Use a Single External Hard Drive for Time Machine Backups and File Storage

May 1, 2013 - 23 Comments

Time Machine Having regular backups of your Mac is a necessity, and there is really no easier way to consistently back up your Mac than by using the excellent Time Machine feature of OS X. But with the enormous size of external hard drives and their prices becoming cheaper and cheaper, it’s not always necessary to dedicate an entire gigantic hard disk just for Time Machine backups, particularly if your Mac has a smaller hard drive and thus the backups won’t take up that much space in general. For these situations, configuring the single external hard disk to have dual use is an excellent choice. The end result will be an external storage drive split into two partitions, one to be setup exclusively for Time Machine backups, and another partition intended for typical file system access and file storage.

The basic process may be familiar to Mac users who have setup drive partitioning and backups before, but we’ll cover every step to be sure everything is configured correctly.

Requirements

Note on buying external hard drives: it’s almost always cheaper to buy a generic external hard drive and format it yourself to be Mac compatible. Drives that are pre-formatted for OS X are usually no different than a standard external drive, other than having a higher price tag.

Step 1: Format the Drive to “Mac OS Extended” Compatibility

The first set of steps involves formatting the drive. You can partition a drive without formatting, but we’ll cover this process anyway because many third party hard drives ship with Windows-centric FAT32 or NTFS file systems which, while they are compatible for dual use with both Mac and Windows, are not compatible for using as a Time Machine drive, and as they are not exclusively formatted for the Mac, will have other limitations which are not desirable for exclusive Mac OS X usage.

This process will erase all data on the hard drive, meaning this is best to pursue when you first get a new external drive for backups and file storage.

  • Connect the external hard drive to the Mac
  • Launch Disk Utility, found in /Applications/Utilities/
  • Select the external hard drive from the drive list on the left, then click the “Erase” tab
  • Choose “Mac OS Extended (Journaled)” as the format type, ignore the naming convention for now, then click “Erase” and confirm the drive will be erased

Erase external hard drive to Mac compatible format

How long it takes to format a drive depends on a variety of factors, including drive speed, interface speed, and total disk size. Just let the process go, don’t be surprised if it takes a few minutes.

Step 2: Create Two Partitions for Time Machine & Storage

Next we’ll set up the external hard disk to have two separate partitions, one for the Time Machine backups and the other for regular file system access.

A quick note about sizing: It is good practice to set the Time Machine drive to be at least 2x-3x your primary hard disk size. For example, if the Mac has a built-in 128GB SSD drive, setting the Time Machine partition to be at least 384GB or larger would be ideal. You can certainly get away with smaller sizes, but because Time Machine takes incremental snapshots of the data on your Mac, the backups will simply capture more data for a longer period of time if the partition size is larger. To be clear, backups will not stop once the maximum space is reached, it will simply rewrite older backups, thus preventing access to old drive states as they become rewritten. We’re going to use an even 50/50 partition scheme for this example (specifically, a 1.5TB drive split into two 750GB parts) though you can configure yours as appropriate.

  • When the drive has finished formatting, choose the “Partition” tab
  • Pull down the “Partition Layout” menu and select “2 Partitions” to split the drive into two equal partition sizes divided 50/50
  • Adjust the partition size allocation if desired by dragging the boxes to adjust size, or by manually selecting a partition and entering a desired allocation in the “Size” input box
  • Name the two partitions accordingly, select the first partition and name it something like “Time Machine Backup”, then select the other partition and name it something like “File Storage”
  • Choose “Apply”, then confirm the changes by clicking “Partition” when asked

Split a hard drive for time machine and file storage dual use

Partitioning a drive can take a few minutes, depending on the total capacity of the disk. Once that process is finished you can quit out of Disk Utility.

Step 3: Set Time Machine to Backup to a Specific Partition

With the most technical aspects now finished, you can specify the partition to become the Time Machine backup. This will also initiate the first backup of the entire Mac with Time Machine, which is usually the lengthiest backup since it’s going to back up every single thing.

  • Go to “System Preferences” from the  Apple menu and then choose “Time Machine”
  • Click the “Select Disk” button and let the list populate
  • Choose the partition named “Time Machine Backup” from the list, then confirm the choice by clicking “Use Backup Disk”
  • Let Time Machine backup for the first time

Specify the Time Machine partition

While you’re in the Time Machine settings, you can choose to encrypt the backups by checking the appropriate box (yes, you can encrypt them later if you change your mind), and you can also exclude files or folders from the backups through simple drag and drop specification by way of the “Options” button if desired. The default configuration remains unencrypted and excludes nothing, which is satisfactory for many use cases.

Again, the first initial backup process will take quite a while since the entire Mac is being backed up. Let the entire process run through its course, this may be best done overnight if the primary Mac hard drive is enormous since it can several hours to perform the initial backup. Backups performed after the initial sequence will be much faster and smaller, because they will be delta backups, focusing on files that have been added, deleted, or changed from the Mac, rather than just copying the entire drive and it’s untouched contents over and over again.

All done! Easy backups and access to classic file storage are good to go

Now that everything is setup you will have one partition automatically serving as the backup drive, and the other accessible as usual through the file system for general file storage of things like movies, large video collections, pictures, media, downloads, or whatever else. How to differentiate between the two drives? Other than the obvious name differences that were specified during configuration, you’ll discover the icons serve as an indicator of which partition/drive does what purpose. The normal file system storage partition will have a standard orange external drive icon, and the Time Machine partition will have a green icon with the backup logo on it.

