Disaster Ends Happily
by Alan Zisman (c)
published in Low
5 August 2009, ZisMac
the Intel iMac on Halloween 2006: Core 2 Duo, 2 GB RAM, 250 GB hard
drive. It let me get in on Apple's shift to Intel processors, gaining
the ability - vital for my Mac2Windows articles - to experiment with
the various ways to run Windows (and other PC operating systems) at
reasonable speeds on Macs.
It's Getting Slow
though, I've been more likely to use a notebook for most of my
computing, and the iMac got taken over by my wife. But recently, she'd
been getting increasingly frustrated with it. Her complaint: It was
taking longer and longer to do simple things - open programs, for
instance. Copy files. Start up.
And she was right. When I came
over and looked, the cute little coloured spinning wheel was spinning
far too often for far too long.
Lots of mysterious-seeming Mac
problems can be cured by repairing permissions. So I booted to my
Leopard install disc, clicked on the Utilities menu, chose Disk
Utility, and told it to repair permissions. (One of the really handy
things about recent OS X install discs is the set of utilities that can
be run without needing to install the operating system. Good design
Disk Utility found a whole slew of permissions needing
repairs - and fixed them. Or so it said.
after restarting, the system seemed just as slow as before. And after
rebooting and rerunning Disk Utility, the same errors were found and
reportedly fixed. Repeat, and the same thing happened again. And again.
Each time, Disk Utility's Repair Disk option reported that the hard
disk was just fine, thanks.
Because I'd had hard disk failures on other systems in the past, I now
run the little free SMARTReporter
is a monitoring system for hard drives intended to predict failures) on
all my Macs - it also reported that the hard disk was okay.
next step was going to be to erase the contents of the disk and
reinstall Mac OS X, applications, and data. Hopefully a new fresh start
would fix whatever was causing both the recurring file permission
problems and the slowdown.
Importance of Backup
good news - the system was set up to use Apple's Time Machine to make
regular backups to an external hard drive. But I've had bad experiences
with backups; even though the Time Machine backup seemed okay, I wanted
a backup to the backup . . . Linda's photos and other documents are too
important to her.
I have a 16 GB USB memory stick that had
enough free space to hold all her stuff, so I dragged her Documents and
Pictures folders to it. On a computer that was functioning normally,
copying 6 GB or so of files shouldn't have taken too long. In this
case, I had to let it run over night.
A Fresh Start
morning, feeling like I could guarantee that I could reinstall Linda's
data, I booted again to my Leopard install disc, and again opened up
Disk Utilities. This time, I went to its partition tab, removed the
existing partition, and created a new one - I didn't want any file
system problems carried over from the old installation. It seemed to
take an excessively long time to format the partition, but eventually
it finished, letting me start a clean OS X installation.
that normally takes an hour or so, when I went to bed, it was about 40%
done - again, I left it to run overnight. In the morning, there was a
warning message that the installation program was unable to copy all
Maybe there's a problem with my Leopard install disc?
Hard Drive Problem?
flawed installation, however, had gone much too slowly; maybe it was a
hardware problem rather than a software or file system problem. I've
replaced lots of hard drives in lots of computers, but I wasn't sure
how to get at the hard drive in this one.
The first generation
of 'slab' iMacs had an easily removable back, making the hard drive,
memory, wireless card, and more easily accessible. But in all the
following models - the ones with the built-in iSight cameras - the guts
were much harder to get to - there's a panel on the bottom so users can
easily upgrade the RAM, but accessing other parts is much more work.
Some time researching online convinced me that I didn't want to replace
this hard drive myself.
repartitioned the drive (again - and just as slowly) and tried the OS X
10.4 "Tiger" disc that had come with the iMac when it was new, though I
didn't think that would be of much use. At the same time, I made an
appointment for the next day at the Genius Bar in my local Apple Store.
