Battle of the Backups: SuperDuper! vs Time Machine

You know you should back up your system, but what should you use? Apple created Time Machine to make backups pretty easy. However, in almost every backup related discussion, there’s someone who swears SuperDuper! is all you need. While both are great applications, they each have strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s put the two against each other and figure out which backup solution is right for you.

Note: This post is a rewrite of the original. In the original, I did not include such features as Smart Update and Scheduling as they are registration required whereas Time Machine doesn’t include similar limitations. I’ve since added these features to balance out the article. I also didn’t include the direct to drive method of using SuperDuper! which allows you to run a backup/restoration without booting externally.

Apple’s Time Machine:

Time Machine is part of OS X Leopard and requires an external hard drive. It takes hourly snapshots of your system and stores them on the external drive. When 24 hours is complete, the hourly backups are pruned into one daily backup. After a week, they become one weekly backup. As the drive fills up, the backups older than one month are slowly deleted to restore space.

To operate Time Machine, just plug in a suitable external drive and follow the prompts. To restore files, enter Time Machine’s interface, choose the files and press the restore button at the bottom. It’s really that easy.

Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper!:

SuperDuper! is a freeware (donation requested) program that takes images of your drive. Hence the name SuperDUPEr! – Dupe as in duplication. Like Time Machine, it’s very simple to run and it’s an incredible program. SuperDuper! will clone your entire drive, make it bootable and will restore your system exactly the way you had it, even giving you a system to work on while your computer is being repaired.

Round 1. Intended Function:

Time to be blunt. Time Machine was created and it’s primary function is to be a backup program. SuperDuper!’s intended function is to be a cloning / imaging program. While you can use SuperDuper! to back up your system, it’s not what the program was intended for. That’s going to hurt it as we compare it to Time Machine, although SuperDuper! has a few features up it’s sleeve that Time Machine doesn’t.
Advantage: Time Machine.

Round 2. Ease of use:

Time Machine just needs it’s drive to be plugged in to work. Restoring files will have you walking through different screens but it’s not that difficult. SuperDuper! is also really simple to operate – Just pick the source and destinations and start the process. Same for restoration.
Advantage: Tie.

Round 3. Speed of backup:

It’s a little unfair to compare Time Machine’s incremental backups (backing up only changed files) vs SuperDuper!’s cloning of the entire drive but this goes back to the intended use. I’ll be fair, my last Time Machine backup took about 15 or so minutes but it was a 16GB backup.

In order to create a backup with SuperDuper!, it clones your startup drive onto your external drive, erasing everything in it’s way. Better partition your external drive to avoid this. Additional backups have two options. You can either update the backup with the Smart Update feature (available only to registered users) or re-do the backup over again each time you’d like to update. Smart Update will update your backup in no time while the unregistered user’s Erase and Copy takes much longer.

Originally, this feature was omitted from this article as registering isn’t free, while Time Machine is included in the OS.
Advantage: Time Machine.

Note: In the original article, I wrote about my SuperDuper! images taking twice as long as a necessary. This is because I make them bootable .DMGs so they can be working images for mass deployment. A 30-40GB image will take a long time to do this.

Round 4. Speed of System Restoration:

To be fair, I’ve never had to restore a system from Time Machine yet but I have done extensive imaging with SuperDuper!. To restore with Time Machine, you must boot from the OS X DVD, activate the Time Machine system restore and wait.

With SuperDuper!, I hope you made your backup by choosing the “Backup all files” method because it won’t restore your system exactly as it was before unless you did. Once SuperDuper! restores, its pretty quick and since I’ve never used Time Machine to complete a system restore, I’ll give this one to SuperDuper! although they probably have similar results. Also, SuperDuper! works with Disk Utility’s Restore feature which is a nice feature if your backup drive isn’t bootable.
Advantage: SuperDuper!

