MacBook woe: A tale of a near disaster

Lex Friedman
1 January, 2013
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This is the story of one man’s MacBook Pro, its failed hard drive, and the aftermath.

Mac disasters can happen to anyone; it’s just a matter of time. But my experience could help you to be better prepared for when things go awry.

The Incident

I was on a Virgin America flight, using the Wi-Fi to do some work. I had the aisle seat; in the window seat, 13F, was a woman whose clumsiness I would become all too familiar with. Thanks to the Wi-Fi (and my lack of discretion), I live-tweeted some of 13F’s shenanigans—when she dropped mayo on her iPad, when she bumped her head on her tray table, and when she spilled water on my MacBook Pro.

In truth, she didn’t spill much. Maybe just half a shot glass’s worth hit my laptop’s screen and keyboard as she maneuvered back into her seat. (I’d stood up to let her in, folded up my tray, and deposited my laptop on my seat.)

She apologised. The Mac seemed fine, so I foolishly kept using it. An hour later, the laptop stalled as I tried to save a file.

Then it froze. I shut it down by holding the power button, waited a moment, and restarted it. That was foolish, too.

It failed to boot up, simply shutting down after hanging on the startup screen for half a minute. My Twitter followers suggested that I take down 13F’s contact information for insurance purposes, or a small-claims filing, or in dealings with the airline. Although 13F declined to provide her name, a flight attendant who had witnessed the incident said that she would recollect it if I contacted Virgin, should my laptop’s problems not have a simple solution.

The lesson: Even if your Mac (or other device) seems fine after a liquid spill, shut it down immediately. Water itself won’t necessarily damage the innards, but water interfering with the flow of electricity through circuit boards will.

The Attempted Fix

Back home, I let the MacBook Pro dry out, presuming that it was a small amount of water, and that drying completely might cure what ailed it. How wrong I was. When I turned the laptop on again, it exhibited the same problems.

I have a fairly robust backup plan: I use a combination of Time Machine, Super- Duper, CrashPlan, and Dropbox. But I’d been travelling all week, with my Time Machine and SuperDuper backups at home. My main backups were a week out of date. My CrashPlan online backups would have been more current, but accessing them would have required making lengthy downloads from the Web or requesting (at additional expense) a drive with all my data from CrashPlan.

On top of that, I had installed a new version of Mac OS on my laptop during my travels. That wouldn’t have made restoring from an out-of-date bootable backup like SuperDuper’s impossible, but that would have made it less than ideal.

The lesson: Good backups mean never having to panic. If you aren’t backing up regularly, stop reading this article for a bit. Sign up for CrashPlan or a similar service, start Time Machine, or take other steps to ensure that when disaster strikes, you needn’t fear crushing data loss.

The Diagnosis

My next step was to coax data off the drive. First I held the <Option> key as my laptop started up, and I chose to start in Lion Recovery Mode. (Lion Recovery uses a partition of the main drive, but in my case it worked.) I ran Disk Utility, asking it to repair my main drive. Disk Utility indicated that the drive was beyond repair. Uh-oh.

Two Twitter friends from The Unofficial Apple Weblog (Mike T. Rose and Richard Gaywood) were online at the time. At their suggestion, I paid $100 for DiskWarrior (mmmmm). I had to run it on my Mac mini, and to boot the laptop in Target Disk Mode (by holding down the T key during startup). That mode, which works on Macs with FireWire or Thunderbolt ports, makes a Mac’s internal drive accessible as an external drive to another computer.

The MacBook Pro has a FireWire 800 port, whereas the Mac mini has a FireWire 400 port. So I had to go to the Apple Store to buy the right cable. At the same time, I made a Genius Bar appointment.

Spoiler alert: The Apple Store no longer carries FireWire cables. So I sauntered to Radio Shack and got one for $35. (Mono-Price sells similar cables for about $5, but I didn’t want to wait for shipping.) At my appointment, the Genius confirmed what I feared: The drive had permanent physical damage. No replacements were in stock; he could order a new one for $180 installed.

I took the laptop and cable home, and hooked the MacBook Pro to the Mac mini. DiskWarrior saw the damaged drive, but reported that it could do nothing. Updating my Twitter friends with the sad news, I checked my backups to verify what I’d be losing—chiefly, a couple days’ worth of work. But that period of reflection proved useful: While I waited, the Mac mini eventually mounted the MacBook Pro’s drive, and DiskWarrior said it could build a new directory for the drive to repair it. Whooping in delight, I directed it to do so.

The lesson: Know your devices’ ports. I could have started restoration much earlier if I had already owned the FireWire cable. And DiskWarrior is amazing.

The Data Recovery

I debated attempting to clone the drive. My TUAW friends and Macworld senior editor Dan Frakes counseled against it: Copying all that data would require accessing every part of the drive, risking further damage. The saner approach was to copy only the data I needed. So I copied the stuff I cared about the most first, putting it on a USB drive connected to the Mac mini. (And indeed, during the copying of some less- critical files, the laptop’s drive failed again.)

As for the rest of my data, I elected to repopulate my new drive (more on that in a bit) piecemeal, from several backups. I restored big swaths of files—including my user Library folder, Pictures, Movies, and Music—from the SuperDuper backup. Then I compared those sets against my CrashPlan backup, and filled in some missing files. That was painstaking work, but I’m glad I did it. I found that one album I had downloaded minutes before heading to the airport wasn’t backed up anywhere. Both Amazon and iTunes let you redownload purchased music; I used iTunes Match to redownload the tracks. Not a big deal.

The lesson: When you’re restoring files or trying to salvage data, start with the most important or recent items first. I’m delighted that I copied the data not backed up elsewhere from my dying drive before it went completely kaput.

The Replacement

At the Apple Store, I had agreed with the Genius’s plan to order a near-identical replacement for my failed 500GB drive. But I wondered whether I’d made the right choice, since solid-state drives are faster and theoretically more reliable.

I called the Apple Store and cancelled my order. Instead I bought a 240GB Mercury Electra 6G SSD from OWC. I installed the drive in about 20 minutes, and then installed Lion by running the installer from my Mac mini with the MacBook Pro again in Target Disk Mode. I then copied data from the Mac mini and from my external USB drive onto the laptop, starting with the apps I needed.

The SSD is a delight. My laptop starts up and is ready in about 15 seconds. Apps launch instantly. It’s almost enough to get me to write 13F a thank-you note. Almost.

The lesson: You can take the sting out of a hard-drive failure by replacing the old drive with a better one.

And installing a replacement drive isn’t nearly as difficult as you might fear.

The Wrap-Up

All told, the results could have been a lot worse. Setting up a backup regimen can be a hassle, but it’s so worth the time and effort. I was especially pleased with Dropbox sync for desktop Mac apps. BBEdit opened on my new drive looking exactly as I’d left it, with all the same open documents. TextExpander and 1Password both noted that I had data available on Dropbox and synced my setups, too.

But I could have done some things differently. First, I need to avoid installing major software while traveling. Second, I should keep my in-progress Mac-based work on Dropbox. Had I done so, I could have more easily restored in a single swoop from my SuperDuper backup, using Dropbox for the differences.

And finally, although I blame 13F for spilling the water on my laptop, I could have prevented the damage. I could have closed the machine when I stood up, or held it as I did so. Next time, I will.

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