Working Around and Replacing a Failing Hard Drive

Hard drives die. Sometimes early, within warranty. Sometimes after years and years of use. Sometimes with a little warning. Sometimes with no warning at all. And all you can do is be prepared.

At Low End Mac, we’ve been preaching the importance of backups for years. I’ve managed backups for a network of 80-some Macs using tape. I’ve backed up my own systems to hard drives. And I’ve always had to use those backups at some point, whether to recover an older version of a file or recover a failed hard drive.

I use a two-pronged strategy. I make full bootable backups a few times a year using SuperDuper!, a great and not-too-expensive utility considering what it does. I’ve been using SuperDuper! for over a decade and also use it to clone an old hard drive to a new one when moving to a newer Mac or a larger hard drive. With a bootable system drive, I always have another way of booting my Mac should the hard drive have problems. (Carbon Copy Cloner does the same thing as SuperDuper!, but I’d already purchased SuperDuper! long before CCC added its capability to do incremental updates to the imaged drive.)

I also use Time Machine to automatically backup changed files on my work Macs. With that data, I can recover from the bootable drive and then use Time Machine to bring it up to date. (I used Retrospect when doing network backups. It works similarly to Time Machine, but with a lot more control and a lot more knowledge required.)

My Hard Drive Is Failing

Mac mini, original designI have a 320 GB 7200 rpm Seagate hard drive in my 2007 Mac mini, which is my main production machine and runs OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. The drive has two partitions – one with OS X 10.5 Leopard and a larger one with Snow Leopard and all my work files.

It’s the larger partition that’s failing to the point that I can no longer boot from it. I can boot from the Leopard partition or the Snow Leopard backup. I can run Disk Utility on it, which finds a few obscure problems. But I can’t make it boot from Snow Leopard on the Mini’s internal hard drive.

I need to replace the hard drive, and I’m leaning strongly toward an SSD. The Mini runs hot as is, and a fast-spinning hard drive doesn’t help that. An SSD has no moving parts to create heat. It’s also much faster than a spinning hard drive. And more costly.

By removing some ancient apps and files that have migrated from Mac to Mac to Mac – some since my Mac Plus and Centris 610 days! – I can get everything on the Snow Leopard partition on a 240 GB SSD. I’ll clone the Leopard partition to an external 80 GB drive, as I know I’ll rarely use it on the Mac mini.

Getting By Until Then

Low End Mac operates on a shoestring budget, and we don’t currently have the $100 to buy a 240 GB Samsung 850 EVO SSD, which comes highly recommended by members of our Facebook group and has lots of good reviews. If you’d like to help us fund the SSD, please click on the Donate button on the right!

Until then, I’m clearing an old 250 GB Deskstar drive in a NewerTech miniStack enclosure. Since the Mac mini has FireWire, and because FireWire has higher overall throughput than USB 2.0, I’ve connected the drive using FireWire.

First I’m making disk images of its three partitions using Disk Utility and storing these on an external USB 2.0 3 GB Seagate hard drive. That’s taken two evenings already, and the next step is to reformat the drive to GUID (not the PowerPC compatible APM) with a single partition. Although Intel Macs can boot from an APM volume, you can only install firmware updates from a GUID volume.

The next step will be to clone the SuperDuper! bootable backup drive to the newly formatted hard drive. After that, I’ll use Time Machine to restore everything changed since that backup was made. And then I’ll be able to get back to work using my Mac mini, albeit with a hard drive on a much slower data bus – FireWire had 400 Mbps of bandwidth while the Mini’s SATA bus has 1500 Mbps – so I’ll be losing some speed. Then again, it’s only a 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, so this Mac is no speed demon. (For the record, this is my fastest Intel Mac, along with a 2.0 GHz Aluminum MacBook from 2008, which I’m using to write this.)

Looking Forward to SSD

A local second-hand Apple shop sells used MacBooks with SSDs instead of hard drives, and they claim the difference makes them very competitive with newer MacBooks. That’s an exciting prospect, because this 20 GHz Mini gets pretty slow at times. An SSD should be able to take full advantage of its SATA Rev. 1 bus. Fact is, most SSDs you’ll find today are at least 3 Gbps SATA Rev. 2, and a lot are 6 Gbps SATA Rev. 3, so they have speed to spare on my ancient Mac mini.

All we need to take the next step in $106 in donations to cover the cost of the hard drive from and sales tax. If you can contribute toward that, we’ll be most grateful!

Thanks in advance!

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