Comparing Time Machine and Versions

Recently, my colleague Mel Martin questioned some of the choices Apple’s designers made with Mac OS X Lion’s Versions. First, it looks a lot like Time Machine, which could confuse novice uses. Also, those who haven’t used Time Machine or Versions at all might be completely thrown by the “star field,” receding desktop and more.

In this post, I’ll compare and contrast Time Machine and Versions. Here’s how each application is launched, used and put away when finished. Finally, I’ll describe the similarities and differences in appearance. Let’s start with Time Machine.

Time Machine

Apple’s automatic backup software was introduced with Mac OS X 10.5, Leopard. Once enabled, it creates hourly, incremental backups of your entire Mac to an external drive (or a remote drive, if you’re using a service Dolly Drive). While it has limitations (Time Machine backups are not bootable and control over what’s backed up is limited), it’s a great option for many home users. Here’s how it works.


To begin, simply connect an external drive to your Mac via Firewire or USB [2. Or a Time Capsule.]. If it’s a new drive, Time Machine will ask to use it as a back up destination. Confirm the choice and you’re done. The first backup will take place shortly thereafter and subsequent backups will be scheduled automatically.


Here’s where Time Machine gets most useful. To enter recovery mode, click the Time Machine icon in your Finder’s menu bar [1. To enable the menu bar icon, open System Preferences and then click Time Machine. Next, select Show Time Machine Status in Menu Bar.] and select Enter Time Machine. Your desktop and all open application windows will recede off the bottom of your screen and you’ll enter what Apple calls “the star field.” See below.

How Time Machine Looks

There are four main features:

  • The version history, represented by a “stack” of windows.
  • The cancel button, date and Restore button along the bottom. The Cancel button lets you exit Time Machine, the Restore button will replace a lost file(s) while the centered date and time represents the point at which the frontmost file was saved.
  • Two navigation arrows for moving one window at a time.
  • A time line, which highlights various “jump points” in the backup history.

In the image above, you see a “stack” of Finder windows, each representing a certain point in time. In this instance, the Desktop is selected. By moving from one window to the next, you can browse the Desktop’s contents as they existed at various points. There are several ways to navigate.

  • Click any window in the stack to jump right to it.
  • Use the navigation arrows on the right to move one window at a time in either direction.
  • Mouse over the timeline on the far right to highlight various “jump points” in the Desktop’s save history.

To recover a file or set of files, click once to make your selection, then click the Restore button on the lower right. The Desktop will re-appear and place that file(s) just where it used to be.


While Time Machine lets you go “back in time” to find nearly any file on your Mac, Versions restricts that process to a single file’s version history. It looks very similar to Time Machine, with a few subtle differences. Before I get into that, let’s look at launching Versions.


First, you must be using Versions-compatible software on Mac OS X Lion. Much of Apple’s own software fits the bill, like Pages, Numbers, TextEdit and Preview. Third-party developers are coming on board, too. For example, Byword now supports Versions.

When Versions is and isn’t available

Before you can browse a document’s version history, you must designate a permanent save location. Lion’s Resume feature automatically saves a copy of compatible documents as you create them, even if you haven’t designated a permanent save location for that file by selecting Save from the File menu. For example, open a TextEdit document, type a few lines and then quit the application without saving. Finally, re-open TextEdit, and your file will re-appear intact.

At this point, there is no version history to browse. To create one, simply save the document. Once that’s done, you can enter Versions. Here’s how.

  • Click the document’s menu bar just to the right of its title.
  • A small, downward-facing triangle appears. Click it.
  • From the drop-down menu, select Browse All Versions…

From there, the star field will appear as it did with Time Machine and Versions is open.

How Versions looks

Again, Versions looks very similar to Time Machine. However, there are several differences. See below.

First, the single “stack” has been replaced by two. On the left is the current version of your document. On the right, its stacked version history.

The right-hand side features a click-able timeline, just as Time Machine did.

Along the bottom are two text fields and two buttons. First, the text fields. Beneath the current version of your document on the left, the field reads “Current Document.” The field on the right bears the date and time that the frontmost version was saved.

Two buttons also appear. The one on the left is labeled “Done” and allows you to exit Versions. The button on the right is labeled “Restore” and does just that.

You can restore an entire document or just a portion. To grab the whole thing, simply bring it to the front of the stack and click Restore. The Desktop will re-appear and that older version will be “dropped” onto the current version. To restore a portion, select just the bit you’re after then click Restore.

A note on locked documents

Versions lets you lock a document, preventing further edits. You can browse the version history of a locked document and even perform a restore. Just note that restoring a locked document to a previous version will unlock it.

Final comparison

These two solutions do look very similar and undoubtedly appear quite foreign to the novice user. Just understand that Apple is trying to emphasize the experience of “traveling back through time” to find an older version of your file(s). Specific differences include:

  • The number of “stacks” presented front-and-center. Time Machine shows one; Versions shows two.
  • The buttons and text along the bottom. Time Machine shows two buttons (Cancel and Restore) plus one text field (date and time). Versions offers two buttons (Done and Restore) plus two text fields (Current Document and the date of the frontmost historical version).

I hope this alleviates a little confusion around these admittedly similar applications, both in appearance and function. If there’s anything I missed, please let me know.