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#723: Bootable Backups, Reader Feedback: Ejecting Stuck Disks, Tip of the Week: Do NOT Forget Your Master Password


Happy Tuesday,

It’s great to hear from Tech Tails readers. You can always just reply to the newsletter, and your message will land in a general mailbox that I monitor, or you can click on an author’s name next to an article’s title to contact an author directly.

This week I decided to write more about ejecting stuck disks, as my article last week generated a ton of responses. Similarly, Rebecca wrote a followup to her article last week, as many readers responded to her.

As we continue to gather momentum opening our next store in Manchester, NH, it’s heartening to hear from so many readers of our newsletters. Everyone is truly encouraging, and so many in the area express their excitement about enjoying the Small Dog experience in one of our stores instead of just on our website.

Every so often, a customer comes into one of our stores while on vacation in Vermont after being an online customer for ten years or more. They’re never surprised by what they find—a huge priority for us is to be personable in our online presence. If you’ve ever wondered who’s on the other end of the phone, or who’s responding to your email, check out our Contact page!

As always, thanks for reading, and keep those responses coming.


  Chamber Music at Our South Burlington Store!  

On Thursday at 7:30 PM, the Students of the Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival are going to give a free performance at our South Burlington Store.

These very talented musicians will provide an hour of fine, beautiful music. It’s free to the public, and we will provide snacks. Hopefully we’ll see you there!

To read more about the Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival, click here.

  Backup of Your Backup: Bootable Backups  

Last week, I wrote an article about the importance of having a backup of your backup. The main scope of that article was to showcase Time Machine’s “archive” feature. I received several great responses from readers who create their secondary backups in a variety of ways and I realized there seems to be a real need to explore the many ways we choose to backup. Since this is such a loaded topic I’ll be breaking it out into a few articles ranging from basic to complex. This week, we’ll be focusing on bootable versus non-bootable backups.

One concept that I quickly want to elaborate on is the idea of having a “backup of a backup.” The point of that phrase is that it’s always a good idea to have two backups of your data. It appears that was taken quite literally so I want to explain that I don’t mean to imply that one should always have a clone of their primary backup, rather I recommend that one has two copies of their data. To some, they may just want to do a Time Machine archive, others feel more secure having two different types of backups, some like a combination of all of the above.

As someone who sees a lot of data loss, I admit that I’m a little paranoid at times. My primary backup is my Time Machine backup on my Time Capsule. As I mentioned last week, I’m now also doing archives of my Time Capsule on an external drive that I physically put in a separate location. What I didn’t mention is that I always have a bootable backup as well. I’ll admit I only make a new bootable backup once every few months so it’s not my most current backup. However, I consider a bootable backup to be my most functional backup and for those of you who only have one computer, it can be an important thing to have lying around.

A bootable backup is literally a clone of a computer, complete with system files that allow a computer to boot to the external drive, just like we usually boot to the internal drive. While this is great if you lose data, its functionality goes far beyond data retrieval. Let’s say your computer won’t boot up entirely—maybe it’s hanging at the Apple logo or at a blue screen—you can plug in you external bootable backup, hold down the option key on boot and select your external drive to boot to.

Congratulations—you just did your first troubleshooting step on your own machine. If you successfully booted to the external hard drive, that implies that something is up with your internal hard drive: corrupt software, failing hard drive, failing SATA bus, etc. (you’ll find there are rarely absolutes in computer repair). If you were unable to boot to the external drive, it could imply there’s a bigger issue with the computer or it’s possible that whatever software corruption exists on your internal drive is also present on your external clone.

Let’s assume you were able to boot to your external drive. The next troubleshooting step here is to open Disk Utility (/Applications/Utilities/Disk Utility), select your internal drive and try to repair the disk. If it finds errors and repairs them you might be all set. If it finds errors and cannot repair them, you know you’re at least looking at software corruption, though software corruption can be a symptom of a failing hard drive or bad RAM; again, no absolutes.

From here, you could run a surface scan or integrity check with diagnostic software like Drive Genius or you can jump right to an Archive and Install of the operating system using your system disks. Personally, I run Drive Genius first to check for hardware errors before tackling the software, but many home users don’t have tools like Drive Genius so Apple often recommends trying the Archive and Install as a next step.

Let’s say at this point that you decide to take your computer in to your local Apple Authorized Service Provider for repair. What are you going to do in the meantime while your computer is in the shop? Well, if you have another Mac at home or if your shop is awesome like Small Dog and offers loaners during repair, you can boot to your bootable backup and continue on with your work or play as if nothing had happened (depending on how current your backup is). This is a great way to avoid downtime and it’s even more convenient than Time Machine in the sense that if you had a Time Machine backup and brought a loaner computer home, you’d have to wait for Time Machine to restore on your loaner (which can add hours to your downtime).

