Tales from A Hard Drive Crash

Last Saturday night, I turned on my laptop and heard a very weird click-click-click noise.

“Oh, oh – that doesn’t sound good.”

Everything appeared on my desktop as normal but as soon as I tried to move my mouse, I saw the Mac’s spinning colour wheel appear, meaning the computer was labouring.  But unlike other times I’ve seen that wheel, it just kept spinning and spinning (and spinning and spinning…)

I powered down and restarted the laptop but this time, it went to a blank grey screen.

“Oh, oh – that doesn’t look good!”

I tried a couple more re-starts but with the same result.  If I left it for awhile, it eventually went to a grey screen with a blinking folder icon with a question mark on it.  Luckily I also had my iPhone so some quick Googling revealed the very unhappy news that this could be something as simple as the forced restart made the OS somehow lose the system files and just needed to be “pointed” back to where they were after re-booting from a system disk.  Or it could be as bad as a completely failed hard drive.

I wasn’t super-worried since I knew I had a back-up.  But since I use Carbonite, an online service, the realization hit me that a) it would take a crapload of time to download all my files (I think I have about 70GB backed up) and although I didn’t remember what I’d set it to back-up, it was likely 99% data (pictures, music, data) which meant I’d be spending a lot of time re-installing and re-configuring my computer if I ended up with a new hard drive.

It also helped to even *have* my iPhone as that still gave me a lifeline to the Net so I could check e-mail, Facebook, various news sites and so on (because of course, it would be like death to be without Internet for more than five minutes.)

The crash happened on Sunday night and since we were in Weyburn and it was Thanksgiving weekend, there wasn’t much else I could do – all my AppleCare info was in Regina, my system disks were in Regina, a hard drive with a two month old copy of all my files was in Regina.  (That was probably the worst part of this experience – I’d just had a new hard drive installed two months ago – to bring me up from 200GB to 500GB of local storage.  I know hard drives fail regularly and on average, within three years.  But two months?  That’s like winning the anti-lottery!)

Anyhow, we got back to Regina late on Monday afternoon and with some more Googling for solutions (I still consider myself a Mac newbie and don’t know as much about troubleshooting which, when you’re on a Windows machine, are fundamental skills you’re forced to learn!), ended up running the Disk Utility from the original OS disk. (On that Mac newbie note, some of my observations and terminology or error messages I relate in this entry are probably wrong.)

Initially, the first diagnostic I ran with Disk Utility (Fix File Structure?) crapped out after about half an hour and gave some ominous message like “Immediately Backup All Files and Reformat Hard Drive.  Also, Pucker Up!”.  I ran another one (Fix Directory Structure?) and that seemed to make more progress.  (Gotta give kudos to Apple for having very easy-to-follow, step-by-step troubleshooting instructions on their web site.  Try this.  Then try this.  Next try this.  If none of that worked, try this.  Finally, if none of the other seven things worked, yes, Pucker Up and Reformat!)

I re-ran the first diagnostic process again and this time, it ran all the way through with the only report that showed up red being the “SMART Disc – Failing” note.

More Googling and I saw that this was some sort of on-board hardware testing system.  That message essentially meant my hard drive was destined to die but it may be within hours, days, weeks or months.  I restarted the computer and saw my original desktop come up (Yay!  Also Whew!)  so that was good news.  But I didn’t go much further, immediately powering down, not wanting to waste one CPU cycle and deciding I’d leave any further recovery work to the technician at London Drugs where I’d bought my MacBook.

I took it in the next day with the instructions that my main goal was for them to get the data off the hard drive (the tech didn’t agree that a SMART Disc – Failing” message necessarily meant the HD would fail but everything I saw online indicated this was inevitable so I didn’t want to argue) and on to a new one.  He said he’d get to it right away and bonus, since it was within 90 days of them installing the problematic hard drive, both parts and labour would be covered.  (That was good as the thought of paying $80/hour for somebody to replace a hard drive that I’d just paid to have replaced really irked me!)

True to his word, I got a call the following day (today) that my laptop was ready to pick-up.  “Were you able to get all the data over?” I asked, a bit nervously, afraid to tempt fate anymore.  (The tech had also mentioned that you rarely get a “SMART Disc – Failing” message since hard drives tend to crap out immediately and without warning.)   “Yep” he replied.

I brought the laptop home last night, cradled gently in my arms, and of course nothing is as easy as it seems.  Looking at the files, it did appear that all the data was still there.  But when I started running programs I saw some frightening errors.

Firefox started without any signs of ill health but Thunderbird kept giving error messages when I tried to start it.  A fresh re-install solved that and all my e-mail magically re-appeared.  Both iTunes and iPhoto also had problems – iTunes would play all my music but didn’t show any song information – just a blank white screen.  It also wouldn’t allow searching.  iPhoto did something similar – the thumbnails were there but the photos would show up as a black screen when I double-clicked to view them in regular size.  In both cases, I knew the data was there – in iTunes because the songs would play, even if I didn’t see any ID3 info, iPhoto because my screen saver still brought up full-size versions of my photos on rotation.

I initially thought I would use Snow Leopard’s “Reinstall OS but Keep All Settings” option but some further reading indicated this might lose any non-core programs I’d installed.  I also thought about trying to do fresh installs of both iTunes and iPhoto only.  But this had me worried I might somehow lose the databases that underlie both of these programs.  I ended up doing a simple restart just to see if that fixed things.

That didn’t help but after doing a full Software Update including one that was a big OS-type update, the next restart worked and everything appeared to be back to normal including iTunes, iPhoto and pretty much every other program I’ve tested!

And now, for all intents and purposes, it seems like I’m back to where I was a week ago.

I’ve owned probably a dozen computers since 1991 and all have given me grief in different ways – bad memory, a dead cooling fan that needs replaced, a sound card that goes on the fritz, a hard drive that’s acting up.   But I’ve only had one major, no warning given hard drive crash.  I think it was maybe an early Pentium machine running Windows95 (was that the first version that allowed greater than 8+3 filenames?)

In that case, the shop I used was also able to rescue my data but to this day I have filenames on my computer including many of my undergrad essays and a bunch of guitar tab that got converted back to 8+3 files names as part of the recovery process.  Those files should be a constant reminder to me to do a better job of backing up (hey, at least I had Carbonite) but what’s that old saying “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me!”

The moral of the story?  I’m off to Costco this weekend to buy an external hard drive and it will be double-redundancy for me from now on – one local back-up for times in future when I might not be able to save all my data (I consider myself *very* lucky this time around) and I’ll also keep that online backup for the unlikely event of a major flood or fire that destroys my laptop and local backup.

One other thought – I haven’t gone completely to the cloud but am slowly moving that way with a lot of my documents on Google Docs, some of our best photos on Flickr and of course the whole Carbonite backup (anybody use DropBox?  I’ve played around with it a bit and have heard good things from people who really like it) but there are still some things I like having locally for some reason.  E-mail is probably the big one – it’s not that I don’t trust Gmail (okay, maybe a little bit) but I’m still anal retentive enough to want to have the total control of having it locally.  If iTunes eventually goes to a fully streaming model for your music collection, that would make a huge difference and I’d gladly pay $20/month or possibly more if that was the pricing strategy they went with if it gave me unlimited access to all music (if it was just my music, maybe $5-10/month?)  Photos are another one where I find it pretty time consuming to download all to my local machine then re-upload to Flickr or Picasa or whatever – even if they have plug-ins to automate the process.

Anyhow, kiss your computer tonight folks!   You never know when it may want to leave you…

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