SuperDuper! has copied across all the files you have a perfect clone of the Mac’s hard drive. You can access all of the files by connecting the backup drive to a Mac—the file system should look familiar. 

All the files will be in the exact same folder structure as on the original drive.

The backup drive with my familiar file system.

Advanced Options

SuperDuper! is a powerful application—as a free app you can create a perfect clone of your Mac, however, once you pay you get access to more features. The two most important additional options are smart updates and scheduling.

As you will likely have noticed when you created your clone drive, it takes a while for several hundred gigabytes of data to copy over USB. Smart updates are far faster—instead of creating a new clone from scratch every time you backup, when SuperDuper! performs a smart update, it only copies over the files that have changed. A few gigabytes rather than several hundred.

To perform a smart update, under Options… select Smart Update from the During copy dropdown menu instead of Erase then copy.

A backup is not much use if you don’t keep it up to date. With SuperDuper! you can set up a backup schedule. Use the Schedule… dialogue to set up times for SuperDuper! to automatically run. 

If you leave your Mac turned on over night, that is the perfect time to do it. Otherwise, lunch breaks or first thing in the morning while you get ready for your day are good times. You can have multiple scheduled backups going for different times and days.

Booting From the Clone

The advantage of a SuperDuper! clone, over other solutions, is that you have a working, bootable copy of your Mac sitting on a hard drive. If OS X gets unstable after it updates, you install a new app or your Mac even becomes infected with malware, you can connect your cloned drive and use it to boot up into a version of your system that you know is stable.

You can even use any Mac, not just your own, to boot from the cloned hard drive. If your Mac gets completely destroyed, you can use a friend or family member’s Mac just like it is your own—complete with all the niche apps—until you can replace it. 

If you only have a Time Machine backup, you might still have all your files, but unless your friends have the same apps you do, you won’t be able to do much with them.

To boot from a clone:

  • Shutdown and connect the external clone drive to the Mac
  • Power on the Mac and as soon as you hear the startup chimes, hold down the Option key until the Apple Logo appears on screen. This activates the Startup Manager where you can choose what device you want to boot from
  • Select the clone drive and press Return

The system will now boot up. If you are used to a Mac with a SSD, it is going to be excruciatingly slow—not only is all the data being pulled from a spinning disk drive, but it’s being sent over USB as well. Despite this, it will boot and you’ll be up and running with a clone of the Mac.

When you are running someone else’s Mac with your cloned drive, you may have some slightly odd behaviour and reset preferences. This is normal—SuperDuper! only copies the preferences that it’s safe for it to do so. Some preferences are dependent on things like the Mac’s hardware so they have to be recreated or restored to their defaults if a new Mac tries to use them.

Restoring From the Clone

If disaster strikes and you need to restore your entire system from your SuperDuper! backup, use your Mac to boot from the clone drive. Run SuperDuper! and select the backup drive from the Copy dropdown and the main hard drive in the to dropdown. Choose Restore – all files and then click Copy Now.

Once SuperDuper! has run, restart the Mac and hold Option to boot to the Startup Manager. Choose your newly restored main drive and you’re done.

Conclusion

In this tutorial I’ve shown you how to improve your backup system by using SuperDuper! to make a total clone of your hard drive. A clone gives you more options than a regular backup because you preserve the operating system as well. SuperDuper! is an awesome app and you would do well to consider using it in your backup plan.

It’s not the only application that creates clones—my colleague Adam has written an equivalent tutorial on SuperDuper!’s main competitor, Carbon Copy Cloner.

If you’ve any questions about SuperDuper! or think I’m a heathen for choosing it over Carbon Copy Cloner, please let me know in the comments.

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