Once you get your computer back from repair, if you’re missing data it’s just as easy to restore from a bootable backup as it is to restore from a Time Machine backup. Simply plug in your external drive and in the Mac OS X Setup Assistant when it asks if you’d like to transfer data, choose that you’d like to transfer from another Mac and you’ll be all set!

There are several ways to make a bootable backup. I recommend one of two programs, SuperDuper! or Carbon Copy Cloner. Both are great, easy-to-use apps that automate the cloning process and make it easy to create bootable clones. They also both offer incremental backup options so you don’t have to do a full clone every time you want to update your backups.

Now, there is some fine print. If you create a bootable backup from a PowerPC machine you cannot boot to it using an Intel-based machine and vice versa. Both CCC and SuperDuper! will also remind you that to make a bootable backup from a PowerPC machine, the drive must be formatted in APM and for an Intel machine it must be formatted in GUID; both should be Mac OS Extended (Journaled). All formatting can be done using Disk Utility. It’s also important to note that most PowerPC machines can only boot via FireWire so if you have a USB-only external hard drive, that would not be a good candidate for your backup unless you’re on an Intel-based Mac.

For those with the burning question of, “So is a bootable backup better than Time Machine?” Well, that’s entirely up to your own point of view. Some will vehemently say “yes” while others, like myself, are more neutral about it. I use both and feel they have different purposes and offer different levels of convenience. As you’ll see in my subsequent articles, there is no singular end-all-be-all backup solution. The best idea is to learn about the options and choose for yourself what you’re comfortable with. What even more ideas? Check out my article next week on RAIDs!

  Reader Feedback: Ejecting Stuck Disks  

I was surprised at the number of responses to last week’s article on ejecting stuck disks, and thought this week would be a good time to talk about disk ejecting in more detail.

Many of you suggested various utilities for ejecting disks. While each of these utilities is fine in itself, it’s important to realize that they all act in the same way behind their graphical user interfaces (GUIs). A disk may fail to eject in one of several ways:

Mechanical failure of the actual drive: In this situation, the drive’s eject mechanism has failed, and no software utility or firmware trick will get the disk out. It’s time to find your closest authorized service provider.

Damage to the disk slot: When the slot itself is damaged—either compressed shut, damaged from a fall, or similar events, you can often pry the slot open. While a wide flathead screwdriver is an effective tool, it will mar your computer; a hard, non-smudging plastic tool is best. In our service facilities, we use a “black stick,” our technical term for a black nylon probe with a flat end and a pointy end. It’s the best tool for manipulating small components inside a computer in addition to being an excellent drive slot opener.

Software preventing the disk from ejecting: In this scenario, the disk will not eject because the computer is actively using it. This would happen if, for example, you were listening to a CD in iTunes and try to eject the disk (wait, do people still listen to actual CDs?). A better example would be trying to eject while importing music into iTunes from a CD. Because the computer is using the disk, it cannot eject it. In Snow Leopard, Apple took the very friendly step of notifying the user which application is preventing the disk from ejecting; before, it was up to the user to figure it out.

I remember a repair for a customer that spilled a little water on the upper right corner of his keyboard, and fried the actual eject key but nothing else. To save her the expense of lost productivity of doing a full repair, I simply added an eject icon to her menu bar. You can do the same—an explore all the menu bar “extras” available to you—by navigating to /System/Library/CoreServices/Menu Extras. To enable one, simply double-click one of the items here, and to remove one from the menu bar, simply command-click on it and drag it out of the menu bar.

  Tip of the Week: Do NOT Forget Your Master Password  

FileVault is an encryption technology first included in Mac OS 10.4 that’s useful for anyone whose computer contains sensitive information. It can prevent unauthorized access to the items in your home folder by encrypting the entire folder with a current government-approved standard called Advanced Encryption Standard with 128-bit keys (AES-128).

When you first turn on FileVault from System Preferences, you’ll also create a master password for the computer that will allow you to reset your regular login password, if it’s ever forgotten. While FileVault is an excellent and functional way to protect your files, if you ever forget your master password and your regular login password, your files are gone. Forever.

A customer came in this morning asking for her password to be reset. When I realized she used FileVault, I called her to ask for the master password. She didn’t know it. This case was a double-whammy, because I also discovered that her hard drive was failing when the computer took about 5 minutes to arrive at the login window. The drive was still working well enough that I was confident the data could be recovered, but since FileVault was enabled, there was no point.

So, this week’s tip: do not, under any circumstances, forget that master password.

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   2-pack! Stubbie USB iPhone / iPod Auto Adapters + 2 Free Dock-to-USB Cables!
   MacBook 2.1GHz 4GB (upgraded from 1GB), 120GB, Combo Drive, Free Sleeve!
   MacBook Pro 13in 2.53GHz
   MacBook Pro 13.3in 2.4GHz, $50 Gift Card, AppleCare, Free Sleeve!
   iMac 27in 2.66GHz Quad Core i5, $100 Gift Card, iWork (qualifies for $30 rebate), AppleCare Plan!