Earlier this week I received a call from a local business client who was having problems publishing a self-maintained website for their store. Although my service call began with troubleshooting a problematic website, the situation promptly escalated to showing symptoms of a serious hardware issue.
At first it seemed like the Macbook Pro owner’s issues were purely related to iWeb and needing to be properly configured for their web hosting account. It wasn’t long before I discovered that her Mac was having issues accessing files from its hard drive. And that’s when it happened…
Upon a system restart, the Mac would not boot past the initial gray screen with Apple logo, spinning wheel and frozen progress bar.
It was quite obvious the computer was not successfully accessing its operating system files but it was too early yet to be sure whether it was due to mechanical issues with the hard drive or motherboard, missing or corrupted files stored on the hard drive. I was going to have to narrow it down before making a diagnosis that could cost the client unnecessary data loss, expenses for hardware or labor.
Obviously if you are stuck at the gray screen of agony, booting past it isn’t an option. But you can boot from your system disc labeled Mac OS Install DVD. To do so, pop it into your optical drive and hold the Alt/Option key while you power up the computer. Keep holding it til you see your boot drive options and then click the Mac OS Install DVD to boot from it. Once past the language selection, you can access utilities from the top menu. Disk Utility is the one you want. When it opens, click on your hard drive in the left column sidebar and the click Verify Disk followed by Repair Disk under First Aid. If your computer completes its process, then it might just be your lucky day. You should now initiate a normal restart to see if your problem has been resolved. But if your situation is like mine, you might get failures indicating the hard drive is unreadable. Pass go, but do not collect $200.
This is when you boot your afflicted machine as though it was an external drive to a healthy Mac. To do so, first turn on your sick Mac while holding down the T key and you will see a gray screen with a large occasionally moving Firewire logo. You can now connect the two computers via firewire cable and boot the healthy computer while holding the Alt/Option key as described above. Your sickly computer’s hard drive in target disk mode should appear as a boot option on your healthy computer. Choose it and proceed. If you are able to boot to it successfully, you can try again to run Disk Utility from Applications->Utilities and to verify/repair the hard drive. If this works without a hitch, again try and reboot your computer normally to see if your problem has been solved. If not, keep reading.
Your Mac will automatically attempt some more gloves-come-off disk repair measures when you boot into safe mode.
In my case this process worked and I was able to boot into safe mode with the affected computer. You can now restart the computer as normal and you will likely be able to boot now, possibly after a brief progress bar display during bootup. If this works for you, you should still be concerned! Even though your computer is working seemingly normally, you should consider yourself blessed (I don’t do luck). If you’ve found my advice helpful so far, heed my next directive: use your extra life to immediately make an entire Time Machine backup onto a reliable clean external hard drive. You will need this if/when your hard drive crashes if you want to recover your documents and/or applications.
Short of sending your hard drive to an expensive data recovery specialist, this might be your last resort for a DIY fix. These solutions may require you to remove your hard drive, use a live boot cd or target disk mode. You should refer to their respective developer’s website for a thorough outline of the process.
In any case, there is a reason your hard drive is having these issues. Replacing your hard drive very soon should be your plan especially if you have a hard drive more than 3 years old and you don’t have a strong hunch that you caused your own issue in any way.
I recommend Seagate Momentus 7200 RPM hard drives and I use them in my own and client’s machines. Replacing my original Hitachi hard drive (which had incidentally NOT failed, but was critically full at only 160GB) truly breathed new life into my Macbook Pro. Not only did it provide tons more storage space for me, but the 7200RPM performance and larger 16MB cache has greater responsiveness and performance.