Aren't the Mac Geniuses usually right?
June 18, 2007 10:30 AM   Subscribe

Am I courting disaster by doubting the Mac Genius?

My PowerBook G4 has been acting like an ass lately - awful spinning beachball problems, programs crashing, won't restart by the Apple menu but only by hand, totally freezing, can't force quit when it hangs, can't open System Preferences or Help menus...just generally awful and bordering on useless.

Oh, yeah, I'm also pretty computer illiterate. I own one and it's shiny and I like it, that's about all. But, I did a ton of searching and ran just about every test known to man on this thing, to no avail. No hardware problems found, all permissions verified, tried Applejack, etc, etc, etc. Still working like crap.

I took it to the Genius Bar and they guy had a pretty good go at it, and concluded that it "sounds like the harddrive" is dying. He offers to send it to Apple for a replacement for $350 (of course, 3 months out of warranty).

Before I do that, I decided to do some last ditch stuff - I ran the "Hardware test" off the install disc (the Genius did NOT run this specific test), and it still says no hardware problem found. Lastly, I do an "archive and install" of the OS.

My machine (knock wood) has been acting fine ever since. No hanging, no freezing, can open Preferences in a blink, restarts fine, yadda yadda.

Am I completely courting disaster if I don't get the harddrive replaced right away if things keep working this well? I guess my question really boils down to: replacing a hard drive is very major, would he really have suggested that if in fact only a reinstall of the OS did the trick?
posted by tristeza to Computers & Internet (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Reinstalling the OS was a great decision. The fact that it is magically working now greatly IMPLIES that it was a software issue all along.

However, understand that it could be that there is a hardware error, and that the new installation just hasn't hit that bad sector or whatever yet.

But again, it seems that one of the diagnostics you ran would have caught this impending issue.

My bet is that you will be fine for months to come with just the reinstall of the OS.

And I don't know about macs, but in the PC world, replacing a hard drive is a very mundane thing, and certainly would not cost $350. Note that also would require reinstalling the OS.
posted by Ynoxas at 10:35 AM on June 18, 2007

I'm nearly as computer-illiterate as you, but my significant other (who used to develop software for Apple, if it matters) says that the Powerbook G4 is prone to having really really bad hard drive problems- he called it something like the "Death Rattle".

Perhaps you might get a second opinion? Seems like there are Apple stores sprouting in every subdivision.

Me, I'd keep using it, and just make sure you back up everything you care about weekly and acknowledge that backing it up won't restore it to its former glory if you have to restore from your external hard drive.
posted by arnicae at 10:37 AM on June 18, 2007

Best answer: Given the symptoms you described, bad hard drive is a pretty crappy diagnosis. My first inclination would be to do an Archive and Install, and as expected, it fixed up the problems.

Now in my experiences, Apple Geniuses are fairly competent, so there may have been other symptoms that he did not mention to you that would warrant the replacement of the hard drive, but if things are working now, I'd not bother replacing it.

One thing I would do is become super diligent about your backups. Super-duper diligent. Insanely, obsessively, anally, nitpickingly, diligent. You're lucky in that you've been given fair warning that your drive may be bad, so you have zero excuse.

And if it does need replacement down the line, don't have the Apple store do it. There are plenty of places that will do it in a couple of days for half the price.
posted by AaRdVarK at 10:38 AM on June 18, 2007

I am also not incredibly computer literate but my guess is that the guy can tell the diff between a hardware problem and a software problem. I don't think you're courting disaster if you don't replace the HD, as long as you back the thing up. If you don't want to deal with replacing it now but it turns out he's right, it will suck to lose everything. I would go buy an external HD (which is an expenditure in itself so at that point you might just want to get the HD replaced) and back up everything so that if he is right and the HD shits the bed, you don't lose all your stuff.

The other thing is, you should feel free to press the Genius a bit and ask why he thinks it's the HD, what else it could be, etc. Did you tell him about the diagnostic stuff you ran? Pick his brain a little. It's his job to help you. You can also ask him to get a second opinion from another Genius. I did that last week and I think it ended up providing the correct solution to my problem.

Good luck.
posted by sneakin at 10:38 AM on June 18, 2007

I had a Powerbook do pretty much what you say. I reinstalled the OS and everything was fine.

For one month. Then it went to hell and I had to get the hard drive replaced.

That's just my experience. I've had similar problems with a couple of non-mac computers.

