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I am doing a TM backup for the first time to a portable disk from my macbook Pro(mid 2010) over a firewire connection (both ends). The disk only contained a folder of around 20GB of manually backed up stuff before I decided to TM to it (left the folder). Now it's only done exactly 580MB in 30 mins (around 19.33Mb/min) is this normal?

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No, that's not normal. Even over USB 2.0 (which is about 30% slower than FireWire), that should have taken about a minute. – user10355 Dec 26 '11 at 2:23
up vote 2 down vote accepted

Turns out that the problem was that the disk wasn't empty. Formatting the disk and starting again solved the problem.

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