December 12, 2010

My True-Life Adventure in Hard Drive Failure

I couldn’t have written this article six months ago. My MacBook Pro had been humming along flawlessly for nearly three years, and I was complacent. But the warnings from other writers (especially Thomas MacEntee of Geneabloggers) to create a back-up system finally took root. Even though I hoped I’d never need it, I decided I couldn’t risk losing everything. Little did I know I was building a lifeboat that would save me just a few months later.

Because this week, my computer's hard drive died. I started getting the spinning beach ball that every Mac user dreads more and more often, and time and again it ground my system to a halt. I thought maybe I had contracted some sort of rare virus or malicious spyware. Frustrated, I made an appointment with the Genius Bar at my local Apple store on Friday. The technician did a diagnostic check and gave me the bad news: my hard drive was going down. The only option was to replace it. Was I backed up?

I swallowed hard and said yes. Fortunately, there was some good news as well. The part was in stock, and a kind soul in the back had offered to do the replacement overnight. I left the store with an empty case and a worried mind. Would the backup really work?

Here’s what I had in place:
1.    Reunion for iPhone: my genealogy files on Reunion were synced to my iPod Touch. Reverse syncing, from the mobile device to the computer, is also possible, so I knew my data was safe. Lesson: if your genealogy program of choice offers a mobile version, get it and use it.

2.    Mozy: over the summer I subscribed to the online backup service Mozy. Although the initial transfer of data was a lengthy process, for the most part it seems to have worked smoothly. So I figured if worse came to worse, I could retrieve my documents, photos, music, genealogy, and other files by requesting a restore disk. Lesson: a cloud backup gives great peace of mind for a reasonable price tag. Though I didn’t end up needing it, this is added insurance, especially in the event of a disaster that could destroy both the computer and a physical backup drive.

3.    Time Machine and a backup hard drive: just this fall, I finally upgraded to the Leopard operating system (Mac 10.5), which includes the backup program Time Machine. I purchased an Iomega eGo portable hard drive formatted for Mac. Time Machine transferred an exact copy of my entire system to the Iomega drive quickly and effortlessly. Since then, I’ve backed up every night before going to bed (you can also set it to run automatically). Lesson: a portable hard drive combined with good backup software is an unbeatable combination. Prices on these drives have come way down; mine cost $70. You literally can’t afford not to have one.

When I picked up my computer Saturday afternoon, the technician walked me through the steps I’d be taking. Turn the computer on. Select my country and language. When prompted whether I want to transfer from another source, select to transfer from Time Machine. Plug the Iomega drive into the computer. Select the drive, click continue, and wait for Time Machine to do its magic. Simple enough.

And it worked! In just about an hour’s time, my familiar desktop picture appeared onscreen, with all the little icons in their right places. Nothing was missing, nothing was changed. All my bookmarks, all my settings, and all my applications worked perfectly. After doing a little happy dance through the kitchen, I went out to eat with my family, celebrating my son’s return from a semester abroad (he was in transit at the same time my computer failed, and I have the extra gray hairs to show for it).

The moral of the story is: it can happen. Chances are, it will happen, and possibly at a most inconvenient time. If you don’t have a backup drive, put one at the top of your wish list, or just buy it yourself. Don’t wait to use it. My husband and kids are getting portable drives for Christmas. In the scheme of things, my experience with hard drive failure was relatively painless—a hiccup rather than a catastrophe. My holiday wish is for you to have the peace of mind of knowing that, should you find yourself in a similar situation, your experience will be as painless as possible, too.


  1. Wow. You don't know how happy your story makes me - not that you suffered a hard drive failure, for I would not wish that on anyone. But that you took the time to do a backup. I'll be featuring your story on January 2011's Data Backup Day posting at GeneaBloggers.

  2. Are you my alter ego? I'm getting a MacBook Pro for Christmas, have a backup hard drive, plus my husband is getting the entire Time Machine setup for all of our computers. The only thing missing is that I don't have an iPhone and haven't chosen between DropBox and Mozy for backup. Oh, yes, and I have a child coming home from a semester abroad.

    This is a good cautionary tale with good recommendations - thanks!

  3. I've escaped hard drive failure so far and hadn't seen the need for a physical backup since I use Mozy. But you sold me! One hour to restore everything - Time Machine it is. Thanks for making it so very clear.

  4. It still amazes me that Time Machine made it that easy, but it did. I connected to the portable drive via the included firewire. It would take longer to transfer using a USB cord, but should work just as well in the end. And Greta--wow, the similarities are uncanny!

  5. Shelley - You saved my sanity with this post. I did get an external hard drive shortly after I posted; did get Time Machine up and running; and did have a hard drive failure this week. Without your post I'd be on day three of what would surely have been a long restoration process. Blessings on you!!!!

  6. You can't imagine how happy I was to read your comment! I'm sorry your hard drive failed, of course-I wouldn't wish that on anybody-but glad my experience inspired you to put things in place, just in case. That was the reason why I wrote the post. It makes my day to know I made a difference to you! Thanks for letting me know.


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