Fatal But Survivable: A Hard Drive Transplant Story

OK, here goes another computer (Mac) problem and tech-support story. It could be useful for a few people that wonder what they would need to do if they had to replace a hard drive that had both Mac OS X and a Boot Camp Windows partition installed on it. Other than that, it is a story of persistence in the face of frustrating hardware and human error, ultimately resulting in a successful restoration—improvement even—because the customer support came through in the end. Some people evidently like such stories, and this is for them as well. Those only interested in procedural details of restoring a Windows partition on an Intel Mac should feel free to skim.

My previous efforts in the Pournellian genre of computer problem personal narrative (Boot Camp? I Was Ready to Punt and Vista on My MacBook Pro Is Hot—Boiling Hot!) continue to be the most frequently read (or visited, who knows if they are read?) of all the posts to this blog. There are evidently quite a few people out there searching the web for “hot vista macbook pro” and such each day, presumably because they have encountered the same problem or, let’s say, unexpected behavior I did.

This story begins with my decision to go ahead and upgrade the Mac OS version running on my MacBook Pro from 10.5.2 to 10.5.4. I’d waited a while and hadn’t seen any horror stories not connected with exotic configurations, so I figured it was safe to upgrade. Following my usual procedure, I launched Disk Utility in order to repair any file permissions that had somehow been altered. I don’t know how file permissions get changed, but some do, and everyone says you’d better repair them before you upgrade your system software.

Uh-oh. Major uh-oh. Disk Utility literally used red letters to impart the following message: Fatal hardware error detected. It also advised me to back the disk up pronto (if it was still working at all) and replace it. Except for being a little bit noisy, which was nothing new, my hard drive had not shown any signs of going bad. Well, maybe those files that couldn’t be copied at the time when I was first installing Boot Camp were a sign I hadn’t recognized. Still, I was hopeful that a google search on the message would bring up some well-documented cases of that message having been bogus due to some known fixable cause. No such luck. I tried booting from my original Leopard installation disk and running Disk Utility from there and obtained the same alarming message.

I immediately backed up what seemed my most crucial files onto three DVDs. When I say immediately I mean I started immediately. Anyone that backs up to DVDs will know it is a time-consuming process. The files seemed to copy all right, so I shouldn’t be facing total disaster if the hard drive totally stopped working.

Merely having those crucial files backed up would not be enough to get me back to normal though. I needed a complete copy of my hard drive with all applications and user setup info just as they were. I used to use Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC) when I had a smaller hard drive on a PowerBook, but I didn’t have an external drive big enough to back up my MacBook Pro’s hard drive and I wasn’t completely sure about how I would use CCC to restore my drive’s contents to a new drive anyway.

It was clearly time to buy a new external hard drive and start using Time Machine, Apple’s own backup and restore solution, which was supposedly the greatest thing about Leopard (OS 10.5) anyway. I learned online that I could restore from a Time Machine archive to the internal hard drive after booting from a Leopard installation DVD. Not wanting to wait even until the next day, I drove to the Cambridge Micro Center and got there about fifteen minutes before closing time. After a quick walk through the generic PC areas, I decided I should just go see what the Mac section had. Sure enough, there was an external hard drive section which included boxes proclaiming Time Machine compatibility, which probably wasn’t an issue anyway, but eliminated any doubt. I grabbed a 500 gigabyte Iomega drive, which only cost about $170 and headed for the cash register, forgetting I’d sworn years ago never to buy anything from Iomega again after the trouble I’d had with their cartridge drives.

As promised, the drive box included a Firewire cable, albeit a rather short one. I connected the drive to my MacBook Pro, started it up, and then clicked on the Time Machine icon on the Dock. This allowed me to choose the new external drive as my Time Machine backup drive. So far, so good. The spacey Time Machine user interface was annoyingly mysterious, and backing up and restoring a hard drive is not something I want to experiment with. So I haven’t even looked at the big-screen Time Machine interface again, but I’ve been able to use Time Machine without it. There’s a good old-fashioned menu that drops down from the Time Machine icon on the menu bar, and that enables me to choose Back Up Now, which is all I’ve needed it for.

I can’t remember how long the backup took, but it was pretty fast for 65 gigabytes or so. I was now realizing that the Time Machine backup did nothing for my Vista system in the Boot Camp Windows partition. OK, that’s what Winclone is for, right? I ran Winclone again and used it to make a new image of the Windows partition. To save space, I trashed the old one. Then I ran Time Machine again, so that I would have the latest state of the Vista partition backed up.

