Macs and Failing Hard Disks - an early detection tool

The other day I was sitting at my desk when I started to hear a faint clicking sound. I pushed the noise out of my mind for a while and continued to work on the task at hand. Before long the clicking started to get louder and louder; it was clearly a consistent mechanical noise and was coming from under my desk, right where my Mac Pro is parked.

I popped my head down there and sure enough, it sounded like one of my 4 hard drives was starting to go. Usually if you hear a clicking sound coming from a hard drive its demise is imminent. I blasted out a quick note about this on Twitter and my friend Ast recommended that I try running SMART Utility to see where the problem was.

SMART Utility for Mac scans the internal hardware diagnostics of a hard drive to quickly determine its health. Using the data collected on the hard drive itself as well as a custom algorithm it can help predict when a hard drive is starting to have problems and may need to be replaced. It's like an early warning system that can give you a chance to pull the data off a drive before it's too late.

I pulled SMART Utility down and ran it and sure enough a Growl warning popped up:

When I took a look at the main SMART Utility screen there was a failing drive:
My Backup drive was having some issues: 375 errors and a reallocated bad sector. This 1TB drive is my primary backup for Time Machine; with that drive potentially compromised I started to panic. With all the documents, photos and digitized home video I've collected over the last 20+ years I was worried if one of my primary drives went down I'd be in serious trouble.

Fortunately for me I had an additional drive that I kept in my Mac Pro to serve as a spare. SMART Utility recommended that I replace the drive so I reset Time Machine to point at my spare drive and let it run, backing up the drive overnight.

The next day I shut down the Mac Pro, preparing to pull out the bad drive. It was only after I powered down my Mac that I realized I could still hear that clicking sound that started this little adventure. How was the drive clicking if it didn't have any power?!?

Well, it turns out it wasn't one of my drives that was doing the clicking; it was an older UPS that was also parked right next to my Mac Pro. The fan in it had started clicking—that was the sound I was actually hearing. I proceeded to kick the UPS until it stopped clicking.

(No, really, I did. Kicked it like a soccer ball. It ended up getting quiet for about 10 minutes too. Ultimately I ended up having to replace it anyway. No nasty comments from the People for the Ethical Treatment of UPSs, please.)

An Important Lesson
While the clicking sound wasn't actually the problem it did prompt me to test my drives. Had I known that a tool like SMART Utility was out there I would have bought and run it a long time ago. Sure, the drive SMART Utility identified hadn't completely failed yet and is technically still serviceable. That said, the data I have is far too important to store it on a drive that shows signs of having problems.

SMART Utility is a nice little app, can diagnose all of your drives in just a few seconds and costs $25. Highly recommended.

Oh yeah, if your drive starts to make a clicking sound I wouldn't recommend kicking it until it quiets down. That's only something you do with a balky UPS. Got a tip for keeping your hard drive healthy? A utility you recommend for ensuring it's safe? Drop a note in the comments.

Switching to Mac - Two Years Later

It's now the two year mark for my switch from Windows to Mac. Over the last two years I've gone from a Windows developer exploring the Mac as a compliment to my Windows and Linux machines to a full time Mac user that spends the vast majority of my time in OS X.

I didn't wake up one day and say "Wow, I hate Windows. I'm going to switch to Mac". I bought a little white MacBook, put it on the desk next to my primary Windows machine and started playing with it. Though technically underpowered compared to the dual screen, custom built PC I spent all of my time on, I found myself constantly reaching over to the MacBook to use it. The environment was fresh and new to me and I began to really enjoy the user interface consistency that OS X and the vast majority of Mac applications shared.

For such a small device the performance was excellent too; though it was the least expensive of the MacBook line of computers it didn't feel like a compromised machine. Applications loaded quickly and I could run several large applications at once and see very little performance impact. In the past when I purchased the least expensive Windows based laptops the machine was barely usable out of the box; it needed to be cleaned of all the "extra" applications and within a month of using it the performance would start to deteriorate. Not so with the Mac.

