I've had it up to "here" with Time Machine and Time Capsule. If you want to kill your backup productivity just use Apple's Time Machine and Time Capsule backup solution. For the past 3 months I have fought Time Machine and Time Capsule and estimate I've spent days trying to fix problems and backup errors. As soon as one problem is resolved it seems only days go by before I'm back under the hood attacking another issue.

Apple suggests your involvement in the backup process should be as easy as connecting a device (wireless or wired), turning on Time Machine, and stepping away from your computer.

Backing up is something we all know we should do, but often don't. And while disaster is a great motivator, now it doesn't have to be. Because with Time Capsule, the nagging need to back up has been replaced by automatic, constant protection. And even better, it all happens wirelessly, saving everything important, including your sanity.


I wish my experience with Apple's backup solution has been a good one. While Apple wants you to avoid backup disasters that's all I've experienced. Instead of plug and play it's been more like plug and pay. Dearly. As much an Apple supporter as I am, the first iteration of Time Machine + Time Capsule has been a complete failure.

The most recent problem I've had involves a complete OS X crash when trying to backup. A few seconds after Time Machine begins a backup job a message slides in from the top indicating my Macbook Pro has crashed and I need to hold the power button to restart it. With the laptop completely inoperable I had use to my iPhone to take a screenshot of the error.

After rebooting I searched Apple's forums and Google typing the error message into the respective search boxes. I wasn't surprised to find dozens of folks having the same issue. No matter what problem I have encountered with Time Machine every search turns up other users with the same problem. Most of the time the preferred solution is to wipe your backup volume and start all over. I've done that three times now and refuse to do it anymore.

I checked the server log trying to gain more information on what happened during the machine crash. The log reported the following:

Fantastic, system "panic" trying to write to the backup volume is never good, especially when the volume now seems corrupt. Again. I tried rebooting and running the backup process again but received the same system crash and error message above. More online searching indicated a possible solution in turning off Spotlight's ability to index the backup volume. I've seen this solution suggested before but have always been able to fix backup problems trying other things first. Getting a bit desperate I ventured into Spotlight's preference and tried to add the backup volume to the ignore list. Every attempt caused the following error to display.

Are you serious Apple? A problem has occurred and the best thing you can do is pop up a generic error message that only hints at privacy being the issue? Sigh. At this point I've tried several days to get Time Machine to work. Every time I try a complete system crash results. I could probably get things working if I wiped the Time Capsule backup volume and reran an initial backup. That solution is not worth my time as I will most assuredly encounter new problems a few days later. I'm done with Time Machine and Time Capsule. I'm now investigating alternatives like Drobo and Smartbackup hoping I can find a solution that works properly. If you have suggestions please leave a comment below.

Time Machine is a good idea and I hope it will mature into a product I and others can depend on. For now, it seems more like alpha software you should only use on test machines.

Aaron West's Gravatar
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This entry was posted by Aaron West on June 7, 2008 at 12:42 PM. It was filed in the following categories: Mac, Leopard. It has been viewed 68581 times and has 22 comments.

22 Responses to Time Machine and Time Capsule - How to Kill Your Backup Productivity

  1. Wow...your experience is as different from mine as night and day. I have had my Macbook Pro and 3 Macbooks backing up to our Time Capsule since it was delivered in mid-March and have never once had an issue with any of them. The 3 Macbooks are very rarely ever connected to the wired network and they all back up seemlessly. I know for sure I would have heard from my wife or one of the twins if any of them had experienced any failures.

    The only behavior I've noticed is that the first backup after getting home from traveling for a week seems to take a long time in the "preparing" mode, but aside from that it really has been plug and play for us here. Maybe I'm just fortunate since it sounds like you're not alone. Hopefully my bragging on my success doesn't jinx my setup.

  2. Sorry to hear you've had such a rough time with time machine :(. I haven't really seen any of those issues yet myself, time machine/time capsule has been a winning combination in my house, its really bizarre that they're quality control isn't more uniform, it normally is.

  3. dave

    mine works flawlessly and am completely happy with it.

    have you done a deep clean on your cache? sounds like maybe a b-u got stopped mid-way and corrupted a cached file

  4. @dave Yea, I've done a complete wipe and rebuild of the Time Capsule volume three different times. That has always solved whatever problem I couldn't, but after a few days (or sometimes a week) problems come back. I don't think I've had the same problem occur twice.

  5. dave

    are you by chance running any anti-virus on there?

  6. @dave Nope, I'm not running any anti-virus software on this Mac.

  7. dave

    I have seen where AV was causing this..

    This probably won't help but...
    My brother bought my old MBP and he was just here and he bought a small simpletech external drive to use with time machine and he was having similar problems. The interesting part was that if I switched out his usb cord with a cord from my WD external it would work fine.