Round 5. File/Folder Restoration:

When restoring individual files, Time Machine will take you through the past snapshots and you pick the files you need. It will then copy the files back to your drive. With SuperDuper! you will have to mount your backup, and copy the file back by dragging and dropping. Both are pretty much even.

However, since Time Machine runs hourly and stores snapshots, you can fish out past edits to files. SuperDuper! doesn’t store past versions of files, it either updates them (registered users only) or overwrites them. Its much easier to use Time Machine if you are concerned with individual files and previous revisions.
Advantage: Time Machine.

Round 6. Maintenance:

All those backups can take a large chunk of your external drive. Time Machine automatically prunes itself to eliminate unnecessary daily backups after one day, and weekly backups after one month. It will also begin deleting the monthly backups as your run low on disk space. Since Time Machine runs automatically, all you need to do is remember to plug in the drive.

With SuperDuper!, it’s all up to you to maintain backups, run backups and you’ll need to partition the external drive if you want to store anything else on your external drive. Since unregistered users can’t schedule or use Smart Update, If you really wanted to compete with Time Machine, (hourly backups) you’d spend your day running backups every hour.
Advantage: Time Machine.

Round 7. Nitpicking:

Both applications have their fair share of annoyances. The major one with Time Machine is that it won’t back up FileVault folders unless you log out. When you do logout, it backs up the entire encrypted user folder as one large image. Each time you have a change, that’s another image (kind of like unregistered SuperDuper!…). There’s other assorted issues with Time Machine.

SuperDuper! sometimes will fail to mount/dismount the drive when restoring from an image. This makes you have to restore the image twice. Not sure why but it seems to happen mostly with brand new drives. It’s really more annoying than a work-stopper. SuperDuper! also recommends logging out of a FileVault account when you run the backup.

The big nitpick of them all is Time Machine’s ever ballooning backups if you use Entourage, VMWare or Parallels. Basically, Time Machine detects a change in a large file and backs it up again and again. Each additional email in Entourage results in a new backup of the email database. Within a few weeks, with enough email, you can fill your drive. It’s such a concern that Apple even recommends that you exclude these databases/virtual machines from Time Machine.
Advantage: SuperDuper!.

Which one is right for you?

SuperDuper! is an incredible program that was designed as a cloning tool. It’s for creating system images and deploying them and having one running backup on an external drive. Time Machine is designed for automated backups and is totally “set and forget”. They each have strengths and weaknesses, as shown above.

If you are concerned with lost productivity, SuperDuper! will keep you running even after a hard drive meltdown. If you need to go back a revisit old revisions of files, Time Machine is for you. If you heavily use Entourage or virtualization apps like Parallels and VMWare, SuperDuper! is the way to go. Finally, if you are concerned with something simple that integrates with OS X and doesn’t require extra thinking, go with Time Machine.

There are many extra features of SuperDuper! that really compete Time Machine, such as Smart Update and Scheduling. These are registration required ($$) features. Without these features, Time Machine has the clear advantage of incremental hourly backups you don’t have to think about.

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2 thoughts on “Battle of the Backups: SuperDuper! vs Time Machine

  1. SuperDuper has a version that you pay for that allows for incremental backups. You make one full back up and then “smart” backups. The latter doesn’t take much time and it will compare your drive(s) to the backup and adjust the back up to match.

    I don’t think your comparison covered all the pros and cons of each well. (Sorry)

    SuperDuper – less than 100 + Any external drive you have equal or larger than drive being backed up. Time Machine, only two sizes of drives available and costs more than SuperDuper plus external drive.

    I have no problem using either but prefer SuperDuper. It is less fuss and I can boot up on the back up as well. However with Time Machine, it is a bit more complicated on retrieval of data but one can have precision which isn’t what SuperDuper is about.

    I’ll stick with SuperDuper for my needs and Time Machine may fit very well with other people’s needs.

  2. Hi Michael,

    I’ve since edited the article to account for these features because when taken into consideration, the registered version of SuperDuper! really competes well with Time Machine.

    Thanks for pointing this out,
    David