Dying hard drive or something else?
August 10, 2010 8:57 AM   Subscribe

iMac starts up very slowly, freezes during use, and I am unable to successfully run Time Machine or manually copy files to external drive.

I have a 2008 24-inch aluminum iMac (500GB HDD [335GB used], 4GB memory) which recently became very slow and prone to freezing up. I had not backed up the drive in a very long time, but have learned my lesson now.

I am not sure if the issue is related to this, but during an iTunes update the iMac froze up (pinwheel) and I could not force-quit. I did a hard shutdown by holding down the power button and on restart noticed that the boot-up process was taking a very long time - several minutes on the gray Apple screen and a few more to get to a usable desktop. (I found many of the troubleshooting tips below by searching previous AskMeFi posts.)

I shut it down via the Apple menu a couple of times and restarted hoping it would clear up the issue but it did not. I ran Disk Utility from the hard drive and from the install DVD and found no errors with the drive or permissions. I reset the PRAM and NVRAM, and the SMC and the slow boot-up and freeze-ups persisted. Interestingly, I was not able to start in Safe Mode even though I tried several times.

At this point my concern was (still is) with getting the data off the drive so I got a 500GB external USB drive and tried running Time Machine. As I started running TM the first time I noticed that Spotlight was re-indexing the HDD. Not sure what could have caused the prior index to be lost or corrupted, but I stopped TM and let the indexing finish.

The next morning indexing was complete and I tried running TM again. This time it managed to back up 200MB or so and failed with a "Could not unmount" error. I stopped TM, deleted the "In Progress" file on the external drive and all other folders on it and tried again with similar results.

I also tried to manually move items from the HDD to the external drive on multiple occasions and after a couple hundred MBs the computer would freeze up.

I ran Rember to check for issues with the memory and found no errors. I ran Apple Hardware Test and that also found no errors. Next, thinking it might improve back-up performance I got a 500GB Firewire 800 drive and tried running TM on that. This was moderately more successful, backing up about 2GB in 10 minutes or so, and then failing.

Next, I reinstalled the OS (10.5) via the process that creates the "Previous System" folder and retried some combination of the potential fixes mentioned above, with no noticeable improvement.

The last thing I tried was to create an image of the HDD on the external Firewire drive, but that failed as well with an "Unable to create: input/output error."

At this point I'm thinking of bringing the computer to the Genius Bar, but if you can think of something I have not tried yet, please let me know. If they find that the HDD is faulty, my next attempt will be to put in a new drive myself, reinstall the OS on it and use a USB drive enclosure or a drive adapter to connect the old HDD and import as much data as I can. Is this a reasonable thing to do?
posted by preparat to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you have AppleCare, go to the Genius Bar.

If you don't, you're out of warranty, and it's going to cost you. Offhand, it sounds like your drive is hosed, but it's also possible your logic board is fried. Some things you can try, that may help:

- DiskWarrior, which is kind of like Disk Utility on steroids. It can often deal with disks that are more damaged than Disk Utility will. At the very least, it should give you a deeper diagnosis. Downside: costs $100.

- Do you know how to remove the drive? If so, and you can get your hands on a case and another Mac, try setting up the drive that way and see how far you get. If your drive works on another computer, your logic board is probably at fault.
posted by mkultra at 9:27 AM on August 10, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you mkultra! I'm in the process of figuring out if my Applecare on this machine is still active. I have seen a few tutorials on how to replace the hard drive on iMacs and I'm fairly confident I would be able to do it. If I'm out of warranty I'll try your second option.
posted by preparat at 9:39 AM on August 10, 2010

Best answer: I'd install the OS on the external drive and then boot the machine from that to make the image. or, if you have another machine, you can boot the iMac in Target Disk Mode (boot up, hold down T) and connect it and the external to a separate computer to make the image. it can be a pain to make an image of a drive you've booted off of, as there'll be files open on it that Disk Utility may barf on. you may also have some luck using SuperDuper! instead of Disk Utility to make the image.

