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Friday, October 12, 2007, 07:00 am PT (10:00 am ET)

Road to Mac OS X Leopard: Time Machine

The Pretty Layer of Time Machine

So far, only the technical underpinnings of Time Machine have been considered. The most obvious value in Time Machine is its user interface for restoring files, built to show off the features of Core Animation, another new Leopard feature.

In addition to manually walking through the backup disk within the Finder, or using Spotlight to pull up a lost file by name from Time Machine's drive, users can simply hit the Time Machine icon in the Dock to expose a visual representation of every iteration of their backups on record. The famous "black hole" view of Time Machine (below) provides an alternative way to search through the backup files Time Machine has recorded in a way that is both simple and sophisticated.

Leopard Time Machine

This visualization shows the contents of a single window of context back in time through all the backups captured. The most obvious example for using Time Machine would be from a Finder window where the lost file was thought to be. Click Time Machine, and the contents of that directory is shown back through time. Click on the back navigation arrow and Time Machine jumps back through its backup records to show you what that folder contained at the time every backup was taken. Each jump takes you back in time up to the point where the contents changed.

The Finder window is still functional, so you can Quick Look a document (below), or navigate to a different location in the file system to keep browsing backups, all within the Time Machine view. Once the selected file or folder is found, select it and click restore, and Time Machine drops you back into the desktop, and copies the files from its backup back to your main hard drive.

Leopard Time Machine

A more exciting example is a search query. Do a search for phrase in Spotlight; it might bring up Word documents, iChat transcripts, and emails related to your search. Now hit Time Machine, and you can step back through time doing that same query at every point where a Time Machine backup exists. This is an incredibly powerful and flexible way to search and find results. No other backup recovery system makes querying its archives remotely as simple and intuitive as this.

Back Up to the Future

Time Machine isn't just a visualization of your backed up files. It can also plug into collections. For example, Apple has demonstrated searching back through time in the Address Book. Pull it up, do a search for a name of a missing contact, hit Time Machine, and the system will find that contact from its backup records. You can do the same thing with your Mail; Time Machine shows your mailbox back through time with the emails you deleted and had left unread from a week ago, or a month ago, or two hours ago. It also works with iPhoto for flying back through time to find individual photos inadvertently deleted from your iPhoto library.

Third party developers will be able to add Time Machine integration to their own applications to provide similar functionality. This really adds up to demonstrate that Time Machine isn't just a backup system, but is really a combination of file system technology and data visualization that makes Apple's new implementation of file backup far more than just an upgrade to its more conventional Backup 3.0 program. Its genius comes from its simplicity, and makes Time Machine a very effective way to coax users into taking the minimal action required to safeguard their data.

Time Machine works with any standard external Firewire or USB drive, and is also designed to work with shared network drives, such as Apple's shared disks served up by the new Airport Extreme base station. Multiple Leopard users can backup to the same drive, as Time Machine stores each systems' backups separately by name. Time Machine is also designed to back up to an encrypted image for extra file security, allowing it to dump its backups on any file server.

Time Machine's interface also shows off how to create unique data visualizations with Core Animation, something that weaves throughout Leopard and will no doubt inspire lots of creative interfaces from third party Mac developers.