MacBook Woe: A tale of a near Mac disaster, averted by good backups

This is the sad story of one man’s MacBook Pro, its failed hard drive, and the aftermath, with some Monday-morning quarterbacking thrown in for good measure.

Mac disasters can happen to anyone. If you haven’t suffered yours yet, the unfortunate truth is that it’s just a matter of time until something goes catastrophically wrong. My Mac terror started, unusually enough, at 30,000 feet in the air. But even if yours occurs considerably closer to sea level, it’s possible that my experience—what I did right and what I did wrong—could help you be better prepared for when things go wrong, and more knowledgeable about what to do in those crucial post-disaster moments.

The Incident

After a week in San Francisco, reporting on Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conferece, I hopped on a Virgin America flight to the East Coast, with the idea of using that airline’s Wi-Fi service to get a little work done during the trip back home. I was lucky: I had the aisle seat, and the middle seat was empty. In the window seat was a woman whose name I never learned, but whose clumsiness I would become all too familiar with. Let’s refer to her as 13F.

Thanks to that inflight Wi-Fi (and my own lack of discretion), I live-tweeted some of 13F’s shenanigans—when she spilled mayonnaise on her iPad, when she bumped her head on her tray table, and when she spilled her freshly-acquired water on my MacBook Pro.

In truth, she didn’t spill much. It was a freshly-acquired cup (which she filled herself from the sink in the airplane’s loo), and it looked like maybe a half a shot glass’s worth of di-hydrogen oxide actually made it onto my laptop’s screen and keyboard as she maneuvered back into her seat. (I’d stood up to let her back in, folded up my tray, and deposited my laptop on my seat.)

She apologized. The Mac seemed fine; I kept using it. I’m an idiot. If your Mac (or other electronic device) gets wet, turn it off right away.

Nearly an hour later, as I finished up a story for this very publication, the MacBook Pro stalled as I tried to save the last 400 words or so. The whole system froze. I shut it down by holding down the power button for a few seconds, gave it a moment, and then restarted it.

That was foolish, too. But at this point I wasn’t thinking about 13F and her spilled water at all; I thought my Mac had locked up for one reason or another, and the Sky-High Spill didn’t even register in my memory. Regardless, the Mac failed to boot up; it would shut down after hanging on the startup screen for about a half minute or so.

The Twitter followers reading along with my in-flight saga suggested that I take down 13F’s contact information, so that I could use it for insurance purposes, or a small-claims filing, or in dealings with the airline. 13F declined to provide her name. But a flight attendant had witnessed the incident at least, and said that she would recollect it if I contacted Virgin, should my MacBook Pro’s problems not have a simple solution.

The Lesson: Even if your Mac (or other electronic device) seems fine after being on the receiving end of a liquid spill, shut it down immediately. Water itself doesn’t necessarily damage your computer’s innards; water interfering with the flow of electricity through its circuite boards does. If it gets wet, turn it off.

The Attempted Fix

There was no simple solution to my dilemma. There was a time-consuming, misery-inducing, costly solution. But I took what I could get.

Back home, I elected to let the MacBook Pro dry out, presuming that it was a small amount of water, and that allowing the machine’s innards to dry out completely might cure what ailed it. How wrong I was.

When I finally turned the MacBook Pro on again, it exhibited the same problems: The startup screen would appear with a progress bar, one akin to the screen you might see when installing a firmware update. And long before the progress bar filled, the Mac would shut itself down. That’s not good.

Now, as I’ve written in previous articles for Macworld, I take backups very seriously and have a fairly robust backup plan to show for it: I use a combination of Time Machine, SuperDuper, CrashPlan, and Dropbox to ensure that my data is backed up in case of an emergency. And boy, did this situation ever count for one.

But at the same time, I’d been in San Francisco all week, with my Time Machine and SuperDuper backups at home. That meant my main backups were a week out of date. CrashPlan, an online backup service, would be more current—but getting at those backups requires either lengthy downloads from the Web, or requesting (at additional expense) a drive with all your data from CrashPlan.

To make matters worse—or at least more complex—I had installed a new version of Mac OS on my computer while in San Francisco. That wouldn’t make restoring from an out-of-date bootable backup like SuperDuper’s impossible, but it would make it less ideal.

My first step, then, was to try to coax data off the seemingly dead drive.

