My subscription to Life expired, but I still have a subscription to Mad.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

had a bad day

When I sat down at my G4 17-inch Powerbook last Saturday to read and answer e-mails and do other assorted tasks, I noticed that everything was running in slow motion. I had experienced this problem two or three times in the past two months and eventually things get so slow that I would have to reboot the computer to return to normal.

As expected, things got so slow that I had to reboot, but this time the reboot did not solve the problem. Instead, my Mac would not load the operating system and was hung up in limbo. Uh oh!

I booted up off the OS install CD-ROM and after running some tests and the disk utility software, it was apparent that something was wrong with the hard disk. I do an automatic weekly backup every Sunday morning (using Retrospect), so I did not fear losing much except a week's worth of work, but I did fear having to reinstall everything. It is not a hard job, but it is time-consuming.

I figured that some file on the hard disk was corrupt and the hard disk was still redeemable, so I tried to reinitialize the hard disk and reinstall the OS. After reinitialization, the hard disk icon on the computer desktop acted flaky. Sometimes it appeared on the desktop, sometimes it did not. That was not a good sign, but I proceeded to reinstall the OS anyway.

The installation program started normally, so I let it do its thing while I went away to do other things (normally the install should take about 30 minutes). When I returned a half hour later, the installation program was only 6% complete and indicated that it would take 28 hours to complete the installation. That was not a good sign.

I quit the install, ran some additional tests, and concluded that there was no saving the hard disk.

What to do now? I had two choices: take the computer to the Apple Store for repair or fix it myself. I have fixed a lot of computer problems in the past including replacing hard drives, but I have never worked on a G4 Powerbook and the task looked a little foreboding, so I was leaning toward going to the Apple Store on Monday.

Then I found a web site that described in detail how to replace a hard drive in a G4 17-inch Powerbook. The web site is and it has online guides for fixing a variety of problems for various Mac and iPod models. The hard drive swap looked a little difficult, but I've worked on worse problems, so Monday morning I ordered a new 160-Gbyte drive and had it shipped via next day delivery. (The only good news in all this is that this was a size upgrade. The dead drive was a 100 Gbyte drive, so I gained 60 Gbytes for my trouble.)

The new drive arrived Tuesday morning and that evening, I tackled the installation.

This was not my father's Oldsmobile! Twenty-five very tiny Phillips and Torx screws had to be removed in order to take the computer apart and remove the dead drive. Those 25 screws came in about a half dozen sizes, so as I removed each screw, I dropped it into a compartment of a divided parts box and labeled each compartment with a sticky yellow note to indicate where the screw had come from.

The screws were bad enough, but worse were the four interconnections that I had to disconnect in order to complete the task. Again, this was not my father's Oldsmobile! The interconnections used fragile metallic ribbon cable and the connectors were smaller than the fingernail of my pinky. Disconnecting and reconnecting these connections was not for the faint of heart!

It took me about one hour from start to finish to replace the drive. And after a couple of false starts, the computer came alive booting off the OS install CD. I initialized the new drive and installed the OS in a half hour.

Last night, I recovered my backup and began installing software. I expect it will take another night or two to finish the job. And so it goes.


  1. [...] I’ll admit that my Apple Mac “cool” smugness has taken a serious hit with news from not one but TWO ham radio bloggers of the demise of their Mac hard drives this week. WA1LOU and NE1RD are both blogging about their recent hard drive disasters. [...]

  2. Don't let hard drive problems affect your Mac cool smugness. Hard drives are probably the weakest links in a computer system, whether your computer is a Mac or something else. It is not a question of "will your hard drive die," but rather "when will your hard drive die?"

    I have lost two drives this year and lost count on how many I have lost during my 27 years of personal computing on Macs and other computers. That is why I run backup software because I know that sooner or later I will lose a drive. As the saying goes "nothing is certain but hard drive deaths and taxes."

  3. I'm very sorry to hear of your hard drive problems, too. I should say that otherwise this PowerBook, and indeed all of the many, many Macintosh computers I owned over the years have held up much better than the PCs I've owned and used at work. Perhaps my luck has been better than most... but I doubt it.

    In this most recent event, the Toshiba drive mechanism had a hard fault. The Apple Disk Utility recognized it immediately and flagged it as such. Such a HW failure can happen to any hard drive, and notebook drives are especially susceptible because they get banged around a lot.

    Things will always go wrong. Mechanical things break. What happens next is the interesting part. In my case, Apple fixed my machine in 24 hours. They installed a new drive, formatted it, installed the latest OS, and had it ready to boot just like it came out of the box. Nice. How many places can you get that kind of service? Oh, yeah, and it was free as it was still under AppleCare warranty.

    I've also done the "do it yourself" drive replacement. Congratulations on getting yours completed successfully. It is a nerve-racking business having your laptop before you in pieces! I'll be interested to hear how you're going to use that extra 60GB.

    Take care. 73!

    -- Scott (NE1RD)

  4. I, too, am sorry to hear of your hard disk woes. I jusr replaced a failing hard drive on my image backup server here, and it was an all day job trying to transfer 100 GB of data off the drive before replacing it!

    Your problems point out one big problem with many Macs - they are not easy to repair! On a typical Windows notebook PC you would need to remove one or two screws, pull out the hard drive from its slot, unplug it, and replace it. The hard work would be in redoing the OS, software, and data.

    I was once given an old Bondi Blue iMac and had to open it up to install some memory updgrades to permit running OS X (I know it was an old unit, but I just wanted to see how it would work, and many articles on the Internet said it was doable). For the life of me I couldn't figure out how to open the case. It took some Internet research to find some detailed instructions to do so, and even then it was a struggle. Unfortunately, after about $400 worth of upgrades, the iMac lasted only about a month before it suffered a power supply failure. Trying to figure that one out was impossible, even with help from the 'Net, so I stripped ouy the usable parts (hard disk and memory) and tossed it in the trash. That was my first and only foray into Mac repair!

    Greg - N8GD

  5. Stick with server-grade hard drives. Only about $10 more than the same-size "consumer grade" hard drive, and come with 100,000 hour warranties. For home machines that are powered down when not used (you don't leave them running, do you? Given how fast machines boot these days, there's no need), this turns into about 20 years' operation.

    Machines here are an assortment of Macs and PCs dating back to 1992...all on original hard drives.

  6. [...] My current Mac is a 17-inch Powerbook G4 1.67 GHz “Aluminum.” It’s hard disk gave up the ghost in November, but I won’t hold that against. I’ve lost a number of hard disks over the years and I expect I will lose others in the future (I do a back-up daily, just in case). [...]

  7. gah!... hard disk woes... i came upon your article coz mine jus died on me as well... i've got the same powerbook model... been thinking of replacing the hard disk myself and was just wondering what brand and model of disk u went with?... thnx in advance...

  8. The replacement drive was a Seagate 160GB Momentus 5400.3 Ultra ATA/100.