Since the full Time Machine procedure had been completed without any complaints, I felt pretty confident that I had a full backup in place. Now I had to face the reality of my need to get a new internal hard drive installed, First step: call AppleCare. When I entered into the Apple Lease on the MacBook Pro, I decided I had better get AppleCare. After more than two years, this was the first time I was having to use it, not counting the time I called for advice of what to do about the Boot Camp Setup bug in 10.5.2 related here. Based on my recent experience with a number of machines, I’d say that the lifetime of the hard drive in a Mac laptop (Sorry, Apple, notebook—so it’s OK to be hot) is only a couple of years, which hasn’t always been the case. Better get AppleCare with a MacBook or MacBook Pro and back up your data regularly. Anyway, I called AppleCare, and the guy I got assured me that the Disk Utility message was infallible. He assigned me a case number and recommended I take it to an Apple Store, though he couldn’t say whether they would do the work on-site or not.

I just wanted it done quickly, since my backup computers were missing the latest apps and data, and I didn’t want to fool with new installations and data transfer if I could avoid it. I called the Cambridge Apple Store (annoying menu of options—mainly trying to get you to hang up and go online instead—you have to listen to when you call an Apple Store) and the person I finally reached said they did not do repair work on-site. It seemed they would send it off to Apple. I asked if she knew whether the big new Apple Store in Boston did the work on-site, but she didn’t.

I remembered a small Mac repair shop in Roxbury. They had done good work in installing a hard drive in my wife’s iBook after its hard drive had failed. That work hadn’t been covered by AppleCare, but I had noticed they were an Apple certified repair shop. I sent them an email asking if they did AppleCare and if so how long a hard drive replacement would take. The reply was succinct: “Apple cut us when they opened up the big Boston Apple Store…we are dead!” I was sorry to hear this since the place seemed one that might have opened in the days of the original 128K Mac, or at least the Mac Plus, and looked like a Mac repair shop right out of Dickens if you can imagine such a thing.

That news strongly implied that the Boston Apple store did repairs on-site. But Micro Center does Mac repairs too, and a hard drive replacement is a straightforward operation with no diagnosis required. Micro Center was a little more convenient for me (I knew how to get there), so I thought I’d check them out. First I called AppleCare again just to make sure Micro Center could handle the job. Yes, they could, though they would not be able access the case number; but the serial number would be enough to verify AppleCare coverage.

Then I called Micro Center and asked to speak to the service department. Rather than transferring me there, the guy on the other end of the line asked me what I wanted to know and answered my questions himself. His answers were yes they did AppleCare work on-site, and a hard drive replacement would probably take about twenty-four hours. Great! Off to Micro Center. After a fairly long wait in line I reached a person who heard my story and then took the MacBook Pro out of sight into the repair area. She came back after several minutes to tell me that it would take a few days because they would have to send the computer to Apple, as they didn’t do the hard drive replacements themselves. She suggested that I take it to the Apple Store, where they would do the work on-site. As they say in Italy: pazienza! Since the person I was talking to was not the one that had misled me, I managed to walk back out to my car without blowing my top, having learned this lesson: consider no one else but Apple for AppleCare repairs.

Back home, I called the Apple Store in Boston. The person I talked to wasn’t sure about the turnaround time, but I would have to make an appointment with an “Apple Genius” in any case. Just go online and sign up. Fortunately my computer still worked despite the fatal diagnosis. I made an appointment and then, after one last incremental Time Machine backup, jumped on the “T” (the MBTA subway/trolley system in the Boston metropolitan area) to head for the Back Bay store. The online map indicating the location of the Boston Apple Store was a little misleading, so the walking part of the trip took longer than it should have, but I was only a few minutes late and got to see a Genius pretty quickly. The last hard drive of the right size in the shop had been allocated to another repair, so they would have to order one but should get Saturday delivery of the drive (this was Thursday afternoon) and have the replacement done by Monday. Not bad, since I was going to be out of town until Monday afternoon. Taking advantage of the fact that the MacBook was going to be cracked open anyway, I asked if they could also take a look at the fans since I had a lot of fan noise when they really got going.

Sure enough, when I returned to OnScreen Science, Inc’s Intergalactic Headquarters Monday, there was a phone message waiting to tell me the computer was ready for pickup. Just to be certain about the procedure, I called the store before going to get it. No Genius appointment necessary. Good news at the Apple Store: not only did I have a brand new hard drive; they had determined that one of the fans was bad and had replaced it! I would probably never have brought it in just for a fan replacement, so this was a big bonus for someone that hates unnecessary computer noise.

Back home with my MacBook Pro, I followed the procedure outlined for restoring the old system. Connect and turn on the external drive serving as the Time Machine archiver. Start the computer up with the letter C key held down and the Mac OS X install disk in the drive slot in order to boot from the DVD. Pretend I’m installing the system software, but at the earliest opportunity switch over to restoring from a Time Machine archive. Wait while the long transfer takes place, then restart and cross my fingers. It worked! The next step was to once again make a Boot Camp Windows partition.

Uh-oh. What happened to my empty disk space? I’m showing only about 8 gigabytes as free, when before I had about 12 free after 17 had been allocated to the Windows partition. I’m short 20+ gigabytes. My first thought was that somehow everything had reverted to the ghost of my original attempt to partition my old drive into Mac and Windows parts. This didn’t really make sense, but the Boot Camp hangup was my only prior experience with disappearing disk space.

