AMITIAE - Thursday 21 February 2013

Questions from Indonesia on a Dying iMac Hard Disk

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


Early Thursday morning I had an email cri de coeur from a former colleague who is now living in Indonesia. He had been away for a few days and when he returned home, the iMac showed a folder with a question mark when he tried to start up. Life is like this: shut down a perfectly running computer in the morning, and in the afternoon when it is restarted, disaster.

In simple terms, the computer could not find the OS X installation, but there are a couple of reasons why this might happen. His location may also be significant as the humidity down there can cause problems with hardware and I have seen mould on old floppy disks that were not stored carefully.

Symptoms and Suggestions

A problem like this may be caused by software corruption. I have no idea how he or the family use the Mac so if it has been shut down wrongly, or if there have been power cuts (always possible in this region) and there is no backup system, like UPS, problems may set in. Forced restarts might benefit from some maintenance, especially if this is done often.

Our computers (even our Macs) are not intelligent. Instructions are given in binary code: zeros and ones. If the computer reads 1 when it needs to see a 0, then things do not work. He did tell me in a later email that there have been "a few quirks in recent months, such as seeming slow in showing desktop icons when booted" so disk corruption is a real possibility.

In normal cases a restart might fix the Question Mark problem, although by the time my friend had written, this had been tried a number of times that morning. In any case, it had been restarted before. I also suggest using the Safe Start: restart the Mac while holding down the Command + Shift keys. In this case all that happened was that a grey screen was shown.

Depending on how bad the problem is, the system can usually be rebuilt, starting with the installed software on the versions of OS X. Lion and Mountain Lion (10.7 and 10.8) have a repair partition. This is accessed by holding down the Command + R keys at startup. A menu system allows a number of tasks to be carried out, including a reinstall of the operating system.

This may be an option, however it is a waste of time if the hard disk itself is the problem. This user was using OS X 10.5, Leopard, but the disk was not immediately available. It is a good idea to keep these safe as they contain applications as well as the operating system. Those using Leopard and Snow Leopard have different solutions starting with the Repair partition.

With the 10.7 and 10.8 Repair startup solutions, there is also a version of Disk Utility. Selecting the Utilities option from the menu allows users to run this application and effect basic repairs. If it does the job, all well and good, but if it keeps reporting faults (in red text), a stronger utility may be needed. There may also be more problems than software.

More Serious Problems

Another reason that the Question Mark may appear at startup is that the hard disk may be broken. If a user is unable to access the Repair partition, this is almost certain. If this happens, or if Disk Utility is not able to make a fix, I also have a version of Disk Warrior. This has got me out of trouble more times than I can remember. I also use it as a tool for preventative maintenance: fixing minor problems before they become big ones, thus keeping the system running efficiently.

I had a similar problem to my emailing friend last year on my own iMac and this was a broken hard disk. As I pointed out then, that machine was a spare I keep in my office. I had no backup (I do this daily on my main work machine), but Disk Warrior, run from an external USB drive on which I have installed OS X, allowed me to rescue the data.

Question If this is to be done, or if an attempt is to be made to repair the disk using external media (e.g. disk, USB drive), the disk should be connected and the computer started while holding down the Command + Option keys. That will display any disk partitions on which OS X is installed.

Working from the external media, it should be possible to run a repair application such as Disk Utility or Disk Warrior and attempt to rescue data if this is not already backed up.

My friend in Indonesia did have a version of Disk Warrior on a DVD and as he tried this there were a number of email messages:

"It is slow."

"Yes, that is normal starting up with a disk."

The icon for version 4.3 of Disk Warrior finally appeared on screen, but as he used the software, he reported seeing the spinning wait cursor after each click as he went through the initial steps of using the application. Sadly, he also reported that Disk Warrior did not see the iMac hard disk: it did not appear in the drop down of what can be analyzed and rebuilt.

Disk Warrior

Final Comments

In the worst case, where nothing is able to repair the problems, users might consider a reinstall of OS X, but if the hard disk really is broken, that is a waste of time. If the OS is installed it will break again sooner rather than later. When my current MacBook Pro had problems a couple of years ago, this was one of the solutions I tried as a fix, but the real problem (as I found out later) was the hard disk and my reinstall lasted a few hours only. A further attempt to reinstall stopped halfway through.

Unless a user is comfortable working with hardware, the usual step if the hard disk is the culprit, is to arrange for a new one, either by buying a suitable replacement and having a technician install the new disk, or by taking it to an Apple store (iStudio here) and letting them do the job.

Hard Disk Local stores (in Thailand) will install a version of OS X, but this will probably have the Admin account named as Apple and the password using the Enter (Return) key only. It is essential that users create a new Admin account with a proper password.

I left my friend preparing to connect his other Mac via Firewire to startup in target mode. He would attempt to rescue some of the data that way. It was not a total disaster however. Although he does not use a daily backup system like me - Time Machine - there were backups on various disks for some important data files, with all email backed up for the last 30 days. Other important reports were also backed up on a website.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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