To keep the story short, I'd say about 70% chance it's fine for another year or two, but I wouldn't keep anything important on it or rely on it for work. It has shown it knows how to die, it can do it again.
posted by Ookseer at 10:41 AM on June 18, 2007

It does seem like a hard drive problem. My iBook acted very similarly after taking a spill off a table onto a hardwood floor. Bad hard disk sectors will cause applications and/or the entire OS to become non-responsive and result in long waits with the spinning beachball.

Reinstalling the OS made the computer more usable-- until the computer attempted to read or write to the bad sectors. Then, the beachballing and stalling resumed. (This computer is still useful as essentially an expensive portable DVD player and extra computer to surf the tubes.)

Depending on which version of the Powerbook you have and your comfort with risk, you might be able to replace the drive yourself for much less money. But whatever you do, make sure to backup your data immediately. Then you can try to go with the existing drive for as long as it works,.
posted by andrewraff at 10:49 AM on June 18, 2007

Best answer: With the money you saved by not going with the new harddrive buy a good firewire or USB drive and copy over all of your important documents (you should be able to get a good external drive, depending on your needs for less than 200).

Then, you can use the computer until you have the problems again, just make sure to store anything important on external equipment. Then if your hard drive fails, you're prepared. If it doesn't, you won't have wasted money on a unneeded repair.
posted by drezdn at 10:53 AM on June 18, 2007

You archived and installed. The 'old' OS is still sitting in the same bits of your hard disk. Your new one is somewhere else (give or take a few bits of initial booty stuff perhaps). So it sounds plausible that he could be right, so do what aardvark says.
posted by edd at 10:57 AM on June 18, 2007

Back up everything diligently is always good advice.

Go back to the guy if it starts acting up again.

Otherwise, I'd say don't worry about it.
posted by misha at 11:00 AM on June 18, 2007

2nding andrewraff: Could be a software problem, (something eating up system resources, etc.), but is most likely a drive problem where some sectors work fine and others don't. I don't know anything about powerbooks but the harddrives in MacBooks can be changed out by the consumer (or a savvy friend). Price harddrives from NewEgg that match the specs on for your model. $350 sounds awfully high to me, but I'm no genius.
posted by monkeymadness at 11:00 AM on June 18, 2007

Best answer: Ditto the folks suggesting backups.

Back up, probably every night, and I would further recommend automating it and not just copying files to some other drive yourself. SuperDuper and others will do a good job for you, though you will need an external USB2 or Firewire drive to do this properly.

But if I KNEW I had a good, bootable backup of my system in such a situation, I would definitely continue using the machine until it died or until I had more definitive evidence of what was going on with it.
posted by mikel at 11:01 AM on June 18, 2007

Response by poster: Oh, guys, I feel so much better, thank you!

The good news is that I have been backing up to an external hard drive and a server every DAY (this is my work computer), and think I'll take the good advice here to just toodle along doing that unless and until more problems crop up.

Oh, and also thanks for letting me know that $350 sounded high!
posted by tristeza at 11:05 AM on June 18, 2007

I think hard drive is what they say when they are out of ideas. They replaced mine when the problem was actually the 802.11n enabler. However, the assumption that it is the hard drive is not unfounded. They have finite and relatively short service lives these days (2-3 years is not uncommon).

$350 is outrageous. Since you're out of warranty, I'd take it to a third party and get replaced with a bigger drive for a fraction of the cost.
posted by chairface at 11:13 AM on June 18, 2007

Best answer: Chances are pretty good that it's a hard drive with a pending failure. Back your stuff up ASAP.

But as long as you're backing stuff up as often as you say you are, I'd say go ahead and keep using it. Pursue repair only if the catastrophic ends up happening.

You could also keep closer tabs on it by installing and running SMARTReporter. It'll tell you if the drive falls outside of the manufacturer's specified "SMART" (stands for "Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology") tolerances, which can be a very good indicator of a failure.

And yeah, $350 is high. A new drive should run $70 to $120, and with labor that should make it closer to $200. This is assuming you have the work done by an authorized Apple service provider using a non Apple-provided hard drive.
posted by hollisimo at 11:18 AM on June 18, 2007

Best answer: P.S. The hardware test you ran from CD won't tell you if the hard drive's about to fail. Disk Utility (/Applications/Utilities/Disk Utility) is more geared toward that kind of diagnosis.
posted by hollisimo at 11:20 AM on June 18, 2007

Reinstalling the OS was the way to go. I'm stunned that the Mac "Genius" didn't suggest it earlier. Maybe he somehow assumed you had already tried that...or he's an idiot.

