Fixing Computers

Turns out when you have to manage and maintain several personal computers for yourself, and you don't have the money to pay other people to fix them, you learn a little bit about hardware and DIY fixing.  Last week I had an adventure fixing a coworkers computer.  Along the way I hit quite a few snags that I thought I'd share in case you ever come across them yourself.  My coworker has a 13" Macbook unibody model A1181, the hard drive of which had crashed.  I took on the task of replacing the hard drive and restoring her computer.  Before I go further, let me say first that this should have been a relatively easy fix....switch out hard drives, install os x, restore from time machine backup.  Unfortunately for me, the "easy fix" turned out to be a tad more complicated.... I got the computer from my coworker and proceeded to take out the hard drive, it came right out.  Unscrewed the drive casing from the old drive, put it on new drive and slid the new drive in.  Here's where the first problem was.  When you install hard drives, you screw in guide screws into the sides of the drive that slot into hard drive guides in the computer.  Normally these are plastic or metal and problem free.  On this particular model, A1181, the guides are rubber that attach to the computer casing with adhesive of some sort.  Well, one of the guides had come loose from the adhesive and bunched up in the casing which prevented the new drive from going in.  It was impossible to get the drive in.  In order to get around this, I had to completely disassemble (instructions here) the computer and thankfully was able to fully access the drive bay that way and get the guide and hard drive back in place.   This was scary because this particular part you can't order, and had this been the problem, I wouldn't have been able to do anything and she would've had to pay apple to do it.  Just buy applecare and the genius' can take care of parts for you, free of charge.

Now that the new hard drive was in place thanks to my disassembly, I reassembled the computer and went to install OS X.  My coworker did not have her restore disks....thankfully I have all of mine for all of my computers so we used one of mine.  I put the cd in the optical drive and here's where we run into our next problem.  The optical drive doesn't work.  If you ever fix someone else's computer, have them be up front with everything wrong with the machine before you start, it will save you time and frustration.  Now we have a do I get OS X onto the new drive if the optical drive doesn't work??

I tried two relatively idiotic, noob-ish things first.  1) I tried using a disk image of the installer disk and running it from an external.  I made a disk image of the installer disk using Carbon Copy Cloner and transferred it to the external with the back ups. Luckily I had an old drive laying around that I took out of a working mac.  Using a hard drive dock, I plugged this hard drive into the dock, and plugged the dock into the old computer via FW 400.  NOTE: Use FW400/800 or USB, preferably FW.  OS X won't bootfrom eSATA and USB is questionable.  Restarted the old computer and held down option (which will allow you to select the boot OS source) and booted the computer from my hard drive pugged into the dock.  Ran installer from external with back ups.  Does not work.  I think you have to transfer the disk image to a flash drive, then boot from the flash drive, in order for it to work, but I didn't have a spare flash drive.  Maybe I should've booted from the external with the disk image...either way, so far my attempts = fail.

2) I tried restoring the new hard drive to go into the old computer using the Disk Utility's Restore function from the disk image and trick the computer into thinking that the hard drive was the installer disk and that everything would be hunky dory.  Wrong.  Doesn't work.  Ok, back to square one.

Next, the working solution....this is what I would have done from the start had I known the stupid optical drive was caput: plugged new hard drive into hard drive dock that is plugged into a working mac with a working optical drive.  Plugged in external hard drive with time machine backups into working mac.  Inserted OS X restore/installer disk and ran it.  Computer restarted and booted from the optical drive.  Followed the onscreen instructions and installed OSX to the hard drive in the DOCK (remember the names of the hard drive on the working computer, hard drive in the dock, and external hard drive with back up... you don't want to write over the hard drive in the working mac or the hard drive that contains the backups).  After OSX is installed, followed the onscreen instructions and restored from Time Machine backup on external USB hard drive.  Voila, the new hard drive in the dock now has OS X and had been restored to the last time the backup was performed.  Then I just took the hard drive out of the dock, installed it into the old computer, reassembled the old computer, and boom, now we have a restored functional old computer.

I got everything working, but it took about 3 times as long as it should have, and my time is pretty sparse and therefore valuable these days.  In finishing, here are some general tips and tips from my experience worth sharing:

1) buy applecare! it sucks at the time, but we (especially we graduate students) rely on computers so much we have to have a functional one, and you can't put a price on piece of mind

2) save your restore disks that come with the computer!

3) back up your hard drive to external drives!  I use a combination of OS X Time Machine and hard drive cloning with either Super Duper or Carbon Copy Cloner.  There's a lot of back and forth as to what's better, but since external hard drive space is so cheap these days, do both to be safe if you have any doubts.  Think of all the time and effort you put into all the data, documents, pictures, music, etc that is on your computer.  You can't put a price on that.  Extra hard drives and the little bit of extra time it takes to back up are WORTH IT

4) if your hard drive is at or near capacity, clear it out or buy another!  full hard drives run a much larger risk of crashing...

5) periodically, go to Disk Utility check health of disk, repair [if necessary], and repair permissions [for os X]

6) restoring a hard drive with an image of the installer disk and trying to boot from that doesn't work

7) simply trying to run the OS X installer from an image doesn't have to boot from it somehow (i think, there are plenty of tutorials out there)