It’s so strange how we’re bombarded with PSA’s from everyone and their mother about the importance of having backups of your computer’s hard drive or at the very least your most important files yet so many of us fail to listen. Every day I see at least 10 ads for some app or service that promises to back up your system in case of a disaster and every day I ignore them all. Catastrophic computer failures are an inevitability in the same way that repairs or replacements for many of the most critical parts of your car will be neccesary. Still, many of us somehow keep thinking that this is something that happens to someone else. Well, just this week it happened to me. I’m someone else. So here’s my PSA for everyone and my thoughts on third party SSDs for MacBooks.
On Sunday afternoon I opened up my mid-2012 MacBook Air to work on the new Write.app public API and work on my new book about Swift for web developers. Everything was working as normal for a few minutes and then Xcode froze up on me. “Okay” I thought, “Xcode 6 is still a beta and it freezes up all the time. This is just par for the course” and waited for the app to completely crash. But it didn’t. It just hung there. I couldn’t force quit and all I could do was move the mouse. This was strange but nothing that a hard reset couldn’t cure so I held down the power button until the computer completely shut down. Upon turning the computer on again I got the dreaded blinking-folder-with-quation-mark. If you’re not familiar with that image like me at the time, it looks like this.
Recovering from massive failure
Upon learning about this the first thing I did was go through all the restore procedures. I tried to boot into safe mode but there was no OS to boot into. My only option was recovery mode. So after the blinking folder showed up I had the option to connect to wifi and was plopped into recovery mode. From there the first thing I did was to verify and try to repair my startup disk using Disk Utility. Unfortunately verification kept failing about 30 seconds into it. At this point my suspicion was that my SSD had failed.
The HDD back story: OWC Drives
A few months after buying my 11 inch MacBook Air in June or July of 2012 I bought a new SSD with more storage (180gb from the puny 64gb MBA’s came with back then) online. I got an OWC Mercury Aura Pro. It had a five year warranty on it and I figured I’d replace the laptop before the SSD failed anyway so I carried on… fast forward to that fateful Sunday now.
By now I knew I couldn’t repair what was wrong with my system but thought that maybe, just maybe this was a software issue and somehow the drive became corrupted and a restore would set things straight. So you know how you need to have backups of your important files? Well I did! I was given a 1TB external drive as a Christmas gift in late 2012 which I created 2 partitions on, one for each of my Macs. The drive is normally connected my iMac at all times and I need to disconnect it and plug it into the MacBook to make backups every so often. Seems easy right? Well it is but my lazy ass was too busy and too lazy to simply eject a disk from on Mac and plug the cord into another (after all, that’d require I reach all the way behind my iMac – too much work). This meant that my last backup was 102 days old.
As a developer I know better and was careless. Luckily, I’ve always been good about versioning my web/software projects. I religiously add/commit/push as I work on any project and always have at least 2 remotes set up (an origin and a backup) on top of a physical backup of my hard drive. I’m actually fine with losing just about every file on all of my computers except for the source code to the various projects I maintain. Several of those projects are providing critical services to paying customers and being unable to develop bug fixes and new features for a while would be bad for business and my reputation.
Back to my 102 day old backup. It didn’t work. The system couldn’t find a drive to write to. Odd. So I went back to disk utility and reluctantly formatted my drive. After reformatting the drive I went back to try to restore from a Time Machine backup and once again there was an unspecified error. I’m positive that error was that I had a bad drive on my hands. Maybe one of the flash cells died or the drive went into panic lock. I think it was the former.
To the Apple Store
At this point I began to panic. I immediately got in touch with a coworker who used to work as an Apple Genius looking for tips on how to get a free repair or replacement. I knew damn well that couldn’t happen because I was using a third-party drive but I was panicked and was grasping for straws.
Sidenote for those who don’t know: there’s an issue with the Toshiba drives used in the 2012 MacBook Airs that cause the drives to fail much sooner than they would normally. There was a firmware update to fix this but somehow not everyone got the memo. OWC actually released a firmware update for their SSDs in the 2012 MacBook Airs as well. I’m unsure if this fix was because of a similar issue but I did apply the patch and suspect it was.
Anyway, I headed off to the Apple Store (without an appointment) and then proceeded to wait an hour for someone to even look me in the eye. Once I was able to get help from a genius all of their tests came back as normal. They showed no issues with any of the components. That said, they couldn’t thoroughly test my SSD itself, only that it was properly connected and communicating with the other components of my system properly. It was funny, actually. I proceeded to turn on my Mac and show the Genius my issue and guess what happened? The system started normally. This gave me a chance to push some commits I hadn’t gotten a chance to since the last time my system worked normally. My Mac’s drive had only 2 more normal restarts in it I later found out and after that it just died on me.
Shame on you, SSD manufacturers
This was upsetting. I had only bought my OWC Mercury Aura Pro (I’m naming names here on purpose) 2 years ago, if that. As a developer I keep my Macs taken care of. Everything was up to date, all of Apple’s firmware patches were applied and OWC’s firmware update was applied as well right after I was notified of it over a year ago. I’m kind of mad this happened. We all know SSDs have a limited life span but it’s also well known that even without TRIM support enabled, a typical SSD will outlast your computer. It’s so common that many third-party manufacturers will send you a kit to turn your original drive into an external one.
After reading some bad reviews (after the fact, unfortunately) about OWC’s drives I decided I couldn’t wait for a replacement from OWC (they make you pay for shipping on top of everything else when you get warranty service), it was time to upgrade to a larger drive anyway, and this time I’d try a different SSD manufacturer. I bought a Transcend JetDrive 240GB SSD for MacBook Air. Two days later I got the package and was very happy with what I saw. Compared to OWC, the JetDrive was far classier. The packaging made it feel like an official Apple replacement part but not in a deceiving way. It came with the tools and instructions needed to install the drive, an enclosure to turn the old drive into external storage, and on top of all that it was actually cheaper than the OWC drives. The only thing OWC has that Transcend doesn’t is a nice instructional video but at this point I didn’t really need it anyway.
After installing the drive it only took about a half hour to restore my system using Time Machine which has a backup that was a little over 3 months old. When I got everything working again I had to do some extra work to get those last 3 months the backup was missing back. I have lost some files permanently but luckily it’s nothing I can’t recover from. Although life would be easier had I had a fresher backup, things could have been a lot worse.
So now I’m typing away on my trusty MacBook Air again, developing Write.app’s Notes API and hacking on MoonWeather thanks to Transcend’s JetDrive. I’ve learned that hard drive failures will happen to me like they’ll happen to everyone eventually. Most importantly, I’ve learned to never go more than 48 hours without plugging in an external drive and running Time Machine. It takes only a minute and saves you a lot of time and hassle.