Saturday, June 1, 2013

Lessons From An iMac Hard Drive Failure

I need a new iMac.  It's just that I don't want a new iMac yet. When the hard drive on my  24" iMac from 2008 failed last weekend, it was either find a work around or plunk down hard dollars on a new machine. I chose the former and not the latter.

I keep my gear for as long as practically possible. For example, my 2002 PowerBook G4 sits triumphantly on an ottoman-style cushion in the living room. It's in pretty much daily use for light web surfing and other basic tasks. I want to keep my current iMac in service until at least the next iMac refresh expected in the fall.

I follow the tech market closely and in particular I follow Apple. Before I replace my iMac with a new one, I want the latest Intel chipset and whatever incremental upgrade to the discreet graphics card that may come in the next refresh. In the meantime, I had to replace my iMac's hard drive and restore my user accounts, applications and data as quickly as possible. I decided to use an external drive to restore my data and extend the useful life of the iMac.

A Quick Trip To An Apple Retail Store
Because the drive's failure was caused by a physical disk problem and not corrupted data, neither Apple's disk utility or Alsoft's Disk Warrior could access the drive. Rather than deal with the hassle of installing a new internal drive, I purchased a LaCie 500GB Rugged Hard Drive with FireWire 800 and USB 3.0.  Although the 2008 iMac doesn't have a USB 3.0 port, I determined FireWire 800 would work adequately until I replace the iMac in the fall and having a USB 3.0 drive around would continue to come in handy.

Time Machine and Time Capsule
For years I've used an Apple Time Capsule for Time Machine backups. It works well despite the sometimes sluggish wireless network performance when big backups commence and there's other traffic on the home network.

Still, having the hourly backup regimen kick-in automatically ensures I won't endure a data loss catastrophe when a Mac hard drive goes bad. Despite the hard drive failure, all of my drive's data remained intact on the Time Capsule. It was restoring the backed up data to a new drive without OS X Mountain Lion initially installed on the drive that created some issues. 

No Mountain Lion, No Easy Restoration
Upgrading to the latest versions of OS X via the Apple App Store is a quick and easy process. Although I should have made a bootable Mountain Lion install disk when I updated all of the Mac's in the house, logging into the App Store to download a copy from Apple for each installation seemed more convenient. Until now...

The Legacy OS Odyssey
With the hard drive gone, I had to start from scratch. The last physical disc I had on hand was Snow Leopard (OS X 10.6). To gain access to the App Store required 10.6.8 but that combined update was not on my Snow Leopard install disc. That was a separate download following the Snow Leopard installation. 

Using the Snow Leopard disc to start the Mac I could not perform a successful restoration of the Time Machine data stored on the Time Capsule. The attempt failed twice. For the third attempt I installed Snow Leopard on the external drive, downloaded and installed the 10.6.8 update via Software Update and downloaded Mountain Lion through the Apple App Store. Because I had already purchased Mountain Lion, there were no additional costs for the download. 

Migration Assistant Versus Time Machine Restore
With Mountain Lion installed on my new external drive I no longer had to perform a full Time Machine restore regimen. I used Migration Assistant in the Utilities folder to bring over my applications, user accounts and documents. This was less time consuming and problematic than attempting to recover the full contents of the failed hard drive. 

Migration Assistant had issues restoring data to a new drive with an admin user name nearly identical to one used previously. To eliminate the problem, I created an admin account on the external drive with a different name than the user account being restored. I logged in through the new admin account and restored all of the users, applications and documents stored on the Time Machine backup.
iCloud image courtesy of Apple

I now consider iCloud a near necessity. Not only does it allow users to share documents across Apple-branded devices, it also provides access to contacts and iCould-based services from any iOS-based device. Even with a hard drive failure on my Mac, I was able to keep current on my iCould email and reference Pages, Numbers and Keynote documents created on my Mac and stored in the cloud.

Lessons Learned
Restoring my data following a drive failure took some work and took a bit of time. There are a few lessons learned from the experience which include:

  1. Time Machine is an effective means to backup and protect data in the event of a hard disk failure.
  2. Creating a bootable installation disk of the latest version of OS X will save time and effort in restoring data to a new drive.
  3. iCloud is essential for remaining productive while remedying a failed Mac hard drive.

Restore Now, Replace Later
Because I work hard to keep my Macs in service for years, I watch for newer technologies to emerge before making a replacement decision. Purchasing an external drive for my 2008 iMac extends the life of the Mac until I choose to replace it. Having a FireWire 800/USB 3.0 external drive comes in handy today and the drive will make it easier to transition to a new iMac later. 

Robert Paul Leitao