Accessing the standard file system partition is done through any Finder window, where it will appear in the sidebar under “Devices”, or if you have drive icons set to show up on the desktop, it will appear there.

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Posted by: Paul Horowitz in Mac OS X, Tips & Tricks

23 Comments

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  1. Jake says:

    Hey,

    Once format to Mac OS Extended Journaled will the storage partition work on a pc? eg. I want to transfer music files from my mac to a pc or vice versa.

    Basically will the hard drive work on a pc? or do i have to re erase the general storage partition and reformat as FAT32?

  2. Clive says:

    Basically just reformat the storage partition to NTFS and it’s good to go.

  3. Elly says:

    Hello!
    Thanks for the article. I recently got an external HD for my Mac and I was wondering for a bit about this…is it necessary that we split it into two partitions? Can we just create another folder in the 1 Partition HD…? I only ask this as I already did it, but wondered if it by chance hinders anything.

    Thanks in advance!

    • tbut says:

      Sure that’s fine, but it’s cleaner to use a separate partition and helps eliminate any accidental overwrites, etc. You can always create another partition and copy that folder over to it, just takes a few seconds.

  4. Elly says:

    Ah, so there’s no need to reformat it then?
    Thanks for the swift reply!

  5. DQ says:

    Hi, following up on Jake’s question, if I reformat the storage partition to NTFS then I can use both a mac and PC to save and get files from the storage partition part of the drive?

    I got a seagate central that says it supports Time Machine and right now before partitioning I can use both a mac and PC to save and get files. Can I just not reformat it when I create the 2 partitions (1 for time machine back up and the other 1 for storage)?

    Thanks

  6. CB says:

    Thanks for this!

  7. rafael baquero says:

    Excelent, clear and very complete!

  8. BuzzLightyear says:

    Hi. Firstly, thank you for the article. I would appreciate some advice. I have purchased a 2 TB external HDD for time machine backup and thought I would use some of the that space as storage of my movies, photos, and music. My MacBook has a 750 GB capacity, and I have used ~500 GB, of which ~350 GB is media. I will keep all that on the external HDD, and not on the Mac drive. Will a 50/50 partition of the drive be adequate for time machine, with my used capacity going to be closer to 150 GB, and not likely to increase significantly in the near future? Thank you.

  9. Tephilla says:

    Hi,

    Is it possible to partition after setting up the drive for time machine. I have only done the initial backup but I need to free up some space on my internal drive as well. And if so, can I get time machine to backup my storage partition as well as my internal drive?

  10. Daena says:

    Thank you so much! Excellent article; very helpful.

  11. lovelanewest says:

    this was so incredibly helpful! appreciate the really detailed walk-through so much!

  12. Prospector says:

    @Jake – just to add to what Clive said, if you have 32 bit Windows XP you must use Master Boot Record (MBR) as the partition map as it does not support GUID table. Click on options in the Partition tab to select this option.

    @DQ – I had a WD USB HDD which I formatted in windows to NTFS. I could read the files on my Mac but the whole drive was read only. So when I partitioned the drive I formatted the storage partition as FAT (after selecting MBR as partition table as I still use Windows XP). This is read/write on both mac and windows.

    @Tephilla – You need to remove storage from ‘Exclude these items from backups’ ‘Open time machine preferences…’ -> Options. You might be able to use a non-destructive partitioning tool to create a second partition once you’ve already backed up but I’ve not tried this myself.

  13. Mac Newbie says:

    I don’t usually comment on stuff like this, but this was incredibly helpful! I am new to Mac and this made ‘learning the switch’ from PC to Apple all the more easy & fun.

    Thank you!

  14. Victoria B says:

    Can this second partition for file storage be backed up via the Time Machine as well? I have so many photographs and I want to move them from my main drive to a backup drive but of course, I still want them to be backed up. If this is not the best method, would you mind pointing me in the right direction? Thanks!

  15. Lynedizzle says:

    Is it possible to back up my pc to Time Capsul on a dual partition? like i have a 1T for my Mac and want my other partion for my PC back up…is it possible?

    • btop says:

      Sure, have another partition set up as NTFS or FAT32 and use your Windows backup app on that partition. Do not try to use the Mac Time Machine app to backup to the Windows partition, or vice versa though!

  16. Galo says:

    What’s the real difference between back up the computer and copy the files?

  17. Galo says:

    Does The Time Machine work only with external drives? can you use time machine without it? If T.M. is set in automatic…do I have to connect my external hard drive to do the back up every single time? How does Time Capsule works?

  18. EcstaticElla says:

    Thank you soooooo much for this!!!! Very easy to follow instructions for dummies like me ;-)

  19. Gina says:

    I have followed these instructions but have hit a snag.
    After partitioning, I have selected “Time Machine backups” but a menu pops up asking

    Do you want to replace the backup disk “My Passport for Mac” or back up to both disks?
    If you use both, time machine will take turns backing up to my passport for mac, and time machine backups.

    My options are
    Cancel, replace my passport for mac or use both.

  20. Pranlee says:

    Thanks for posting this

  21. Nic says:

    My advice is never have your general file storage on the same external backup drive as your Time Machine.

    Always have at least two external drives – one for TM, the other for manual backups.

    Reason is that I’ve had a few ‘dodgy’ external drives in the past. If not for the fact that i had a secondary backup, all would’ve been lost.

    Always backup your backups!

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