In relatively short order I went from having a MacBook to purchasing a Mac Pro, which replaced my primary Windows desktop. Whereas the MacBook was quick, the Mac Pro was—and still is—remarkably fast. With dual 2.8Ghz quad core Xeons and 12GB of RAM, I was suddenly able to run a huge number of applications seamlessly.

The bottom line is I'm really happy I decided to "try out" that MacBook two years ago. Computing—as a software developer the place I spent a huge number of my waking hours—became fun and exciting again.

Tips For New Switchers
Over the last two years I've learned a lot about helping people make a successful switch from Windows to Mac. Here is a quick summary of some tips that can help you or someone you know make the transition easier, along with some links to blog posts on the topic:

1) Learn the keyboard
As a touch typist the first problem I had when I started using a Mac was adjusting to the keyboard. A Mac has a Control, Option and Command key to the left of the spacebar, Windows has Control, Start, Alt in that same spot. The more advanced a keyboard user you are the more time it will take you to adjust. Keys like Home and End exist on a full size Mac keyboard but they don't perform the same actions they do on Windows. Backspace and Delete swap labels but not functionality. All of this leads to a lot of missteps initially; invest the time to learn the keys.

2) Be prepared to deal with MS Office files
Nobody at Apple would ever want to admit it but for now DOC, XLS and PPT files are the common language of the business world. You will want to find a solution to open, create and edit Microsoft Office files quickly and easily. The most obvious way to handle this is to get the Mac version of Microsoft Office. While I personally have it installed on one of my Macs, lately I've been using Neo Office to handle those types of files. Though technically you can use iWork to handle that, creating DOC and XLS files in Pages and Numbers requires extra steps that make it a challenge.

Blog Posts: I hate my Mac!

3) Learn about DMG files
If you download a new application over the web chances are it will be packaged up as a DMG file. A DMG file is a disk image and presents itself like a physical CD / DVD would when it is loaded up on your Mac. TUAW has an excellent 101 style overview of them. DMG files are important because of tip #4.

4) Learn to install applications
If you are coming from the Windows world you will need to adjust to how 3rd party applications are delivered on Macs. In Windows most downloaded applications come in the form of a self contained setup program. Double-click it and it starts an install wizard. On Mac you will generally receive a DMG file (see tip #3 above). Inside it may be a PKG file; which can be double-clicked to start an installation program. In some cases the application will just be contained in the DMG file; you drag that into your Applications folder to "install" it. The process is simple once you learn it but not obvious if you are new to Macs.

5) Time Machine is your friend
Go out and buy an inexpensive external hard drive that you can use to run Time Machine, the backup program that comes with OS X. It's seamless, backs up your machine every hour and quickly allows you to either grab an older version of a file you've recently modified or perform a complete restore on the machine. I don't need to use Time Machine for restoring files too often but when I do it's a glorious feeling that I've got backups when I need them.

6) Learn about windows
I'm not talking about Windows the operating system, but the windows in OS X. In Windows when you want to close an application people often just click the X in the top right corner of the window. On OS X the majority of the time clicking on the little red circle that turns into an X when you hover over it will also close the window of the application but not actually quit the application. Maximizing a window in OS X doesn't make it full screen like it does in Windows.

7) Find some great applications
OS X is a pretty complete operating system and comes with enough applications to get any web oriented person up and running. That said, there are tens of thousands of applications that you can use to make the most out of your Mac experience. Over the last two years I've cataloged the applications I've found and without a doubt those are my most popular blog posts. Whatever your interest is, chances are someone has created a nice little application to service that need.

Hopefully this will help some of the more recent switchers out there. You can grab a complete list of my Switching to Mac blog posts (currently at 71) by clicking on the Switching to Mac label on my blog.

Have a tip for helping a recent switcher adjust to a Mac from Windows? Drop a note in the comments below!