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Everything is broken: Why you shouldn't beat yourself up when troubleshooting

Glenn Fleishman | May 19, 2015
I've made a decent to large part of my living for more than 20 years learning about how to fix problems and then trying to tell others how to follow suit. And this last week has been among my highest in terms of frustration in using computers in my entire life. But, per my modus operandi, I have truth born from a bloody fight to share with you.

Hey, zapping the NVRAM (non-volatile RAM) that holds some system settings can't hurt! Restart, Command-Option-P-R, bing, bing, bing.

None of my usual routine helped.

These techniques revealed nothing wrong or unusual. According to all measures I could take, something was undefinably out of whack, but invisible. There were additional tests I could run, but these hadn't helped in years.

I was using third-party RAM to bring the mini to an unsupported 16GB (for the model I have anyway; new Mac minis do support that). The last time RAM was a culprit, it was with a titanium PowerBook and, I believe, Panther. In some cases, non-Apple RAM would fail. You can test RAM with Apple's built-in diagnostic tools. However, the particular symptoms didn't match, and RAM is unlikely to go bad — it happens, but it's rare for RAM to fail this long after it's put into use.

I could have turned to third-party disk diagnostic tools that promise (and in some cases deliver) to check various parameters that Disk Utility doesn't, of which there are many, and provide a report and potentially a repair. But given that Disk Utility passed the drives repeatedly and the problems didn't seem familiar from my history with failures over decades, it seemed unlikely.

Instead, I bought a new Mac.

Spinning into oblivion

Hey, big spender, I hear you saying. Buying a new computer is an extreme step, and not a way for everyone to solve their problems! This is true. However, as a freelance writer, not having a functional machine for my primary work means not making money. Having devoted many hours already of non-billable time, I ordered a new lower-end Mac mini from Apple, and picked it up Wednesday morning from a nearby Apple Store.

Here is where my strategy seemed to pay off in using the external SSD drive. I pulled out the old Mac mini, swapped cables, and booted holding down the Option key so I could pick the external drive. I was back in business!

Except not. I saw even worse problems with a machine four years newer and substantially better in performance than the computer it was replacing. Some tears may have ensued. After one restart into Recovery mode and more Disk Utility checking, it turned out an external FireWire 800 drive was, in fact, unrepairable. It was also four years old, and while drives can last much longer, it's not unreasonable for a drive to fail after that period of time. It's another reason that SSDs will ultimately overtake spinning drives, the same reasons LEDs are replacing incandescent bulbs: reliability and long life.

(When I shopped for a replacement for that 2TB FireWire 800 drive, which I used for backups, I wanted to get a higher capacity. However, I knew that some drive models had experienced high failure rates. I consulted Backblaze's "What Is the Best Hard Drive?" blog post from January. Backblaze uses off-the-shelf drives for its cloud storage, and has exceedingly useful information about outliers. I avoided the 3TB Seagate that they found problematic.)


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