Mac Mini Hard Drive Failure and Replacement - Back Up Your Family Photos

I've had an unusual amount of electronics break on me in the past few months. This post should serve as a warning for you to back up any important data on a regular basis. Because if your spouse finds out you just lost every last picture you took of your daughter for her whole life, she may be a little pissed—kick you out of the house pissed.

The following electronics have failed me lately: first my Diva Swans M200 computer speakers, then my external USB 2.0 fanless HD case (luckily the HD survived), then my Linksys WRT54G wireless router, and finally the hard drive in my Mac Mini.

Last Thursday I upgraded the Mini to Mac OS 10.4.7 plus whatever else Software Update told me to install. The system update must have written an essential bit to a bad block on my hard drive. The first two restarts the Mac worked to a point, hitting a spinning beach ball in Firefox (I thought I just hit some evil website with Java or Flash). The next morning I started the Mini up and never got past the gray Apple logo screen. I lowered my ear to the Mini and could the hard drive making some repetitive clicks and some heart stopping clunks. I turned it off, and tried to remember the last time I backed up our iPhoto library (why haven't I automated this? I know how, I guess I'm just lazy and easily distracted).

So I needed a new hard drive. Shopping online wasn't an option because the Mac Mini was now an expensive paperweight. My wife was cut off from her local mom forums, family emails, buying infant clothing for the expected-in-October baby and posting new iPhoto galleries. My work Powerbook would hold me over, but only me as it never left my side and wasn't attached to a big monitor and keyboard in our office armoire. Without the Mac Mini my daughter couldn't beg to see whatever dog pictures we could find on Cuteoverload.com that day. Disastrous.

I would spend more money, but I needed to find a local store with a 100 GB 7200 RPM 2.5" Hitachi hard drive and a 1 GB DDR 3200 RAM chip. While looking around on the internet I found that Tiger Direct has a distribution warehouse a few miles from my house. The warehouse also opened an outlet store. If Tiger Direct had the product in stock on their website you could print out the page and bring it in to the warehouse for pick up.

Saturday morning, after failing to create a full disk image of my faulty drive, I drove over to the warehouse and picked up my HD and RAM. I also tried to buy a Linksys router but it was drop shipped from the manufacturer, so they had no stock in the warehouse. On my way out, a golf-tanned-middle-aged-heart-attack-pending man walked past me back to the store. As we passed he noticed I had an hard drive and shouts, "You better test that hard drive. I just bought this one and it's broken." He may have swore, I can't remember. I waved and tried to crack a friendly smile (may have come off as pity, I didn't have a mirror handy to check). I noticed he had one of the bargain hard drives Tiger Direct sold on the outlet floor. You get what you pay for.

$269 later and back at home, after my daughter went down for her afternoon nap and I had made a backup of my entire home folder (and two backups of my iPhoto library), I was ready to crack open my Mac Mini. You ever shucked a clam? The Mini must be flipped over, violated by a stiff spackle knife until the bottom and entire guts of the machine pop free of the aluminum case. I had instructions for the hard drive replacement in the new 2006 Intel Mini but not my older PowerPC.

I made a few mistakes. I removed 3 of the four screws securing the Superdrive to the inner chassis before I realized it didn't need to be removed at all. After properly removing the HD, fan and Superdrive chassis from the motherboard I unscrewed three bolts from the hard drive and found the last screw under the fan. So I had to remove the fan too, the Intel version doesn't require this. Swapping hard drives and RAM was easy enough and I confidently put the whole Mini back together.

I brought the Mac back upstairs and plugged everything in. The Mini powered on without the familiar "bong." No DVD or Firewire drive could get the machine past a blank gray screen. I popped it back open and reseated RAM to no success. I took the whole thing apart again and finally noticed that some of the tape holding down some wires was slightly over lapping some of the IO board pins. I moved the tape and now have a healthy and improved Mac.

It took a while to reinstall the system and all my apps. I created a new user and copied back all my home folder data. We were back to email fetching, iLife-ing and internet browsing just before we left for a rare no kids double date at a local tapas restaurant in a converted mansion.

All the expensive toys we buy to make our lives more convenient and fun will eventually break. You have to prepare for this. Don't fool yourself into thinking you bought the one hard drive that will outlive your goldfish. Think of all the things you do on your computer: family photos, digital video, iTunes libraries. Now imagine what would happen between you and your loved ones, who trusted you to protect their beloved data, when it is all lost.

I got lucky and recognized hard drive death throes before the final flatline and was able to perform an emergency transplant.

Do yourself a favor: Buy an external large capacity drive (or two plus DVD-Rs) and make regular backups to it. Nothing important should be kept only in one place because that one place will fail.

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One Response to “Mac Mini Hard Drive Failure and Replacement - Back Up Your Family Photos”

  1. Rik Says:

    Informative and helpful details… thanks.

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