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Handy guide for Time Machine tricks and troubleshooting tips

Handy guide for Time Machine tricks and troubleshooting tips

Time Machine is a simple and intuitive program for automatically backing up your files, but sometimes it can get a little picky. Next time it throws a fit, check out these easy steps to help set it straight again.

“Unable to complete backup. An error occurred while copying files to the backup volume.”
If you come across this particular error, you can usually fix it by going into the drive on which your Time Machine backups are located. Navigating through the Time Machine file structure, you should see a number of folders with dates on them. Among these folders, you might find one that ends with a .inProgress extension. Delete this file and attempt another backup. If you still encounter the same error, you may have to disable fast user switching (System Preferences > Accounts > Login Options) and restart your Mac first. 

Time Machine stops during the initial backup
When you’re first setting up Time Machine and initiating the first complete backup, it may get to about 10GB of your data and then stall. This is most likely due to your external drive not being formatted correctly. Although Mac OS X may be able to read and write from it normally, some hard drive manufacturers include a Master Boot Record partition scheme when the product ships, which Time Machine doesn’t like. I won’t go into the details of how and why this affects Time Machine — you just want it fixed, right? To do so you’re going to have to erase the entire contents of the external hard drive. Make sure you copy any important files already on the drive because they will be permanently deleted.

  1. Open Disk Utility and select the disk where your backups are to be located.
  2. Click the Partition tab and ensure Mac OS Extended (Journaled) is selected as the format.
  3. Choose your desired number of partitions by going to the Volume Scheme menu. If you’re only using this disk for Time Machine, only one partition is necessary.
  4. Click the Options button and choose your partition scheme. If you have an older PowerPC-based Mac, you will want to choose Apple Partition Map. If you have a newer Intel-based Mac, choose GUID.
  5. Pressing OK and then Apply will completely erase the drive. Once completed, you can attempt to set up Time Machine again.

“The backup volume could not be found”
While not normal, sometimes Time Machine might not recognize the drive where backups are supposed to be saved. When this occurs, it is usually resolved with one of two tasks: Disabling your hard drive’s sleep function (if it has one) or reminding Time Machine where to look. This can be done by opening the Time Machine panel in System Preferences and clicking the Choose Disk button. From here, you can select the correct disk volume.

Time Machine Error: The backup volume could not be found

Backups get stuck at “Preparing…” for extended periods of time
Time Machine only backs up files that have changed since the most recent backup, but occasionally it loses its place and needs to index the entire system again. Possible reasons for this unwanted behavior include the user stopping backups while they are in process (by either canceling them or shutting down the computer), not ejecting the backup volume correctly, or going long periods of time without backing up. If you’re running a third-party anti-virus program, you should exclude the Time Machine drive from its locations to scan since this could also contribute to longer “Preparing…” times.

Time Machine gets stuck at Preparing...

Backup drive fills up too quickly with large virtualization files
If you use Parallels or VMWare for virtualizing Windows on your Mac, the disk images used by these applications will eat up space on your backup drive at a rapid pace. Whenever you use your virtual machine, Time Machine backs up the entire disk image every time instead of only copying incremental changes. To avoid filling up your backup drive with numerous copies of these large files, add them to Time Machine’s exclusions list. You can easily do this by opening the Time Machine panel in System Preferences and clicking Options. In the window that pops up, click the + button and navigate to the folder when your virtual machine image is located. For Parallels, this would be Username > Library > Parallels. For VMWare, you should find it at Username > Documents > Virtual Machines.

Exclude Windows virtualization files from Time Machine backups

24 Comments Have Been Posted (Leave Your Response)

I purchased a new Time Capsule 500. I’ve successfully backed up my MacBook Pro (Intel) with Time Machine. However, when I try to backup my wife’s MacBook (Intel) Time Machine Fails with the following error message: “Unable to complete backup. An error occurred while creating the backup directory.”


Does your wife’s MacBook have a computer name with any characters other than letters and numbers? If it does, that might be contributing to the problem. Changing the name to remove those characters and trashing any files created on the Time Capsule by the first failed attempt could solve your issue.

I have a time capsule 500 and a WD 500 external harddrive. I have the WD connected to the Time Capsule via a USB hub (also has a printer connected).

The WD Harddrive does not show up anywhere when I plug it in. If I plug it directly to my Macbook Pro, it sees it fine. The printer is working fine from the hub.

I’ve restarted the time capsule, HDD, everything but the HDD doesn’t show up.

Any thoughts?

I understand that if you change the name of your Mac in the Sharing Preference Pane, Time Machine will do a complete backup, but does anyone know if the same thing happens if you just change the name of your startup volume?

My backups get stuck at “Preparing” as described above and for the reasons described above. Meaning, “unwanted behavior” by the user.
What’s the fix?


The best thing to do is just wait for as long as it takes to get past the “preparing” stage. The more you cancel it, the longer subsequent attempts will take. One thing you could try is turning Time Machine off and then back on in System Preferences. That might jump start it.

I’ve purchase a new mbpro 13 with 10.6, and i had a mb with 10.5. I have a time machine backup for the macbook and 10.5. My new mbpro is up and running fine. Was wondering incase i need to, will i be able to access my macbook 10.5 backups from my new mbpro 10.6 via time machine, do i need to use the same drive for backups for my mbpro to access them?

