Surviving a ‘Crash’, a cautionary tale

[Note: Although this is a story about an Apple iMac, the lessons learned equally apply to other computers. Hardware is hardware and it will fail sooner or later; only the names of programs and fixes vary.]

It started on my desktop computer screen with the repeated appearance of a spinning rainbow wheel replacing my cursor. I knew that meant the computer was busy doing other things than looking after what I wanted to do—not something normal for an Apple iMac to do. As this spinning wheel took up more and more of my time, I went to my Apple Utilities folder and launched Disk Utility, which in the past has repaired software problems affecting the efficiency of my machine. This time the program informed me the problem was more serious than mere software, and that I should contact a technician.

I’ve owned various computers over the last 30 years and am well aware of the consequences of a hard-drive crash. But I was using an iMac with its highly touted backup program Time Machine on board. I had invested in a competent and large external hard drive and I had set Time Machine to regularly backup my entire system to that drive. If I was truly experiencing a hard drive crash, it should only be an inconvenience, not a disaster, right?

Wrong! When the machine allowed me to check my Time Machine back-up files, I was shocked to see that the last backup was sometime during November of last year. How could that be? On checking my Time Machine settings, I found it was turned off. I had not been regularly backing up my data.

Now was the time to panic. In desperation, I turned Time Machine on and requested an immediate backup. As I watched the Time Machine icon spin (which I had to admit I had not seen in a while), I wondered how or why I would have turned the program off. It just didn’t make sense. Then I checked the date on which I had upgraded my operating system to Apple’s new Snow Leopard. Yep, November of last year. The upgraded system had turned off Time Machine and I had not checked the settings since.

Worse, Time Machine was now slowing down to a crawl if running at all. It was failing to complete the current backup. I was clearly into a hard-drive crash and I might lose much of what I had created over the last eight months. That’s not completely true, I told myself in an effort to calm down and face reality. As I said, I’ve been working with these machines for a long time and don’t rely on just one backup system to save my bacon. I regularly back up my current working files to memory sticks and my photographs to CDs and DVDs. I would not lose it all (especially current projects), but I would lose a lot of archive stuff that often comes in handy.

However, my immediate concern was the crash. When I purchased the machine over two years ago, I did purchase Apple Care which insures the machine against defects for three years. So, I phoned Apple and after the technician quizzed me about the problem, he made an appointment for me to take my machine into the local Apple Store. Long story short, my hard drive had truly crashed and Apple replaced it without charge (more than covering the one-time premium for Apple Care). However, the techs (called Geniuses at the Apple Store) could not salvage my data. Instead they referred me to another store in Edmonton (West World Computers) where I was told the techs there might be able to raise my data from the dead hard drive.

This I did and for the price of $100 the West World techs recovered almost all my data (the important stuff, anyway). So, over the last few days I have been rebuilding my new drive. It came with all the Apple programs already on board; but of course I have many additional programs (e.g., Microsoft Office, PhotoShop) that were not replaced, and I had to reinstall them from their original disks and update them from the Internet.

Now as I do this, I’m continually reminding myself that if I indeed had kept Time Machine running over the last eight months (or just the day before), I would have been able to completely rebuild my new drive with just the click of a mouse. That’s the beauty of Time Machine, it records a complete copy of your machine and updates that copy on an hourly basis. So, if Time Machine had been running when the drive crashed, I would have lost at the most only 59 minutes of data, and I would have been able to completely restore my hard drive including all my current programs—again, making a hardware crash more an inconvenience than a disaster.

Lessons Learned:

1. Have your backup program running and ensure it is indeed backing up your data and if possible your entire system. Don’t rely on what should be happening but what actually is!

2. If available and reasonably priced (e.g., significantly less than the cost of a replacement hard drive), purchase additional warranty (insurance) against defects when you buy a new computer. Most companies warrant their machines for a year but is that long enough? Remember you’re not only betting your computer will fail but also that you will fail to back it up. The purchase of additional coverage is a personal choice but in my case it was a good choice.

3. Don’t rely on one backup system. Yes, programs like Time Machine are great but stuff happens. An external hard drive is another piece of hardware that can likewise crash or corrupt files. Regularly backup current work to an additional disk, memory stick or Internet site and archive on CDs or DVDs other work you cannot afford to lose. Take the time and do it regularly. (I daily backup current work to a memory stick, and once a month backup my photos and important archive files to CD.) Sooner or later, you will need to use one of those backups.

Note: I thank the techs at Apple, the Apple Store and West World Computers for being courteous, timely and most helpful. They sought to understand my problem and seek solutions. Such customer service is most appreciated.

So, what’s wrong with that?

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About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I wrote a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine, and have published articles for several other magazines.
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2 Responses to Surviving a ‘Crash’, a cautionary tale

  1. avb3 says:


    I have gone to an online solution years ago, after I started having issues with my external hard drive. For when I have to use Windows, I use MozyHome, and it has worked flawlessly.

    Most of my computing is now done “in the cloud”, (Gmail, Google Apps, and my own accounting software) but for my computers I use a dual boot Windows (virtually never) and Ubuntu Linux solution. The Linux back up I use is SpiderOak, which has a Mac OS X module at . The first 2 GB are free.

    Great article by the way.

    Andy von Busse

  2. Don Meredith says:

    Thanks, Andy. I would love to do more “cloud computing” but my only access to high speed is through a Telus air card that charges me for the amount of data I transfer. So, I use sites like Drop Box (1st 2GB free) to backup my current work projects but I can’t afford to do large transfers. Parkland County is threatening to have cheaper high speed out here by the fall, but I’m not holding my breath.


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