(this definitely sounds like a bad hard drive. I'd also recommend not using the machine as much as you can - use will probably make it worse.)

checking for AppleCare is pretty easy - get your serial number (it's in System Profiler or About This Mac - click the Version number under Mac OS X a few times and it'll show up) and drop it in at support.apple.com. if you do have AppleCare, do not open the machine up to replace the drive - they're not user-replaceable parts on aluminum iMacs, so you'll void the warranty/AppleCare if you open it up and they figure that out. (besides, it's kind of a pain - you need suction cups and all that to get the glass out.) the Genius Bar ought to be able to give you the old drive to get data off of it, or they may be able to do some very simple recovery on it. make sure you ask before they take the system from you though.
posted by mrg at 10:02 AM on August 10, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you mrg! Good tips and the warranty-voiding warning is much appreciated.
posted by preparat at 10:16 AM on August 10, 2010

Best answer: absolutely first off. How full is your hard disk? If it is totally packed (less than a GB) then all sorts of bad things will start to happen, as the OS has no good place other than RAM to temporarily put things (called virtual memory). OSX is happiest with at least 10 GB of free space on the hard drive. Regardless of your situation, keep reading the next paragraph so you know how to easily move/delete files off your packed/dying HDD.

This is where target disk mode is fantastic. The iMac of this vintage has both a firewire 400 and firewire 800 port, I think. First, find another Intel Mac that has either a Firewire 400 or (preferably) a Firewire 800 port, and the proper cable. Turn off the iMac that does not work (henceforth sadmac). Turn on sadmac while holding down the "T" key. It should fire up and end up with a giant firewire icon bounceing around the screen. Congratuations, sadmac is now an extremely expensive external HDD. Connect it to the other Mac(happymac). If the HDD is not totally fried, you should be able to mount the drive and grab whatever files you need, and/or delete and move files until there is more space. Now that you have your crucial files, you can do some diagnostics.

1) With sadmac connected via FW and still in target disk mode, restart happymac while holding down the "option" key. That will bring up a screen where you have the option of booting from the external drive(aka sadmac). Do that. If everything works great (it is as if sadmac was moved to happymac, but not issues) then you have logic board issues. If you have the same issues as before, then your hard disk is unhappy.

2) To confirm logic board issues, restart happymac in target disk mode and boot it on sadmac. If happymac, running on sadmac, has issues, then again, you have a logic board problem.

Good luck!
posted by rockindata at 10:28 AM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Recently (2008ish?) Applecare is now automatically activated at time of purchase. Your serial number and a Apple ID login will confirm.

If you're borked on the Applecare front, I do believe genius bars will run DiskWarrior for you, regardless of applecare status. They also have more thorough hardware diagnostics than the user-level stuff. Both will probably involve an overnight check in. I'm fairly confident that diagnostics are free, that being one of the benefits of the Apple omnibus.

I'm thinking this is sounding less like an early HD failure, and more like a SATA controller failure. This might entail complete logic board replacement. Pray you have coverage, or seek a 3rd party repair place. HD failure should be easy to diagnose with tests others have described.

Oh, and do make a genius bar appointment ahead of time. Also, you need to check in with one of the iPhone holding head-set guys when you get there. Don't just pony up to the bar and wait your turn. They won't call your name and your appointment will be cancelled unless you "check in". Yes, this is angry experience talking.
posted by fontophilic at 10:32 AM on August 10, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you rockindata and fontophilic! The disk is not anywhere near full (335GB used out of 460GB available) so I can eliminate that as a potential cause. I have access to a MacBook Pro which apparently has a Firewire 800 port so I will try the sadmac/happymac setup tonight. If I go to the genius bar I'll be sure to check in!
posted by preparat at 11:21 AM on August 10, 2010

Response by poster: Turns out the mac I have access to is a MacBook, which does not have a Firewire port. I can get an aging Powerbook which does have a Firewire 400 port, but it's obviously not Intel. Will that work for Target Disc Mode?
posted by preparat at 11:44 AM on August 10, 2010

I am pretty sure it will be able to see the files to pull crucial data off, but none of the booting one to the other will work. That's annoying about the Macbook. I will be extremely sad to see Firewire leave completely, as I use Firewire to boot as a troubleshooting tool all the time.
posted by rockindata at 1:31 PM on August 10, 2010

Best answer: Have you tried rebooting into safe mode after the OS reinstall? Then done the fsck? It really sounds like you have major directory level problems, and I'm not sure a regular re-install without wipe will necessarily correct it. Can't hurt, IMO.
posted by birdsquared at 12:17 AM on August 11, 2010

Response by poster: Update: this computer is covered under AppleCare. I was on the phone with them last night for a couple of hours. We booted into safe mode, ran fsck and found no error. We checked a half dozen other possibilities and sadly at the end Disk Utility stopped seeing the hard drive. The plan now is to bring the machine to a local Apple store tonight for them to replace the hard drive and do their diagnostics. I will ask them for the old drive back and will buy Disk Warrior to try and salvage as much as I can.

Thank you all for your help. I may post another update later on how well or poorly the recovery process goes, just in case my experience is useful to future readers of this thread.
posted by preparat at 5:54 AM on August 11, 2010

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