The Lesson: Good backups mean never having to panic. If you still aren’t regularly backing up, stop reading this article for a bit: Sign up for CrashPlan or a similar service, get Time Machine running, or do something else to ensure that when disaster strikes, you needn’t fear crushing data loss.

The Diagnosis

First, I booted into Lion Recovery Mode: I held down the Option key while my Mac started up, and chose to start from Lion Recovery instead of my malfunctioning main drive. (In truth, Lion Recovery uses a partition of your main drive, but in my case, it worked.)

In Lion Recovery, I ran Disk Utility, asking it to repair my main drive. Disk Utility indicated that, in its view, my hard drive was beyond repair. Uh-oh.

I was wading through this mess early on a Saturday, so most of my Macworld colleagues in the Pacific time zone were still asleep. Luckily, a couple Twitter friends from The Unofficial Apple Weblog (Mike T. Rose and Richard Gaywood) were online, and freely offered plenty of advice. This Apple press community is top-notch, folks.

At their suggestion, I plunked down $100 for DiskWarrior ( ) to see if it could repair what Disk Utility couldn’t. Of course, since I could only download the software, I couldn’t attempt to boot by my Mac from a DiskWarrior disk. Instead, I needed to run the software from another Mac—my Mac mini—and boot the MacBook Pro in Target Disk Mode.

I booted the MacBook Pro in Target Disk Mode (which you enter by holding down the T key during startup). That mode, which works on Macs with FireWire or Thunderbolt ports, makes your Mac’s internal drive accessible as an external drive to another computer. Of course, my MacBook Pro sports a FireWire 800 port; the mini instead has a FireWire 400 port. So I needed to go to the Apple Store to pick up the appropriate cable to connect them.

At the same time, I made a Genius Bar appointment, since I figured that couldn’t hurt.

When I got to the (jam-packed) Apple Store, I asked a rep to point me to the FireWire cables. Spoiler alert: The Apple Store no longer carries FireWire cables; I guess it’s all about Thunderbolt these days. Since I had a few minutes to spare before my Genius Bar appointment, I swallowed hard and sauntered down to Radio Shack and picked up the cable I needed for a cool $35. (MonoPrice sells similar cables for about $5. In this instance, I didn’t want to wait for shipping.)

The Genius who examined my Mac confirmed what I feared: The drive exhibited permanent physical damage. Apple had no replacements in stock; he could order a new one for $180 installed.

I took the MacBook Pro home, along with my not-so-cheap FireWire cable, and connected it to the Mac mini, which was running DiskWarrior. DiskWarrior saw the damaged drive, but reported that it couldn’t do anything with it either.

If I didn’t have my old backups, this is when I would have wept. But even though they were stale, I knew I had easy-to-turn-to options available to me, so I elected not to panic. I updated my Twitter friends with the sad news. I checked my available backups to verify what they had and what I’d be losing—chiefly, a couple day’s worth of work, including a nearly-finished video for TechHive that I’d been editing on the plane.

That period of reflection proved extremely 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 reapir it. I whooped in delight and instructed it to do so.

The Lesson: Know your Mac’s ports, and know the ports on your other available computers and drives, too. I could have started the restoration process a couple hours earlier if I had already owned the necessary FireWire cable. And DiskWarrior really is amazing and worth owning.

The Data Recovery

When DiskWarrior finished its work, I debated attempting to clone the drive in its entirety. I knew it was damaged and that I couldn’t trust it, but I wanted a copy of its data. My TUAW friends and Macworld senior editor Dan Frakes all counseled against the clone; copying all that data would require accessing every part of the drive, risking damaging it again or further.

The saner approach, and the one I adopted, was to copy only the data that I needed. So I copied over only the folders containing my most recently-updated files, and I did so in priority order—the stuff I cared about the most got copied first. (I copied data to a separate USB drive connected to the same Mac mini.)

And indeed, at some point during the copying, the MacBook Pro’s drive failed again. Fortunately, that happened only after I had copied off the data I was most focused on. Now it was time to get at the rest of my data. I debated how best to go about restoring my data. I had the local SuperDuper and Time Machine backups, but they were old. Even though I knew I had grabbed the most-recently updated files I needed, I was a bit concerned about losing tiny bits of updated data (say, a photo or two, or a freshly-downloaded MP3) if I relied on those backups alone.

