Preventing Application Data Loss When Switching Macs

Last year I wrote a post about how to do a complete erase of your Mac's hard drive (as opposed to just installing the new operating system on top of the old). In that post I also briefly talk about the kind of data you need to ensure is backed up before you "nuke and pave" your Mac. I am getting ready to perform a "nuke and pave" on one of my Macs, and as luck would have it, I realized I was missing a piece of data on my Mac Mini that was on the Mac I was getting ready to "nuke and pave." I was getting ready to do my 2013 taxes using TurboTax and I couldn't find my last several years worth of TurboTax data files. It turns out that TurboTax on the Mac automatically saves all of the tax return files in a "package" folder within the main application file itself. A package on the Mac is a file that is normally displayed to the user as a single file (like the application file shown in the screenshot below for TurboTax 2013) but instead of it being a single file it actually has a nested folder structure "hidden" within the "TurboTax 2013" application file. In order to reveal all of the files nested within a package file simple "control-click" the file and it will bring up a dialog window like the one in the screenshot below that gives you the option to "Show Package Contents." Most application files on the Mac are like this and contain saved information, user preferences and support files that the application needs in order to function. Most of the time the type of information that is inside the application package file is NOT something that the user needs to ever access or even know that it exists. However, in this case it is rather important. In order to do my taxes I like to be able to point TurboTax to last year's return so I can compare last year's values to this year's values (something I'm sure most people will want to do).

(How to reveal "Package Contents" in Mac OS X)

(How to reveal "Package Contents" in Mac OS X)

So what does this mean to the average user? It means you need to take inventory of all the applications stored on your Mac. I suggest you do two things:

  1. Make sure whatever backup strategy you are using is backing up your application files. Some online services like Backblaze (which I use and love) and Crashplan will not by default backup your applications. This is because in this day and age you can almost always re-download an application, so taking up precious online storage space for application data doesn't make sense. Except when it does make sense, like in this case. So you can either configure your online backup service to backup the applications folder on your Mac, or you can do like I do and use Time Machine. The built-in backup solution from Apple that comes with every Mac called Time Machine will automatically backup all of your applications. So I was covered because I do both an online backup (with Backblaze) and a local back (with Time Machine) to an external hard drive attached to my Mac.
  2. The other thing you should do is that even before you ever think about wiping your Mac you should take inventory of all of the applications currently installed on your computer. What if your Mac died today and you had to go and re-download all of your applications from memory? Would you be able to remember all of the applications you had installed?

If you have a very limited number of applications installed on your Mac then it is quite possible that there won't be any important data within the package file of your applications. But I'm a firm believer that it is always better to be safe rather than sorry. Hopefully this tip will keep some of you from losing data you don't want or can't afford to lose.

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