Paul Higginbotham
December 1st, 2009, 4:46 PM

Can anyone tell me how to keep my WD Time Machine drive from going to sleep all the time? I thought I saw an app for that a while ago.



I just realized Time Machine has been deleting older backups to make room for more current activities. For example, I am backing up to a 1TB External Hard Drive, and have been doing so for a year now. However, the oldest backup shown is August 2009! Is there a way to offload older backups, i.e., December 2008 through July 2009?



You should be able to access your old 10.5 Time Machine backups on your new 10.6 machine. However, you will not be able to continue backing up to the same drive. You’ll have to erase everything and start over or get another hard drive to start fresh.

Sorry, I have Seagate drives so I don’t know of anything to remedy your WD situation.

The only way I know to prevent Time Machine from removing older backups is to upgrade to a larger drive with more room to breathe. You won’t be able to split Time Machine backups between multiple drives. Check out this article for info about how to copy your backups to a new larger drive:

I was wondering if once something was backed up on an external harddrive using time machine, is it ok to delete it from my macbook so my Mac will run smoother?

While you certainly can delete files from your Mac once Time Machine has backed them up, it is not recommended. The purpose of TM is to have a 2nd copy of your files in case your drive fails. This can happen to your external drive too, which would destroy the only copy of your files. In addition, TM automatically deletes some of your old backups when the external drive gets full, so you run the risk of inadvertently losing your files this way.

Hi. Have new Imac and external. When I select Time Machine in my dock, and it asks me to select the backup disc, it does not see my external hard drive. I called the hard drive manufacturer which is Western Digital. They said all is working and it is a time machine issue. Any ideas why this is happening?

If I understand correctly, you’re trying to take a Time Machine backup drive from another Mac and continue using it with your new iMac? If that’s the case, this is not possible. You have to transfer your files from the Time Machine drive to the iMac or start over from scratch. Time Machine can’t keep backing up to another machine’s backup drive.

I had been backing up my 500GB startup internal drive with Time Machine on my Leopard, 10.5.8, G5 PowerPC desktop Mac, but the 500 GB drive was getting full. I bought a 1TB Hitachi internal drive for $68 on sale, installed it, did the Init and format, then did a disk utility restore, copying the 500GB drive files to the 1 TB drive. I set the 1 TB drive as the new startup and did a Restart. Everything fine, but how do I smoothly (i.e. without losing the long train of existing backups of the 500GB on an external LaCie 1TB drive) switch over to “Time Machining” the new 1 TB drive? Thanks.

I have deleted the .inprogress file which fixed the problem but now I can’t empty the trash! HELP!

Please e-mail

I had trouble backing up today because there were too many GB of files. I weeded out several items and this seem to help, but my screen went blank as it was backing up for the 5th time today. I made a mistake by unplugging the time machine from my computer and now I am not able to access time machine and my iphoto.
What can I do to access my files.

I have a time capsule and was backing up daily and it even restored a failed hard drive a few months ago. I moved and let it be idle for a few months (5). I tried connecting it again and I am getting the message that “the storage location for time machine back ups cant be found.” What does this mean?? How can I fix the problem? Thanks!

I have a MacBook Pro operating 10.6.4. I have just started using Time Capsule and having constant problems losing network settings.

I use my Macbook running 10.6 in 2 locations (work and home) on a daily basis. I time machine to do automatic backups to both locations (I have external an external back up drive in each location). Each time I switch locations, I have to go into the time machine preferences and locate the external drive. Is there a way time machine can automatically find the drive?

Chuck: RE not fndning hard drive when connected to hub: does the hub have it’s own power source? If not, that is likely the Problem. A drive is likely to need a powered hub, or be connected directly to the built in port.

Mac will not recognize the name of my external Time Machine drive and continues to say next backup will be “When drive is connected”, which it is. I’ve done all the suggestions in this and other forums. Verified and repaired permission of the mac and the Seagate external. Disk Utility recognizes it and I can perform a successful Time Mach backup by choosing the drive manually, but the name of my drive “Time Machine Two” does not show up despite being selected. “Time Machine Backups” is the name shown and greyed out. I have changed cables, restarted in every combination etc. I know the drive works and has my contents but the hourly backup schedules will not happen as long as the drive remains “unseen”…so frustrating.

OK, I solved my own problem. Sounds dumb, but I thought “What if I just change the name of my drive to “Time Machine Backups” instead of what I want to call it? So I did and it worked immediately. The name is now in black (not greyed back) and the next backup is scheduled for an hour from now. Now, this isn’t right -I should be able to name that Seagate drive anything I want and have TM recognize it- but this is how I’m going to leave it….

I’m using one of the new Time Capsules (2tb). Time Machine, on a number of occasions, stops backing up. There is no notice. It behaves as though it is backing up. Attempts enter Time Machine result in an endless search for the backup disc. The only thing that corrects this is to Re-start the time Capsule. Doing so immediately solves the problem. I’ve had to do this about 10 times in the past month. I’ve had the TC for months. This is a fairly recent problem. I’d appreciate any help or insight available.