She blinded me...with thinness!
May 3, 2011 11:38 PM   Subscribe

Can I use a thumbdrive to be my macbook air's only hard drive?

I have a chance to get a REALLY REALLY REALLY cheap macbook air. Its hard drive is failing, the owner does not want to put up with it. He formatted it and wants to sell it for REALLY cheap.

So the hard drive will fail...its just a matter of time before it does.
It seems to be the typical hard drive failure that these first generation macbook airs are now experiencing.

Rather than replacing the hard drive, can I somehow use a usb thumbdrive as its ONLY hard drive? I'm open to OS options if ubuntu or something else is the only way to do this.

This is the older 13" macbook air...probably 2008 version.

Thanks in advance to all helpers!
posted by hal_c_on to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If I have to replace the hard drive to use it, its worthless to me.

If I can somehow use a thumbdrive as its hard drive, its worth it for me.

To date...the owner said "hard drive is getting bad sectors".
posted by hal_c_on at 11:42 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not a Mac/MBA expert, but I think so. This might point you in the right direction.
posted by arcticseal at 12:42 AM on May 4, 2011

Yup, you can do it (I know someone who's done it with a Rev A MBA and a 64GB USB stick). It's noticeably slower to boot that a HDD-equipped MBA, but OK to use - though I'd be wary of running anything big that might want to swap a lot (she mostly uses it for web browsing).

  1. Get a reasonably fast & reasonably sized USB stick. A standard OS X install alone takes somewhere around 9GB for 10.4.x IIRC, or around 15GB for 10.5.x; again, IIRC, MBAs originally came standard with 10.5.x. That can be reduced by doing a custom install and excluding unwanted drivers and fonts, (doesn't reduce things as much as you might think), and stripping universal binaries to Intel-only post-install. You could probably squeeze a useable install + free space for user stuff onto a 16GB stick, & I've done it (on my MacBook) on a 32GB. As mentioned above a friend uses a 64GB and it's fine, though she does keep music / photos / videos / etc on a LAN drive.
  2. Doing the actual install. It's an Air, so no built-in CD/DVD drive. They also only have a single USB port, so if you want to use an external drive you'll need a (powered) hub to connect both it and the USB stick. Failing that you can (in rough order of increasing complexity)
    1. borrow someone else's Mac and boot into target disk mode,
    2. use Remote Disc to netboot & install from a networked Mac or PC, or
    3. use another Mac to install OS X to the USB then boot it on the MBA
So, yeah, doable. If the existing HDD is throwing errors it's likely only got hours or days left, not weeks or months (I'm surprised, in fact, that it lasted long enough to re-install OS X on it).

On preview: Oh, yeah, remember those MBA's have the USB on a fold-down panel. That's a PITA; it feels like it's gonna break, and restricts you to the physically-smaller USB sticks available. My friend got around this by stealing a USB extension cord with a tiny right-angled plug on it from somewhere, and blue-tacking the actual stick to the side of the case ;-)
posted by Pinback at 1:21 AM on May 4, 2011

It's worth a try IMO.

(However I want to add, sorry for the off-topic, that hard drives are often replaceable under warranty, and sometimes even a lifetime warranty, so you have a shot at getting a new hard drive for free; You'd just have to cover the replacement work. If you luck out. Suggest you check it out.)
posted by krilli at 1:40 AM on May 4, 2011

Just to point out that using a USB stick as a hard drive will significantly decrease its lifetime; current flash memory's lifetime is measured in number of writes.
posted by katrielalex at 5:25 AM on May 4, 2011

current flash memory's lifetime is measured in number of writes

Just like the macbook air's SSD, actually, so that's not really the issue. The issue is write leveling, which most modern SSDs will do, but I don't think flash drives handle at all.
posted by toomuchpete at 8:12 AM on May 4, 2011

I'm not aware of any HD covered by a lifetime warranty, considering basically every single one will fail eventually. If the machine had AppleCare, it would be covered for three years from date of purchase.

This is doable, but get the fastest spec'd flash drive you can find. It will still be slower than the SSD that shipped with the machine.
posted by BryanPayne at 1:29 PM on May 4, 2011

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