The answer turned out to be more straightforward. The AppleCare folks had replaced my original 100 gigabyte drive with an 80 gigabyte one. There were evidently two editions of the machine, and I had leased the top-of-the-line one with the bigger drive and more VRAM. Perhaps the Boot Camp partition had thrown them off. I called AppleCare again to see how to proceed. The AppleCare guy I’d talked to in my initial inquiry had had a very strong Southern “country” accent, I’d call it, but he was loud and clear and easy to follow. This second guy spoke without sufficient variation in pitch and inflection for me to be certain whether he was muttering while he thought out loud or giving me instructions on things to do on the computer. I eventually determined that they were all instructions, but I still had to ask him to repeat them most of the time. It seems he just wanted to verify what I had actually gotten installed. It was clearly a mistake, and he gave me a new case number.

I went through the now familiar process of making a Genius appointment online, backing up with Time Machine again, and heading to the Back Bay with my MacBook Pro. The “Genius,” who by chance happened to be the same one I had seen before, was apologetic, and I vaguely remembered having heard him say 80 gigabytes, which means I should have been on my toes more also. One piece of good news was that, since there was nothing wrong with the drive currently in my computer, they could just make an image of it and then transfer it onto to the new drive, saving me the long step of restoring by means of Time Machine.

By the time I got home, having left the computer in Apple’s care once more, someone had already called from the Apple Store with a question, which turned out to be would I rather replace my original 100 gigabyte, 7200 rpm hard drive right now with a 120 gigabyte, 5400 rpm drive or wait a couple of days to get a 200 gigabyte, 7200 rpm drive. The question was being asked because the 5400 rpm drive would represent a step down in speed from what I’d had before. Having no immediate critical need for the machine, I opted for the bigger drive, which took a day or two longer than I’d thought it would, but was installed about nine days after my original bringing in of the computer for the first try. The Apple Store was open on the Fourth of July, and that was when I got it.

As an aside, let me say that four visits to the three-storeyed Boston Apple Store left me feeling a bit like I’d been inside the headquarters of a cult, some kind of cool technology cult. I’ve been mainly a Mac user for over twenty years, but there was something a little disconcerting about the large numbers of young (non-genius) Apple employees walking around the store wearing color-coded tee shirts (dark blue shirts for “Creatives,” light blue ones for “Specialists,” and orange ones for “Concierges”) and continually asking you if you were finding what you needed etc. I mean service is great compared to what Apple used to get in retail stores it didn’t operate, but the combination of the smiling kids and the colored tee shirts made me half-wonder if Apple hadn’t hired one of the Rev. Moon’s organizers as an adviser. Just joking—Steve Jobs doesn’t need advice on cult creation and maintenance. Let’s just be careful not to start worshiping these machines, no matter how powerful and elegantly packaged they may be, nor buying them just to be part of the cool technology cult.

With my new hard drive installed I felt I was in good shape to make a Windows partition, as there were over 120 free gigabytes to play with. First I used Boot Camp Setup to partition the drive, allotting 32 gigabytes for Windows. With all that hard drive space available this was not really a test of whether Apple has eliminated the bug that made disk partitioning impossible with Boot Camp Setup on a fragmented disk. Now came the big test. Would simply using Winclone to copy the old Windows partition’s contents into the new one be enough? I fully expected it would not, having read many tales of users having to go to Microsoft for permission to install Windows again if the system it was running on changed in any way, including the use of a new hard drive.

I launched Winclone and set it to restoring from the saved image to the Windows partition. It seemed to work OK. Now to start up under Windows if possible. This is where I expected Microsoft storm troopers to intervene. Windows seems to get underway properly. Now chkdsk wants to check everything about the Windows file system. That doesn’t take too long, and soon I am looking at the Vista login screen. I enter my password and everything is totally normal (allowing that running Vista on a Mac can now be considered normal). It worked! Winclone is a great solution. I owe them another donation, and I mention that here so I won’t forget.

In summary, with the help of Apple personnel, the Mac system software, and the very useful program Winclone, I was able in about nine days to move in an indirect path (with some backtracking) from a doomed hard drive to a new one with twice the capacity, while incurring no data loss nor additional monetary cost. In addition, I now have quiet fans. No more model airplane propeller noise! I was able to reinstall my Windows system without any headaches and with almost twice the original amount of disk space allocated to it. I should add that Disk Utility alerted me to the problem (always assuming there really was one) before it had started to cause data loss etc.

So, despite some unhappiness with the unreliability of Apple notebook hard drives these days and one or two Apple employee errors along the way, since rectification was prompt, and the end result was very good, I am satisfied. AppleCare and the Mac’s disk-maintenance and backup software came through very well. Human error can never be completely eliminated. The support system works efficiently, and that’s pretty impressive.

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