Time Machine

A few days ago, BitTorrent Sync replaced one of my files with an older version of itself on all of my computers. Fortunately, I use Time Machine, so I knew I had a backup copy of the file. Trying to get the file back, though, turned out to be nigh impossible.

I love experimental user interfaces. I love the Apple Watch's zoomable home screen. I love WebOS's card app switcher. I love stuff like this. Your backup software's file recovery feature, though? That's not the place to put the single weirdest UI in your entire operating system.

When you've lost a file and you desperately need to get it back, you're already in a bad place. The last thing you need is for your computer to suddenly transform into something completely unfamiliar. When you already think you're screwed up, you're usually not in the mood for learning a totally foreign user interface.

I'm freaking out, and Apple is sending me on an LSD-fueled trip through a star field.

I think the sheer insanity of this user interface might almost be forgiven if it allowed Apple to provide a user interface that is above and beyond what they could provide with normal UI widgets. But they don't. Time Machine would work better as a boring old app that uses Mac OS X's default widgets.

In Time Machine, the selector for picking how far to get back is finicky, and hard to use. As far as I can tell, it's impossible to know when specific files actually changed, unless you manually step through the history and check the file's modification date. The UI doesn't properly support what is probably the most common use case: getting back the most recent good version of a single file.

All I needed was for Time Machine to show me what versions of a specific file it had backed up, so that I could pick the one with the most recent modification date. Not any old version — the most recent version. But I can't tell Time Machine to just show me what versions of a file it has. Instead, I'm (sluggishly, because Time Machine's UI apparently requires more power than the most recent Tomb Raider) stepping back through Time Machine's version history, painfully trying to figure out which specific instance of the files it shows me is the one that I need to recover.

Worse, Time Machine isn't even stable. It'll randomly close, or show its frontmost window in a wrong position, partially offscreen, making it impossible for me to even see the file I'm trying to get to. And no, you can't move Time Machine windows.

Sometimes, it will just stop accepting clicks. "Go back a step." Nothing. Click on back again. Nothing. Click, click, click... Nothing. Five seconds later, it suddenly goes back a bunch of steps all at once. Crap, now I've lost my position.

After spending a quarter of an hour slowly scrolling backwards and forwards through Time Machine's 3D view, trying to narrow down which version I actually needed, losing my place every time I recovered a file to see if it was the most recent good version, I remembered that I was also running Arq. Now, Arq actually has the same problem: it can show you a list of backups globally, but can't show you a version history for just a single file. However, it does have a normal user interface, which means that figuring out how the user interface works, and going through all of its backups, opening each one to see which one contains the most recent version of the file without losing your place inside the app, is much less cumbersome.

So I eventually got my file back, no thanks to Time Machine.

I like the moxie it must have taken to create something like the Time Machine UI. I just wish it had been applied to something else. There's absolutely a place for UI experiments. The place where people are freaking out and trying to recover desperately needed lost file, though? Not that place.


Julie Koubová notes that it is possible to browse Time Machine backups in the Finder. They're stored as sparsebundles, so they can be opened and browsed. This didn't occur to me while I was in panic mode, and I don't think it's a good way of accessing backed up files (it probably wasn't intended to be used that way at all), but it is an option that's available to you if your'e in a similar predicament.

Duncan Wilcox points out that it would be possible to use the Terminal to find all versions of a specific file. Loic Nageleisen points to tmutil.

Tony Meyer reminds me of the fact that Yosemite at least gets rid of the stars.

People also recommended third-party utilities. Aragorn II recommends BackupLoupe, and Kapeli recommends FileGoBack.

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