Strong opinions, weakly held

MacBook disaster recovery

A couple of weeks ago, I set a magnetic money clip on top of my MacBook, killing the hard drive pretty much instantly. It made a funny grinding noise, the beach ball spun, and that was it. The hard drive never had a chance.

Fortunately, I have been backing up my Mac regularly with Time Machine, and I had a backup that was only a week or so old. I do nearly all of my work in version control or in the browser, so the only thing I stood to lose was a few tracks I had purchased from the Amazon.com MP3 store.

All I had to do was replace the hard drive and restore the backup.

First, I had to buy a new hard drive. Hitachi’s 7200 RPM notebook hard drives are the most highly regarded, but they were out of stock at Amazon, so I bought a Western Digital 320 gig hard drive instead.

Installing the hard drive was easy. Macinstruct describes the process as challenging, but it took me less than 15 minutes.

I have two different Leopard DVDs, and I couldn’t get the MacBook to boot from either of them (I still don’t have any idea why). So I booted from the OS X 10.4 CD, formatted the new hard drive, and installed the OS. Then I booted from the Leopard DVD (again, I have no idea why it didn’t work before but it did work after) and upgraded to Leopard.

At that point, I realized that restoring from Time Machine was something you have to do after booting from the Leopard install DVD. So I rebooted from that DVD again, and restored the Time Machine backup.

When I rebooted after the restore was complete, the MacBook started rebooting over and over and over. It wouldn’t even boot into single user mode. So I rebooted from the Leopard DVD again and used the Disk Utility to repair the disk and the permissions. There were no disk issues, but there were a few file permission issues. It fixed those, but when I rebooted again, the reboot cycle started all over.

At that point I was at a bit of a loss. I thought the problem may be a corrupt operating system, so I booted from the Leopard DVD and reinstalled the OS in Archive and Install mode. That failed, complaining that it couldn’t copy my user directory.

I figured my last shot was just to install a fresh copy of Leopard and manually copy my files from the backup drive. Before I did that, though, I tried running a Time Machine restore again, and this time it worked, restoring my machine to the state it was in before I destroyed the hard drive in the first place.


Time Machine works, but not incredibly well. Life would have been easier if I’d had a backup created using Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper. I could have booted from the backup drive and restored to the new hard drive.

Had the MacBook been my only computer, the whole ordeal would have been incredibly stressful. It took me several days to get the new hard drive, and the restoration process was abetted by having another computer next to me that I could use to look up answers to the questions I ran into.

If I had to depend on the laptop for my day to day work, I’m pretty sure I’d keep my Time Machine backup drive and add a second external hard drive to the mix with a disk exactly like the one in the computer. I’d run Time Machine full time (as I do now), and make a supplemental backup to the second external hard drive weekly with a full system backup utility. Then in a disaster scenario, I could just swap out the dead hard drive with the second backup drive and experience zero down time. Large laptop hard drives are less than $100, and you can get an enclosure for $20 or $30. That’s not a high price for insurance.


  1. I don’t use a Mac, but my buddy who does swears by the (free) “Applejack” tool for fixing up permissions and other system bits:


    He says that OnyX is a must-have too:


    Me, I still use Fedora…

  2. I currently use Time Machine on my work and personal Macs, and have yet to ‘battle test’ them for a full backup. Yet everything I read from you and others points to recommending Super Duper or Carbon Copy Cloner, which is a shame, because what’s the use of Time Machine (other than for individual file recovery)?

    Thanks for your thoughts here. I’m going to to back to SD or CCC in addition to TM.

  3. The fact that the first restore really scared me, plus I like the idea of having a bootable backup.

  4. I’ve used Time Machine before. Actually, I’ve had my life saved by Time machine before. lol

  5. I have this really sophisticated backup system – it consists of a USB memory stick which cost around £5 and a batch job that dumps all my important folders to the stick overnight. I rotate the sticks every couple of days – sometimes simplicity is best!

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