I was confident enough with my backups and my ability to recreate the basic state my MacBook Pro had been in that I decided I was comfortable not restoring in full from my SuperDuper backup; instead, I elected to repopulate my new drive—more on that soon—piecemeal, from several of my backup sources.

I ended up restoring big swaths of files—including my user Library folder, Pictures, Movies, and Music—from the SuperDuper backup. Then I manually compared those backups to my online CrashPlan backup, and filled in some missing files. That was painstaking work, but I’m glad I did it.

Even with all that, I discovered that one album I had downloaded literally minutes before heading to the airport for my San Francisco trip wasn’t backed up anywhere. Both Amazon and iTunes let you redownload music you’ve purchased through them; I used iTunes Match to redownload the tracks. So that wasn’t a big deal.

The Lesson: When you’re restoring data from a backup or attempting to salvage data from a bad drive, start with the most important, precious, or recent data first. I’m delighted that I copied off the bits of data not backed up elsewhere from my dying drive before it went completely kaput. Otherwise that data would have been lost forever.

The Replacement

I had gone along with the Apple Store Genius’s plan to order a near-identical replacement for my MacBook Pro’s failed 500GB drive. (Truth be told, the replacement drive would have been slightly faster than the one my MacBook Pro had shipped with.) But as I drove home, I debated whether I’d made the right choice. The future is in solid state drives—the Retina MacBook Pro and the MacBook Airs all use flash-based storage, which is zipper than traditional hard drives, and theoretically less prone to failure since it has no moving parts.

I called the Apple Store and canceled my order. Instead, I ordered a 240GB Mercury Electra 6G SSD from OWC. It cost $248—more than the $180 Apple wanted for a drive with twice the space. And yet I still pulled the trigger, because I figured some good should come from this experience. I wanted a blazingly fast hard drive.

I was nervous about installing it—I’m decidedly not a hardware guy—but a video walkthrough at OWC assured me that even my clumsy fingers could handle the task. 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.

Once the installation was finished, I began the process of copying data from the Mac mini and from my external USB drive onto the MacBook Pro. I started with the most important stuff—the apps I needed to turn the MacBook Pro into a usable work machine. I’m copying the other data over section by section; as I write these words, nine minutes remain on the transfer of my 80GB Music folder.

And as I’d hoped, the SSD is a delight. This is old news to anyone with an SSD already, but—wow. My MacBook Pro starts up and is usable in around 15 seconds. Apps launch instantly. It’s almost enough to motivate me to write 13F a thank-you note. Almost.

The Lesson: You can take the sting out of a hard drive failure by replacing your old drive with a much more impressive one! And installing your own replacement drive isn’t nearly as difficult as you might fear.

What went well; what went wrong

All told, this could have been a lot worse. As I tell my friends and family, it’s always a question of when, not if, a given hard drive will fail; it pains me how often folks neglect to ensure that they have current, reliable backups. Setting it up can be a tiny hassle, but it’s so worth it: I never once feared catastrophe when my MacBook Pro’s drive went belly up. I knew that, worst case, I’d lose a small amount of data. My most precious data—photos and videos of my family, everything I’ve ever written—were (and are!) safely backed up in multiple places.

I was especially delighted by how great Dropbox-sync is for desktop Mac apps. Some Mac apps can use Dropbox to sync your preferences, settings, and other files—and it worked out great for me: BBEdit reopened on my new hard drive looking exactly as I’d left it on the old one, with all the same open documents, including ones I hadn’t saved manually. Amazing. TextExpander and 1Password both noted that I had data available on Dropbox and synced my setups for those apps, too. Since I started out on the new hard drive only by copying over my old apps, getting immediate access to those apps’ data was a treat.

But there were at least a few things I could have done differently. First off, if you can avoid installing major software on your Mac while you’re traveling, do so. Secondly, I should really make it a practice to keep my Mac-based work that’s in progress on Dropbox. Had I done that, I wouldn’t have worried about the last week’s worth of data; it would have nearly all been synced via Dropbox. Then, I could have more easily restored in a single swoop from my SuperDuper backup, using Dropbox for the diffs.

And finally, though I blame 13F for spilling the water on my laptop, I could have prevented it. I could have closed the laptop when I stood to let her in, or held it as I did so. It didn’t occur to me to do either. Next time, it will.

[Lex Friedman is a Macworld staff writer.]

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