A crash course into Mac recovery for Windows users and other dummies

A while ago I posted on taming a Mac to do Visual Studio development, including the settings to completely satisfy Resharper. We’ve been a happy couple since.  Until recently, when I lost my Macbook’s disk drive. It took me some time to find out what was wrong. OS X has no blue screens, it just shows a beachball (spinning pizza’s), due to the smoothness of the OS it took time to pinpoint the problem to the physical disk itself.

It is a legend that OSX is simple, diving into the internal workings you will meet a complete Unix system with all the endless list of mysterious parameters. It is also a legend 3d party tools have nothing to offer not included in the OS. Onyx is free, quite nice and integrates Unix documentation. Nevertheless nothing helped to fix the problem. The day my Mac would no longer boot I had to try to salvage some last pieces of work and planned to replace the disk.  Which was, in the end, quite easy but my experience with Windows machines was, in the beginning, not the best place to start.

The first try was to boot from the original install disks. Doing that the Mac beeped loudly and refused to do anything else. As it turned out you cannot boot a Mac with a disk containing another version of the OS than the machine’s latest version. OS-X 10.7 and 10.8 come as internet downloads. The upgrade made the install discs useless.

When choosing where to boot from (hold the option key when switching on) several options turn up :

  • Boot from the mac’s volume
  • Boot from CD
  • Boot from the recovery disc
  • Boot from the internet

The recovery disc is a second volume on the hard disc. In case that volume is also unreadable booting from (Apple’s servers) on the internet looks quite interesting. I have not tried that myself as my recovery disc was still readable.

The recovery disk offers the opportunity to reinstall the OS from the internet. It communicates with the Appstore and your Mac’s ID, no need to buy a new license. Unlike Windows there is no option to reinstall without preserving anything on the disk. I still needed a way to salvage my data.

The good thing is that you can install OS X on any volume attached at boot time. I plugged in an external USB drive and installed OSX there. Which resulted in a perfect working Mac with the original broken internal hard disk mounted as an extra volume. It was readable although it took a lot of patience to wait for the results. After copying my lost data (a complete VMware Fusion virtual hard disc) it was time to replace the disk drive itself.

A modern macbook looks pretty closed but replacing the internal hard drive is easy provided you have the right screwdrivers. As a new drive I took an SSD.  Best thing ever happened to the Mac. Especially a disc intensive app like VMware Fusion shines with that.

Reinstalling apps on a Mac is a no brainer. As there is no registry or anything like that it is a matter of copy and paste. An app like Monotouch needs some attention due to its many dependencies on other software. It cannot be installed more than two times. The good thing is that it did not consider the new disc as a fresh installation. The Mac is identified by something independent of disc or OSX installation. Soon everything was up and running without any trouble.

In the end I wish I had known all of this before. Or had an open mind on things possible instead of one narrowed by the way things work with Windows.

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  • DevelopIntelligence

    Going from Windows to Mac (or vice versa) is always an interesting transition. We get so used to how one “works” (or how we have to do things to make it work) that sometimes we miss the easy way out.

  • Anonymous

    Yes SuperDuper, another great 3d party Mac Tool

    I gave up on making full system backups. In my (Windows) experience they don’t help you much. In case of a full crash creating a fresh system is faster. For Windows it’s a matter of inserting the Windows disk, a couple of clicks, installing VS, R#, Visual SVN, Chrome and LiverWriter and I’m up and running again. As a bonus I have a clean system. Reinstalling OS X proved even faster.
    When it comes to a backup of real data I fully rely on a storage server doing a daily backup to an external server. Even if my house burns down I still have my data. When it comes to backing up program sources I fully rely on Subversion committing to my storage-, or the external- project server
    What happened in the story is my disk crashing before I had committed to Subversion. The amount of time it took to restore the data was actually longer than it would have been to redo the work. But I learned a lot more :)

  • http://bob.archer.net/ PilotBob

    Shame on your for not having a backup of your system drive. Using SuperDuper you can make a full, bottable hard drive backup on an external USB drive. When you hold down Option you can choose that image to boot from and work happily away. You can also restore you drive to this state and then use your Time Machine backups to get right up to date.