Yesterday afternoon, my wife lost her grip on her MacBook, and it fell to the floor, resulting in a catastrophic hard drive failure. The disk utilities could no longer even detect there was a drive installed.

I created a temporary account on my laptop for her, and prepared myself for a major headache recovering data the next day.

This morning, I picked up a new disk at Best Buy. (That I can now buy 250GB, at retail, for only $60, is mind-boggling.) It took only a few minutes to swap the disks physically, and another ten or so to boot from the Snow Leopard DVD, plug in the Time Machine backup disk, and start a restore. It told me to come back in about two hours, and when I did, the machine was ready to go.

Wow. Just wow.

I’ve been using and managing computers for a long time, and I’ve never recovered from a major failure so smoothly. This is why Apple made such a big deal about Time Machine when it was introduced.

By the way: if you have both a desktop and a laptop Mac, you do not need a Time Capsule to do backups over your wireless network. Any shared USB disk attached to your desktop will work. Just turn on file sharing, mount the volume on your laptop, and tell Time Machine to use the mounted volume. You don’t even need to figure out how to get the volume to mount at boot; Time Machine will remember it and mount as needed, and even unmount when finished.

It’s very polished, and more importantly, automatic. Non-automated backups are not much better than no backups at all. (I learned that lesson the hard way.)