    Here's what I would do....
    1. clean the cache, i use socks, cocktail or cleanapp
    2. Use disk Utilities to repair permissions on both your HD and Time Capsule
    3. Try again
    if still doesn't work
    4. Unplug any perifierals
    5. get and run http://www.memtestosx.org/ as this could be a RAM issue
    try again
    if still doesn't work turn off airport and hook directly into it to see if it works via cord

    if that doesn't work
    make another user account and try it, if it works then something in /library is jacked. Also was Leopard already installed when you got your machine new or did you upgrade from Tiger?

    You could always do a M$ and reinstall the os which should fix it, i know that sucks but at least on a mac you will be up and going again in a few hours (not days like windows)

  8. I'm sorry to hear about all these problems you're having. I'm also a Mac user with Leopard running on an Intel iMac. I bought a 1 TG exernal USB 2.0 hard drive (or drives, since I think there's two 500 GBers on the inside). I partitioned it two ways, one for storage and one for backups. The only nuisance I occasionally run into is having to clear out old backups to make room. I've not run into technical issues like kernel panics quite yet (knock on wood).

  9. dave

    just to post back on my brother...
    his issue was with his new simpletech portable drive & apparently you have to plug in 2 usb connections to make it work right or there isn't enough power to do it. Ok this seems strange since the drive will work to use it with only 1 in but won't do the backups without both in. It's also weird that when he used my usb cord from my WD portable drive it worked fine, so he took it back and got a WD portable drive and it solved all his issues...

    Kinda makes me wonder about your drive... either not enough power or maybe just a bad drive.

  10. @dave - Remember, I'm not using a portable drive per se. I'm using a 1 TB Time Capsule and backing up over wireless. The TC has dedicated power so any issues that relate to USB connections and/or USB powered drives are separate from my own. Thanks for the update Dave.

  11. dave

    yeah i know just trying to throw out there what i found because you never know.. Have you tried to just use a reg external drive.. just to see..?

    Are you in nashville? I seem to recall that you are, if so bring it over and i will fix it!! Hell i was on windows for years so I can fix anything now lol

  12. @dave - Yea, I'm in Nashville. While I'm investigating other backup solutions (as mentioned in the post) I'm trying a few "last ditch" things. I'm disconnecting ALL peripherals during backup processes including USB mice, external cinema display, my iPhone, and anything else that connects with a cord. I'm also being very careful to turn off screensavers and energy saving settings.

    I also had to nuke the backup volume on the TC in order to get new backups going. So, for a fourth time I've lost all remnants of backup files. This time, I zero'd the drive using Apple's Airport Utility app.

    We'll see how things go. I'm disenchanted with this solution though - even if it works. Apple says it's hands off and plug and play. That isn't true if I have to be as careful as I'm being, and that assumes all this effort even works out in my favor.

  13. dave

    you know you can save the backup files.. just drag them to another external drive. But something is not right (obviously).. you shouldn't have to do all that. You know it seems to me that all the issues I have seen with the tc have been with the 1tb ones, I got the 500gb one because when I made the trec to get one they were out of 1 tb ones.

    I have tons of stuff hooked up and it runs just as advertised:
    2nd monitor
    500gb tc
    speaker system
    bluetooth mouse & keyboard
    4 external hd's
    2 7 port usb ports
    huey pro
    iphone & ipod
    card reader
    printer plugged into TC

    Did you try to connect to the TC via usb cord for first backup? Maybe a straight connection for the initial load might help

  14. Mark

    I had been wondering why my Time Capsule backups were taking so long and noticed that Spotlight was insisting on indexing the volume. Trying to exclude the volume resulted in the same error you noted. Going one level lower in the hierarchy was successful, i.e. instead of selecting the entire volume or the folder Backups.backupdb, try selecting the next lower folder insider, which in my case is labelled MacBook.

  15. Don

    How do you repair permissions on a TC? I run disk util but I don't see my TC? DO i have to hook up via usb? Do they make a usb cord like that?

  16. I'm not sure why the drive is showing up in the Disk Repair utility Don. Trying hooking up the Time Capsule via Ethernet and see if that helps.

  17. Huck

    System panics and corruption can often be caused by some sort of hard to diagnose hardware issue. I'd recommend putting in one of the Apple software CDs that came with your laptop and running a hardware test. I wouldn't be surprised if you had some sort of faulty piece of equipment, such as the RAM.

  18. Cory

    Ok, as an ex-Apple Genius and now IT consultant, I have run into numerous problems with users and Time Machine. I only read your article and not the comments, so forgive my post if this is redundant. I can state that 99.9% of the issues are user error, however the "error" part really is a result of Apple misinforming or not informing at all consumers of what they should do when utilizing "Time Machine" and "Time Capsule".