Anyway, if it solved your problem, then I wouldn't go out and replace the hard drive just for the hell of it. (And I wouldn't pay $350 for it in any case! $150, tops, should get you a huge new drive, installed, somewhere locally.)

BUT, and this is a big but, hard drives do wear out. They don't last forever. And the PowerBook G4 was known to have HD issues, I think because of its thermal characteristics. If you are keeping stuff on that machine without other backups, you are courting disaster. Don't do it. Spend your money on some sort of a useful backup scheme, that makes a safe copy at stuff at whatever interval you're comfortable re-doing work in the case of a failure. (E.g., would it make you suicidal to know you just lost a week of work? A day? A month? Two hours? Make sure you back up more frequently than that.)

You need to treat that hard drive with kid gloves, not because of the problems you just had -- sounds like you solved those -- but just because it's getting towards the end of its lifespan (at least for really critical applications, IMO).
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:26 AM on June 18, 2007

Best answer: Chiming in here with some potentially useful links:

1 - Don't bother replacing the drive yet. When it's time to, consider saving some money and do it yourself; here's a step-by-step how-to, and these guys or these guys are pretty reliable for good prices and the right hardware the first time.


This program (shareware, $27.95) will create a bootable copy of your internal disk, retaining all the permissions, files, settings, preferences, etc. When you replace the internal disk, you'll be able to restore from your backup and it'll be as if nothing ever happened.

Good luck!
posted by ZakDaddy at 11:28 AM on June 18, 2007

Response by poster: P.S. The hardware test you ran from CD won't tell you if the hard drive's about to fail. Disk Utility (/Applications/Utilities/Disk Utility) is more geared toward that kind of diagnosis.

hollisimo - I did this one, too, and still reported no problems! :)

This thread rules, it is going to be so helpful when my HD does finally shit the bed.
posted by tristeza at 11:33 AM on June 18, 2007

"Bad hard drive" is a perfectly reasonable diagnosis, and it's entirely possible. But a reinstall first to see if it helps is always a good idea. There seems to be smoe kind of filesystem bug in OSX where, after some point, the system will suddenly slow down and not respond well anymore. I've seen other people post about this problem here, and I just recently had an online friend run into it.

If the problem goes away, I'd say you're fine. If it persists, then hard drive is the most likely culprit.

If it does turn out to be the hard drive, I'm not sure it's worth spending $350 to fix a laptop that slow and old. If you can suck it up and buy a new MacBook, it would probably be a better use of money.

You MIGHT be able to just buy an aftermarket drive and use that. I'm not sure if G4s use the now-standard notebook drive form factor. If they do, then you could get a new drive for like $50.
posted by Malor at 11:43 AM on June 18, 2007

Reinstalling the OS is a great way to keep a Mac with a dying hard drive running for another month or two while you save up the cash to replace it. I've done this a bunch of times. Your Mac sounds exactly like my old iBook, which I resurrected twice with an archive and install before the hard drive finally died completely. Everything in my experience was exactly as you describe. You have only given yourself a temporary reprieve.
In answer to your question: yes you are courting disaster if you think that the success of your "archive and install" means your hard disk is not dying. Be super diligent about your backups, because as said above. Keep some old versions of backups around, because some of the files you are backing up daily are corrupted.
Although $350 seems awfully high for a hard drive replacement, bear in mind that for some models (eg my iBook G4) it's too hard to do for yourself, whereas for others it's easy peasy. You can google for instructions for your model and see if you think you can handle it.
posted by nowonmai at 11:48 AM on June 18, 2007

And note, to the people dissing the guy working in the Genius Bar.... it's easy to get into the mindset that OSX is perfect. He may not be aware of this particular issue; when you're used to thinking of the operating system as always right, when things DO go wrong, the first instinct tends to be hardware.

If he hasn't seen/isn't aware of the OS slowdown bug, suggesting a drive replacement is perfectly intelligent. And note that it WOULD fix the problem... via the reinstall that also happens. So he'd get confirmation that his diagnosis was correct, and would keep telling people to do the same thing.
posted by Malor at 11:48 AM on June 18, 2007

I swear it didn't look like that on preview: "Be super diligent about your backups, because you WILL be restoring from them in the next six months" is what I meant.
posted by nowonmai at 11:51 AM on June 18, 2007

Yeah, I'm just commenting to say: get a decent external hard drive, get some decent backup software (you might be able to get it free, even), and back up regularly.

