It's all in the recovery

I had a hard disk failure the other day. MacBook Pro. Happened without warning when on the phone to client. No warning. Just like a stroke. Sudden, devastating, terminal.

The next day, I’m due to fly out for an EX1 shoot, requiring the transfer of its SxS cards into a compatible device – the MacBook Pro being perfect for this. I do have a backup Mac – a MacBook, but it has no PCI Express slot. And as backup machines go, it can’t really do Colorista, Motion, DVmatte Pro (all require GPU). And so although I have software backups, the hardware isn’t really a backup. So within three hours of the Spinning Beachball of Death, I owned a brand new MacBook Pro 17″.

Lesson 1:
If your income is dependent on a certain type of computer rather than a computer per se, have two of them. Not a posh one and a skivvy one. My backup was a helper, an ‘it’ll do, it can help out’. But if I need to load up a project full of colour correction, esoteric codecs, and (since my main machine is dead and gone) my current copy of Final Cut Pro, a skivvy computer will say ‘no’.

I call AppleCare – I purchased the full-on AppleCare package for my Mac. Sure, they will take it away, replace the hard disk and send it back – without transferring data, so it will be basically factory fresh. This may take up to three weeks. Three WEEKS? Three days would be a disaster. Apple’s response will be ‘just use your backup’. I pay for rescue: if my car breaks down, I call a number, and somebody arrives within an hour or two and gets me going. I thought I paid for this service for my Mac, but no. AppleCare is not the AA. I wanted to turn up at a shop, for some kind person to rip out the old drive, put a new one in, and hand my Mac back with a hard disk I could have in a USB enclosure if it should ever work again. What I got was 30 minutes of phone support reiterating everything I’d spent two hours doing, and a courier firm who always phones when I’m out and doesn’t want to call mobile numbers.

I’ll have the old MacBook Pro repaired, and it will be backup hardware for when my main machine calls in sick.

So, I now have a brand new MacBook with a nearly empty hard disk. I also had loads of backups spread across 30+ hard drives – but I didn’t know which one because in order to use the disk cataloging software, I’d have to install it in the new machine. So I did, and I found a recent one. Great. I attached the hard disk and used Migration Assistant. Oh.

When you set up a brand new Mac, you’re asked to set up a user account, which I duly did. This is me, this is my password. Okay, so it was the same as the previous one, otherwise the new software would be frumpy being on a new Mac and all… But I can’t restore my old self, as I can’t restore my old ‘Me’ over my new ‘Me’. I don’t want to make a new me (Me1 rather than Me) as it sounds so lame to be a secondary also ran on one’s own computer.

So that leads me to Lesson 2:

When in possession of a new Mac, make TWO accounts. The first one is a disposable admin account. Nothing to see, nothing to do. Most importantly: It is NOT personal. Just make it as plain as you can. From that, THEN restore your personal account – your avatar of Macness – into the virgin machine. The funny thing is that this is Computer Administration 101 stuff. Of course that’s how corporate machines are set up. I should know that – I used to do it myself. But somehow, when you’re a one-man-band, the lessons of Big Corporate IT don’t seem to apply. But they do if you don’t want to… Spend the next X hours reducing your brand new Mac with patiently set up software back to its virgin state so you can try again…

Right, so the new Mac is virgin again and as it boots, it swirls the Apple Welcome message. I set up an Admin account. I can now migrate my old entity to the new machine.

This can be done from a Time Machine drive, or from all sorts of third party solutions like SuperDuper (, but then there’s version control. If your backups are spread across many drives to ensure no single point of failure, which one do you use? Well, from personal experience, not the one with the most recent modification date.

I restored from a backup that appeared to be from a week ago, but actually was six weeks earlier than that. Okay, no problem, I thought. I can restore other stuff to make up for the time difference. Email, documents, etc – they’re all done separately, so no problem there.

But here’s the crunch: I’d inadvertently restored from a backup BEFORE a major system change. Thusly, I had re-inherited all the little issues my updates had cured. Due to the time pressure of getting things done now, getting up and running as soon as possible, I had got from hard disk failure and attempts to rescue, to fully operational machine fresh out of shrink wrap in a day. No data loss, no info loss, but…

That leads me to Lesson 3:

Look after your tools like you look after your data. We all back up our work. It’s critical. Redundant backups everywhere. We lose no data. Tools? Heck, I’ve got the DVD install disks. I’ve got the URLs and the serial numbers. My hard disk’s tool kit is backed up every so often – bleah. Whatever. A fresh install cures all.

Fresh installs take time – lots and lots of time. And pain. And frustration. It’s a chance to make the previous installation BETTER by applying learned lessons.

So I restored my data from fresh backups and it’s all good. I restored my tools from a six week old backup, and it’s pants. I inherit a whole lot of dross that I solved ages ago. Back up your tools like you back up your data.

Lesson 4:

I love SuperDuper so much, it’s got me out of nasty situations and helped me no end. I don’t trust Time Machine as I need to know that there’s no silly gotchas in the restore process. But here’s the kicker, folks: If I had Time Machine running on a cheap USB drive when I was working at home (SuperDuper does the abroad stuff), I’d have saved the four hours it’s going to take me to reinstall FCS, Leopard and the rest to make my tools work as they should ‘out of the box’.


  • If you earn money from your Mac, own two of the same (or thereabouts)
  • Always have two accounts on your Mac: You and Admin
  • Don’t get obsessive about backups – get regular about everything
  • Time Machine is better than it looks


But on the other hand, my new machine was budgeted for, has twice the RAM, twice the Hard Disk, twice the GPU. Sorry I didn’t get a maxed out iMac or a base line Octo-Core Mac Pro – but that’s how the Education By Fate works: great lessons, bills are kinda high.

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