Posted 03 December 2013 - 03:00 PM
The recovery partition is very much like recovery partitions that you likely would have on any new Windows computer that you bought. It will in essence restore the Mac to just like it was when you first pulled it out of the box. The primary difference is that Apple does not flood your Mac with all kinds of "free" "crapware" (i.e. included games, utilities, etc) like many Windows computers do. Macs basically come with JUST the OS and nothing else.
So, the recovery partition is your primary way to "restore to factory" conditions to your Mac. Since "factory conditions" is really only the Mac OS, the recovery partition in essence is only to re-install the Mac OS.
To give a little background, Macs used to come with Mac OS install optical discs that at least had the OS that came with the computer. You would then use that to re-install the OS if you needed (aka "restore to factory condition"). For a short period of time, when they started shipping Macs without optical drives (aka the MacBook Air), they would then provide a USB Mac OS install disk that did the same things as what the optical discs used to do. My first 11" MBA was this way.
With the advent of Lion (aka Mac OS 10.7), Apple went "diskless" (they did still offer an option to buy it on a flash drive...don't know if they still do or not) both for new computers (i.e. no recovery disks shipped with the new computers) and also for OS upgrades (you get an installer through the App Store that you download). As a result, the Mac OS installer starting with Lion up to the current Mavericks version will create a "hidden" partition on your drive (just like most Windows computers have) that will re-install the Mac OS (and allow you to run a few utilities like Disk Utility). Macs also ship with the "hidden" recovery partition. The only slight issue with the approach is what happens if your hard drive bites the dust. That is where the Internet Recovery option comes into play. The Internet Recovery option is built into the firmware for the Mac. It will allow you to boot into a mode that will allow you to connect to Apple's servers and download an installer that will create the recovery partition for you. Now, this mode is only if your drive is dead and you are replacing it (meaning your recovery partition is useless) AND you don't have some other way to re-install the Mac OS (such as a clone, a copy of the installer that you saved/backed up [and some bootable Mac drive], or a bootable Mac OS install disk [either optical or flash] that you created from a Mac OS installer that you downloaded from the App Store).
Does that help explain the "recovery options" that come with the Mac.
Now, if you want to be able to "recovery" to a setup AFTER you have installed software and configured settings, etc (i.e. NOT just a "factory condition"), then that is where cloning software comes into play. These programs do the same things as what program like Norton Ghost, Acronis TrueImage, etc can do on a Windows computer. There are differences, however. Most Windows cloning programs (such a Acronis TrueImage, which is what I use on my Windows computers) will clone the entire DRIVE...bit for bit. So, if you have three partitions on your Windows' computer's drive (including one of them being a recovery partition), then those three partitions will be clone to the new drive.
Macs deal with drives differently. As a result, Mac cloning programs tend to only clone partitions (which are referred to as "volumes" in the Mac world). They might be able to clone multiple partitions in one operation (Carbon Copy Cloner seems to be able to do that), but also might only clone one partition/volume at a time (this is how SuperDuper! works). As a result, by default, at best they will not automatically also clone the recovery partition/volume when you clone the main volume/partition, but at worst they will not clone the recovery partition at all (this still seems to be the case with SuperDuper). It seems Carbon Copy Cloner provides some way to clone the recovery partitions as well as the main partition, but I have never used it, so I cannot say for sure if that is true or not. I can say that with SuperDuper!, there are ways to get there recovery partition on a new drive (you basically re-install the Mac OS on the new drive) and then you use SuperDuper to clone your main partition/volume to the new drive.
Frankly, if you are using cloning your main (booting) partition, then there is little need for the recovery partition. About the only reason you would HAVE to have a recovery partition and want to be able to clone that recovery partition is if you use FileVault...I believe.
So, the point is that if you want to just be able to "recovery to factory" then the existing recovery partition is all you need. You might want to download a Mac OS installer and then create a bootable Mac OS install USB flash drive in case something happens to the internal drive in your Mac since you said you may not always have access to the web.
If you want clone (or image ** see below) of some "state" of your drive that is NOT "factory", then you will need a cloning program (although if you just want an image, then Disk Utility can create an image of your drive, but you would still need some bootable Mac OS drive). As I said before, SuperDuper! and Carbon Copy Cloner are the most commonly suggested programs, but there are others out there.
Just to be on the safe side (sorry if I am telling you something you already know)...a clone is an exact duplicate of a drive/partition that is on another drive. It is essentially a second drive that is more or less the exact same as your primary drive (not exactly true on a Mac). For an image, you are saving an exact copy of that drive/volume to a file on a drive. The primary difference is that a clone is typically bootable, while an image is not (you would need to boot off a bootable disc containing your imaging/cloning program...something that is not needed with a clone).
Does any of that explanation help? Or is it "clear as mud".
If it helps, here is what I do.
For all my currently active Macs, I maintain a clone drive. Since I only have the one volume on the drive (plus the recovery partition), the clone drive will only have the one volume. As result, SuperDuper! works for my use. I generally update the clone right before I install any major updates (certainly before an upgrade to a new OS version, but also before many typical OS, security, and program updates)...this translates to some where around monthly to quarterly. This allows me to boot off the clone to the state prior to the update/upgrade if I have problems and restore to that prior "state" if I need to do so. I generally use a drive that is the same size as the internal drive and that drive is in an enclosure that I buy (as opposed to buying an "manufactured" external drive such as a WD drive). This allows me to be physically remove the internal drive on the Mac if it dies and put in my clone drive and be back up in running in the time it takes me to remove the older drive and install the clone drive. So, my clone serves two functions...1) reverting to prior states after doing some sort of update/upgrade and 2) drive replacement if my internal drive bites the dust.
FWIW, I do this same thing for my Windows computers. I use Acronis TrueImage for that.
Then on my Macs, my second "line of defense" is a Time Machine backup. I backup both my main Macs to a NAS drive using Time Machine. For the one Mac, this is daily (there are programs that allow you to adjust Time Machine's default schedule). For the other Mac, it is more manually (mainly because Time Machine has "issues" with this computer that I have yet to figure out).
On the Mac with the manual time machine backup, my third "line of defense" is that many of my key files on that computer are in either Box or Dropbox.
And my last "line of defense" is that I manually copy key/essential files manually to an external drive that I can store offsite if I want.