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    Hard lessons learned from hard drive failure

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2009 First published in Business in Vancouver August 25-31, 2009; Issue 1035

    High Tech Office column

    This past weekend my hard drive died. Well it didn’t quite die, but I realized it had been on its last legs for some time, as the system (a not-quite three-year-old Apple iMac) got slower and slower. It still booted (slowly), ran applications, loaded and saved files. But everything involved far too much waiting.

    Like lots of other computer-related issues, this problem could have been software-related. Apple provides a Disk Utility, which can do something called repairing permissions – a frequent cause of Mac problems. It claimed to fix a bunch of permissions, but the problems persisted, as did the permission errors. It can also check and repair the hard drive – it swore it was OK, but I wasn’t sure.

    Next step: having (hopefully usable) backups, I erased the hard drive; reinstalling the operating system should take about an hour. At one point, the installer reported “53 hours remaining.” I let it run overnight. In the morning, it still wasn’t done. There was no way this sort of slowness could be due to software issues since all the software had been cleaned off the drive. That left hardware – a failing hard drive most likely.

    In many systems, replacing a hard drive is a quick-and-easy do-it-yourself project. Apple has made some systems where the guts are easily accessed. This one, however, isn’t one of them. Instead, I took it to Vancouver Apple dealer Simply Computing to let it do the work.

    A 500-gigabyte replacement drive (twice as large as what came with the system): $90. Labour required: one hour. Optional operating system installation: one-half-hour labour. (Yes, I could do that myself, but sometimes paying others is worthwhile.)
    I dropped it off around noon; it was ready by late afternoon. Total cost, about $200. Well done, Simply Computing!

    When it started up, the first thing it asked was whether I wanted to transfer data from another computer or backup. It located my backup drive and found the backup, letting me select the stored user accounts, applications and settings. Half an hour later, it was ready to go.

    Some morals:

    • Despite what some claim, Macs have hardware problems just like PCs.

    • Check for software and file system problems first. But be prepared to have hardware problems. Hard disks fail.

    • Have backups, and test them to make sure they’ll work when you need them.

    • Apple’s models offer attractive design. Too often, though, that comes at the expense of easy repair and upgrade. However, Apple’s Time Machine backup software was easy to use, and building the option to restore into the operating system installation was light years ahead of anything I’ve seen from “the competition.” (It’s also usable if you’re replacing one Mac with a newer model.)

    • It’s easy to grumble about technicians. In this case, all the service people I dealt with were helpful, and the service was effective, quick and efficient and relatively inexpensive.

    • If my system had been on an extended warranty (it wasn’t), the repair would have been covered. On the other hand, the cost of the warranty was about the same as the cost of the repair, and I ended up with a larger hard drive than the warranty would have provided. Is an extended warranty worthwhile? My recommendation: always buy one for notebooks – at least if you get a relatively expensive model. I didn’t bother with an extended warranty for my $350 netbook. But desktops tend to be more reliable. I don’t recommend extended warranties for them.

    • Despite what I just said, hard drives fail – even on desktops. Prepare for computer disaster by having backups. I know I already said that, but it’s worth repeating. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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