Tiger installer ran - again, very slowly. At one point, it claimed it
would need 53 hours to finish the installation. Again, I let it run
overnight. In the morning, it was finished - with Disc 1; it wanted me
to insert Disc 2 to continue the installation. Instead, I gave up,
ejecting the disc, shutting the system down, packing it up, and hauling
it to the Apple Store in Vancouver's Pacific Centre Mall.
The Genius Bar
Genius listened to me explain why there probably wasn't much need to
plug in the computer and turn it on - that there wasn't a complete
operating system installed. After listening patiently as I explained
everything I'd tried, he agreed that the hard disk probably needed
His suggestion surprised me - take it to one of Vancouver's independent
Apple dealers, he said.
explanation - I could leave it at the Apple Store and have the work
done by Apple, but they would only replace my 250 GB drive with another
250 GB drive, and it would probably cost more that if I had it done
I can take a hint - I took the iMac across town to Apple dealer Simply Computing
Agreeing that the issue was probably the drive, the technician offered
me either a replacement 250 GB drive for CDN$80 or a $500 GB drive for
CDN$91. Even though my wife's data needs are fairly modest, for such a
small difference in price I went with the larger drive.
to install the drive: one hour (CDN$80). For an additional half-hour
labour they would install the operating system; by showing them that I
owned a retail Leopard package, they offered to install Leopard - handy
for me since I now have suspicions there may be problems with my
Leopard install disc.
Best of all - even though it was around
noon when I dropped it off, they thought the work would be done by the
end of that afternoon.
And it was! (Kudos to the Simply
Computing techs - and to the Apple Store Genius Bar guy who suggested I
take my repair job elsewhere!)
Time Machine Comes
though I'd carefully made a copy of Linda's documents (etc.) on my USB
memory stick (taking a day in the process), I didn't need it.
I got the iMac home and fired it up, the first thing it asked was
whether I wanted to transfer files from another system or a backup.
Choosing backup, it found the connected Time Machine drive, let me
choose to copy over Linda's stuff (and let me ignore my old user
account), settings, and applications.
All very smooth. Just one
little complaint - the process sat at "One minute remaining:
transferring application support files" for about 20 minutes. Just as I
was about to conclude that it had hung, it finally popped up the screen
reporting that it was done.
After that, it restarted to Linda's
familiar desktop. All her files were in place, the printer printed, the
scanner scanned, and all as it should be. (Well, one minor glitch -
iPhoto wouldn't start until I reran the iLife installer. But all things
considered, getting Linda's stuff restored onto the new hard drive was
- It can be hard to
tell whether a computer problem is hardware-based or software-based. I
spent a lot of time repairing permissions and trying to reinstall the
operating system that was to no avail. Still, it was worth trying.
can be hard to tell whether a computer problem is hardware-based or
software-based. I spent a lot of time repairing permissions and trying
to reinstall the operating system that was to no avail. Still, it was
- Neither Apple's Disk Utility nor SMARTReporter
reported any problems with the hard drive. Nevertheless, that's what
the problem was. Hard drives fail. That's one of the reasons why
backups are important.
- Some Apple systems - think the coloured G3
and G4 towers, for instance - have been designed for easy access to the
components. Other systems - from the original "classic" Mac on - have
been much harder for do-it-yourself repairs and upgrades. I wish Apple
paid as much consistent attention to designing for accessibility as
they do to designing for physical appearance.
- On the other hand,
Apple has done an exceptionally good job with Time Machine and the
Migration Assistant of making it easy to recover from this sort of
problem. Of course, this assumes that the user has backups to restore
It's easy to dump on computer technicians. In this case,
however, when I finally took my Mac in for service, everyone I dealt
with - both at the Apple Store and at my independent Mac dealer - was
helpful, honest, gave good value, and got the job done quickly. I
couldn't ask for more.
- I always purchase extended warranties for
notebooks, but tend not to bother with desktop systems. In this case,
if I had purchased AppleCare for this iMac, the cost of the new drive
would have been covered - this happened 3 months before what would have
been the end of the extended warranty. On the other hand, AppleCare
costs CDN$199 (plus tax) for this system; that's almost exactly what
the repair cost, so I can't conclude that I should have purchased the