Ignoring the signs of a dying hard drive, without backing things up, can really, well, suck.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 11:58 AM on June 18, 2007

Agree with everyone..back up back up back up! And It does sound like a bad HD. but one thing (and I know I will be the bad guy here) but the $350 doesnt sound too off.
A little high, but not too bad. If it is 12" PB thats about right (those things are a big ole pain in the ass to work on) but if its a 15 or 17" then, maybe 250-300 (thats about what I would charge), esp if you take it to a local shop. They have to make some money too.
posted by ShawnString at 12:12 PM on June 18, 2007

Best answer: It is possible for a reinstall to fix a certain kind of hard drive problem. Sometimes the magnetic coating on the platters in hard drives gets damaged and can't hold data. This is called a 'surface error' and it happens often enough that all modern hard drive have a built-in method for compensating, which involves 'remapping' any unusable sections of the platter to a section of the platter designated as spare. There are 2 limitation to this: First, there is a limited amount of spare space, and once it's all used, any further errors go uncorrected. Second, it can only remap properly when it detects an error writing, not reading, since if it can't read the data, it doesn't know what data to write to the alternate location. So, files on unreadable sections will stay unreadable, even important system files.

This is where re-installing helps you, since you are writing all new system data to the drive, anywhere you write to the will be remapped and therefore usable. This might work out great for you, no further action required.

However, to be safe, what you really want to do is this:
  1. Do a full backup*
  2. Erase your entire disk using the 'Zero All Data' option. This is under Disk Utility's 'Security Options'. Disk Utiliity is under the tools menu of your OSX installation disk. Since this writes to every section of your drive, this should lead to the drive remapping every bad section of your drive.
  3. Click on the drive icon in Disk Utility and look at the info at the bottom. It should have a 'S.M.A.R.T. Status' field that reads 'Verified'. If it says 'Failing', then it's time to replace it**. That probably means the drive has reached its remapping limit.
  4. Reinstall OSX on the now-empty drive.
  5. Use the migration wizard, which will start automatically, to restore your old files from your backup drive.
  6. Start backing up regularly.
* I would suggest backing up by acquiring an external hard drive the same size or larger than your internal one, and doing a full backup using SuperDuper. This will make a fully bootable copy of your system on the external drive, which means you'll be able to restore just by booting off the external (hold option key down at boot time) and copying the other way in SuperDuper. If you're going to be backing up regularly, it's well worth it to pay the $30 for it's Smart Update mode, which will speed up repeated backups considerably.

** Techrestore will do hard drive replacements for 1/2 the price of Apple with overnight both ways service. And they don't suck. Also, your local Apple Authorized Repair Center (or random nerd you know) might be willing to install a new hard drive for an hour labor + the hard drive cost. The G4 Powerbooks used industry-standard 2.5" IDE drives, which can be seen at Newegg here, among others.
posted by boaz at 12:26 PM on June 18, 2007

Okay the OS is working. Now copy a whole bunch of stuff on your drive. Fill it up as it was before. Now run fsck. If the drive is dying you should see some errors.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:57 PM on June 18, 2007

Response by poster: Yep, damn dirty ape, did that - no errors!
posted by tristeza at 12:59 PM on June 18, 2007

Best answer: I had the same problem that you are having with my MacBook Pro. Or course, the AppleCare person insisted that it was a software problem. (They are trained to tell people to reinstall and 'verify permissions' even if you have a very obvious hardware problem, like you can't read certain files off disk)

Also when I had similar problems, fsck did not return errors. Disk Utility reported that the SMART status was OK. Hardware Test showed everything was fine.

However, the hard drive was bad. If you are careful, you can type this into terminal:

find / -type f -exec cat {} >/dev/null \;

If there are IO errors (not permission errors) on certain files, you can't read some bytes off your disk, and you have a bad disk.
posted by rajbot at 1:48 PM on June 18, 2007

Response by poster: Update: all was working great after I reinstalled OS 10Xwhatever, until yesterday when I did a software update (per the automated notice) of OS and it won't start! Figures. I'm taking it back to the Mac store manana for that new harddrive. :)
posted by tristeza at 4:29 PM on June 22, 2007

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