eXtensions - Wednesday 17 January 2018


eXtensions: The Wednesday File (40) - Mac Failure Thrice Over

By Graham K. Rogers


Some people are just not lucky with updates. Last week two local users both experienced difficulties with High Sierra updates: one needing rescue for the second time as there was no backup. It seems that neither of these users were fully aware of tools available: Apple may provide, but may need to provide more education

For some reason, which I am sure is 50% luck, I have never had an update to the Mac's operating system that has gone wrong. That is a lot of updates since I moved from System 9 to OS X 10.1. One of my police Class One driving instructors often used to say, Sometimes you make your own luck. Those non-failures have also included beta versions of OS X and macOS I have been trying in the last few years: the purpose of these is to discover weaknesses before release.

That has not been going too well recently and there has been a series of highly-publicised problems (perhaps more publicity than other companies have) which suggest that the Mac is no longer as secure as I have been telling my friends: not that I am experiencing problems.

Last week I answered a query on Facebook when a local user's Mac failed to restart after the download of an update. I immediately downloaded the same 10.13.2 update to the 15" MacBook Pro I have available (and the next day also to the Mac mini at work) with no problems.

Older MacBook Pro models
Older MacBook Pro models

Later the same evening, I had a message from a friend to whom I had given my old 15" MacBook Pro (left in the image) a couple of years ago. It must have been 5 years old then, but makes a good documents and internet machine still. After an update - from Sierra - he too was unable to start the computer initially and saw a series of kernel panics. Over messenger I made suggestions, about Safe Boot and Single User Mode. Each showed him a normal login screen (including Single User mode) and any further action caused another crash.

When he had a failed update last year I had to rescue all data before erasing the disk (it was that bad), so I asked about a backup. No: because the backup disk he had been using had crashed. A check with Disk Utility in the Rescue Partition showed that the main disk failed to mount. With the other symptoms, I wondered if the necessary initiation files had become corrupted. We arranged to meet the next day.

Once I had the Mac in my hands I tried a series of startup commands: Normal, Safe, Single-User mode and Target mode. As he had described, each took me to the login screen and when the password was entered, a kernel panic followed. I also tried the Disk Warrior bootable USB drive I have (this is soon to be updated for High Sierra).

That started properly, using the Option key, but was unable to recognise any drive that could be repaired. Without a backup and with essential data on the computer, the first priority was (if possible) to retrieve that data. Among my collection of external drives, I have a hard disk with a working version of macOS so I started the Mac with that. After accessing user accounts I copied about 60GB of data across: Saved.

Hard disks
Hard disks including a rescue disk with macOS installed

To shortcut the process, I restarted the Mac using the Recue Partition (Command + R) and used the option to install a new version of macOS. That had not worked last year which is why I had to erase and start again, having recovered the data that time too.

This time, the download and installation went smoothly. The account was intact and all data safe. I began my lecture on backing up data and went through alternatives to the external disk (which I was promised would be replaced the next day). As part of this, I outlined how I make use of the iCloud feature to backup the Desktop and Documents. Not everyone likes this, but it is a pretty safe solution and gives me the luxury of being able to access the files from any Mac I have or iOS devices. The files could also be available via a browser on a PC.

iCloud Drive
iCloud Drive Viewed in a Browser Showing Desktop and Documents Folders

While working through this, I also talked about the use of Photos which was fresh in my mind last week as I had been writing about its new editing features. While he uses a Samsung phone, he does transfer those images to the Mac and to an iPad, so there is a case for using Photos with iCloud too. This will obviously cost some money as the free 5GB from Apple would just not be adequate. I have the 200GB plan for 99 baht a month (just under $3) and use about half of that currently. For the 50GB plan which may be suitable for him, the cost would be 35 baht.

Focussing on Photos, we turned on iCloud Photos, but as with Desktop and Documents in iCloud I explained that this would not be instant: best to leave the devices on overnight and the files would begin to upload to the cloud, then become available on other devices.

iCloud Drive
Apple Photos on a MacBook Pro

I was in Siam Paragon a couple of days later and thought I would check on his progress. He had not yet bought a hard disk and I could foresee this slipping down the list of priorities as he fretted over the texture of scones or his (delicious) almond slices. He does bake exceedingly good cakes.

In the iLife store, which is part of Copperwired (they run the iStudio stores in Siam and elsewhere) I found a few suitable hard disks, including Seagate and WD. The 1TB Seagate Ultra Slim was priced at 2,340 baht, but was instantly discounted to 1,990 without me even asking. I sent a message and bought the disk, although at this stage it is still here waiting for collection. We clearly have different priorities.

Disks on the Shelf
External Disks on Display

Also on the shelf was a WD 512 GB SSD drive, priced at 7,990 baht. I also found this disk in iStudio a couple of days later along with the WD 1TB SSD priced at 15,900 baht. It is nice to see these here, but they are not cheap. When I looked online later, the normal US price is around $200 for the 512GB model which has the advantage for me of the USB 3.1 and the USB-C connector. When I converted that price to baht and added 7% for VAT, that gave me about 6,900 baht. The 1,000 baht difference was nothing unusual.

Seagate Disk WD SSD

Seagate Ultra Slim disk (left) and WD 512GB SSD

On Amazon, however, the same disk was discounted to $159. With shipping and taxes the cost was 7,263 baht. My finger hovered over the Add to Cart button for a few minutes before I weakened. That may be in my hands next week, Amazon gave me two dates on the order confirmation (22 and 29 January), and a third date (26 January) on the shipping confirmation.

I returned to that first problem installation on Sunday and this was still on the back burner, so I made several suggestions, as I had for my friend's Mac. There was a slight difference as rather than the inability to startup, this one failed to complete the installation process. With both users, I was having to teach as I made suggestions as neither of them seemed fully aware of the tools available in the Rescue Partition.

An attempt to install a Time Machine backup (at least this user had this) came to nothing as the Mac again failed to complete the installation. After making a couple more suggestions (Single User mode did work and a file system check was reported to be OK), I suggested Disk Utility in the Rescue Partition and an Erase of the main disk. When that was done, he was surprised to find that macOS could be installed anew from this Rescue partition.

Rescue Partition
Utilities in Rescue Partition

Once the download was done and the installation complete, the user once again had a working Mac, which suggests that in both cases a corruption occurred to some of the files during the download, or their computers had undetected problems.

I am troubled sometimes by the amount that long-time Mac users don't know about the devices and software they use. Commenting on another criticism of Apple, The Macalope writes this week, "Honestly, while the tech press rightly throws a fit about these flaws (that's what we're here for), most Mac owners probably don't know anything about them" adding, "Come to think of it, taking Apple to task for inadequate education on such matters is probably a more valid criticism than saying "Macs have bugs so don't buy Macs"."

I am clearly not alone.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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