Snapshots are a feature of APFS (Apple File System) that has been part of the macOS since High Sierra. A snapshot captures the state of an APFS formatted drive, and preserves all the files on the drive, as they appeared when the snapshot was taken. If you ever need to, you can roll back the drive to its previous state.
Apple makes use of the snapshot feature whenever a system update is performed. Before the system update is applied, a snapshot is taken of the startup drive, ensuring that if something goes wrong with the update process, you could recover from the problem quickly and be back right where you were before you started the system update.
In this Rocket Yard guide, we’re going to take a look at APFS snapshots, how they’re created, managed, and deleted, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of snapshots.
Snapshots Take Up No Space, But Can Magnify the Amount of Data Blocks Used
When a snapshot is initially created, it takes up no additional space on the volume. A snapshot essentially marks all the currently used data blocks on a volume to be preserved; that is, no changes can be made to them. At the moment a snapshot is taken, there’s no increase in the space used on a volume.
Note: Apple has supported local snapshots on HFS+ formatted drives since OS X Lion. APFS-based snapshots use an entirely different mechanism even though Apple has continued to use the “local snapshot” nomenclature for both types of file system snapshots. In this guide, we’re specifically dealing with the APFS snapshots.
Snapshots leverage the APFS’s copy-on-write system. When there’s a need to write data, such as when you’re editing a file, a new data block is used to hold the changes you’re making, instead of writing the data back to the original block.
Normally the old data block can then be marked as free and available for use. However, if the block is marked as preserved, such as when a snapshot has been generated, the old block remains and is not freed up for use.
Editing a file can significantly magnify the amount of space being used, as the old versions of the file are retained in the snapshot, while outright deleting a file frees up no space at all since the snapshot will retain all the preserved data.
Creating a Snapshot and Rolling Back a Snapshot is Fast
A big advantage to snapshots is how quickly they can be created. Only the volume’s metadata is being copied, so the process is lightning-fast, especially when compared against conventional backups. Rolling back to a snapshot is also quick; just the metadata needs to be restored since all the actual information in a snapshot data block was never changed.
Deleting a Snapshot is Difficult
Unwinding a snapshot can be a difficult process, as the system needs to go through each data block and remove the preserved setting, decide if the data block still contains active information, and free up the data blocks that aren’t currently in use where it can.
Snapshots Are Not Backups
On the surface, it looks like snapshots perform the same function as a backup, but have the added advantage of being quick and easy to create, as well as providing the ability to use a snapshot to recover from a problem quickly.
Seems pretty good, but snapshots have a few downsides. First up, snapshots are part of the startup drive. They don’t exist anywhere but on the same startup drive as the
APFS snapshots are only supported on drives using the APFS format. If you’re using any other file system, such as HFS+, APFS snapshots will not be available. If you’re using a drive with APFS, you have a few options available for creating and managing snapshots.
Time Machine: Time Machine gained support for APFS snapshots with macOS High Sierra. Some sharp-eyed Time Machine users may have noticed an addition to the description of the types of data Time Machine keeps. When you open the Time Machine preference pane, you’ll see “Local snapshots as space permits” is now part of the description of what Time Machine does.
Time Machine will use APFS snapshots of your startup drive provided it’s APFS formatted, isn’t in Time Machine’s list of excluded items, and there’s a significant amount of free space available.
Time Machine performs the following snapshot management functions:
- Creates a snapshot of the startup volume approximately every hour, and keeps it for twenty-four hours before it is automatically removed.
- Creates a snapshot of the last successful Time Machine backup, and keeps it unless space is needed.
- Creates a snapshot before installing any macOS update.
tmutil: tmutil is a command line tool for controlling Time Machine. It offers a number of actions for creating and managing APFS snapshots. The Terminal app is used with the tmutil commands.
You can find information about using Terminal in the guide:
How to create an APFS snapshot:
Open Terminal and enter the following at the prompt:
Press enter or return.
A new snapshot will be created with the current date and time appended to its name.
How to list existing APFS snapshots:
Enter the following at the Terminal prompt:
tmutil listlocalsnapshots /
Press enter or return.
Terminal will list the snapshots stored on the startup drive. You can specify a different drive by replacing the “/” in the command with the full pathname to another drive.
How to delete an APFS snapshot:
To delete a specific snapshot, you need to know the creation date of the snapshot you wish to delete. The easiest way to find the date is to use the listlocalsnapshots command above. It will list each snapshot by name, which includes the data and time appended to the name.
As an example, if I list local snapshots on my Mac in Terminal I get:
tnelson@Toms-Mac ~ % tmutil listlocalsnapshots /
Snapshots for volume group containing disk /:
The portion of the name after TimeMachine. and before .local are the date and time. If I wanted to delete the snapshot named com.apple.TimeMachine.2019-12-06-152818.local, I would enter the following Terminal command:
tmutil deletelocalsnapshots 2019-12-06-152818
Press enter or return.
Mounting a Snapshot
It’s possible to mount a snapshot on your Mac’s desktop and use the Finder to restore an older file from the snapshot. There doesn’t seem to be any advantage to doing this versus just using the normal Time Machine interface to find and restore a file, however, it may be interesting to see all the files in a snapshot.
In order to mount the snapshot, you need to create a directory that will be used as the snapshot’s mount point. I suggest using the /private/tmp folder to create a directory named snappy so the mount point will be removed automatically when you log out of your Mac.
At the Terminal prompt, enter the following:
Press enter or return.
To mount a snapshot, you need to know the snapshot’s name, which you can find out using the listlocalsnapshots command outlined above. Once you have the name, you’re ready to mount the snapshot. In this example, I will mount my snapshot named com.apple.TimeMachine.2019-12-07-171533.local.
At the Terminal prompt, I would enter:
mount_apfs -s com.apple.TimeMachine.2019-12-07-171533.local / /private/tmp/snappy
and then press enter or return.
The snapshot will be mounted on the desktop.
With the snapshot mounted on the desktop, you can use the Finder to browse through the snapshot’s information. You can copy files from the snapshot, but you cannot move, delete, or add to the snapshot.
After examining the snapshot, you can remove it from the desktop by ejecting it (right-click on the mounted snapshot and select Eject from the popup menu).
Restoring a Full Snapshot
If you need to roll back your Mac to the state it was in when a snapshot was taken, such as after a software upgrade that went bad, you can do so by booting into the Recovery environment and using the instructions from the Rocket Yard guide:
Use the instructions in the “Restoring a Full Time Machine Backup” section. When you get to the step for selecting a Restore Source, be sure and select the startup drive that holds the local snapshots, and not your Time Machine drive.
After that, just follow the onscreen instructions to restore from a selected snapshot.
Warning: All information added after the selected snapshot’s date will be lost when the snapshot is restored.
Snapshots and You
APFS snapshots are a relatively new tool that can be used as part of an effective backup and recovery strategy. Time Machine users have an advantage with the Time Machine app able to manage snapshot creation and deletion for them.
It may be tempting to keep a number of snapshots around to allow you to recover to various points in time. But snapshots should be kept to a minimum so they do not excessively impact your storage usage. Instead, use Time Machine or another favorite backup app for the bulk of your backup needs, and just be aware that snapshots are a recovery option should something go wrong when you install new versions of the macOS.
Have you been working with APFS snapshots? Let us know in the comments below.