    1. Some individuals have not properly loaded/installed their system software. For example, when updating Leopard (or Tiger) it is useful to repair Disk Permissions before and after each update (and once a week as a rule) as well as clearing out all caches (Web Browsers, system caches, etc.). Doing so will not only ensure a smoother running OS, but will also ensure a proper backup.

    2. For wireless devices, it is imperative to backup using an ethernet connection for ALL initial backups. When making an initial backup, NEVER use the system. Let it run overnight. Using your system while making an initial backup almost always ensures errors and such will be written into said backup. For example, as you use your system, certainly files are altered on your machine. Such files as your internet cache, installing or modifying new programs, saving and editing files, etc. Plug in your Mac directly into your "Time Capsule", turn OFF your airport, and let the backup run over night. Some initial backups may take hours or even days depending on what you have selected for "Time Machine" to backup. This initial stage is crucial as it is the template for future backup alterations. Not doing so will undoubtedly effect the reliability and use of "Time Machine".

    3. Always exclude wireless mounted devices from "Time Machine". Mount an external drive or another network volume that may be on your wireless network. Under "Time Machine"'s list for volumes/files to exclude, select that volume. If that volume becomes mounted in the future and "Time Machine" attempts to backup files from such a volume, this may negatively effect backups and the backup .dmg volume.

    4. "Time Machine" does not need to be on automatically. Manual implementation is best for wireless devices. Once a day or week turn on "Time Machine" before going to bed, and let it run overnight to back up any and all modifications to your system. This will ensure a proper backup.

    I've been recommending "Time Capsule" to both my Mac and Windows clients without any issues. If none of these seem to help, get "Tech Tool" or any other diagnostic program and check your MacBook Pro's system for any errors. Bad blocks, sectors, etc. that may be on your MacBook Pro's Hard Drive will undoubtedly cause many of the issues you are experiencing. I mean no offense by this, but most of the time issues such as these are PEBKAC: Problems Exists Between Keyboard and Chair ;). Hope this helps...

  19. @Cory
    Thanks for taking the time to share your experience and advice on using Time Machine. I agree with a lot of what you mentioned and I now have more stable backups after doing a few things as if they were best practice. I backup only over ethernet, I always disable my screensaver, unplug any peripherals (mice, hard drives, USB drives, external monitors) and leave the system alone while it's backing up. I also only perform manual backups; I keep Time Machine off and use the "Back Up Now" option in Time Machine's Menu Bar icon.

    However, I don't really believe all the issues with Time Machine and/or Time Capsule are a result of users doing something improperly. Sure it may help to do all the things you and I have mentioned, but all the problems with Time Machine backups are not users faults.

    Yes Apple should do a better job communicating some of these helpful tips, but I believe they marketed Time Machine (and eventually Time Capsule) wrong. It's not a plug it in and let it run device. It needs a good bit of hand holding but this isn't because users have done something wrong, it's because the device and software aren't as good as they could be.

  20. J Chuquet

    I could have written every word of Aaron's message on the nightmare of using Time Machine to back up on Time Capsule. This is my 4th trial with Wifi and mostly with Ethernet, after a complete cleanup of my new MacBook Pro (defragmentation), two complete wipe-ups of Time Capsule, deactivation of any antivirus etc. Each time it takes ages (more than 24 hours for 80 Go on Ethernet, forget about Wifi) each time it fails to complete, each tiem the Mac freezes and keeps doing so until I do a complete erase of Time Capsule. Apple Support service are very kind but totally hopeless. I ask myself: is backing up worth it? Were the 450 euros I spent on my Time Capsule worth it? If somebody out there could help me give a YES answer, I would be very grateful indeed!

  21. @JC - The jury's still out (for me) on whether my Time Capsule was worth it. I've found it can be relatively reliable if I do a bunch of crap I shouldn't have to do. I basically have to baby the whole process of backing up my data. BTW, the comments that Cory mentions (and some that I included in my post) are very helpful in ensuring you have less problems with your Time Capsule and backups.

    Considering other backup products like Drobo - and the stellar reviews that come with it - I think the Time Capsule has a lot of catching up to do.

  22. Omegahed

    I completely empathize with the issues are experiencing with the Time Capsule. Here's one thread that demonstrates a relatively new issue that seemed to crop up at the end of December 2008 on several people's Time Capsules. Yes, it could be user error, but the coincidence of the timing and the similar effects make that argument highly suspect. I bring it up, not as conclusive proof of anything, but merely as an example of all the erratic errors I've experience with this thing over the past year - it's not encouraging that no one from Apple has bothered to comment or provide any assistance or resolution: