Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Alleluia Time Machine!

A couple of weeks ago I bought a new, bigger, network drive as the hard drive plugged to my Airport Extreme was already getting full. This allowed me to free a drive for Time Machine. I had the new Mac OS (10.5, aka Leopard) installed on both my iMacs for months, but never got around setting up Time Machine, Mac's new automatic backup software, because I didn't have any spare hard drive. I first set up Time Machine on my main iMac (Intel latest generation). That's the one I use for work, so it was my first priority. It was quite easy to install: I had just to plug the spare drive (aptly named Tardis) on the USB port and turn Time Machine on. It immediately started to make the first, full backup. After that it makes hourly incremental backups. “Time Machine saves the hourly backups for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups for everything older than a month.” It does that until the drive is full and then it erase the backups and starts again. It really gives you a sense of security. But if backups make you feel safe, it is mostly because you think that you will probably never need it anyway...

A few days later, being quite satisfied with how the software was working (mainly because it was not slowing the system--and therefore my work--when doing backups), I decided to implement Time Machine on my secondary iMac (a pre-iSight G5 that I use for backup, research, testing and download). First, I had to free another, smaller, hard drive by moving content around (to Navi, the network drive plugged to Airport Extreme, and to Tardis). Since it was a smaller drive, I also had to set up TM to exclude some, less important, folders (Music, Movie), while doing its backup. Once turned on, Time Machine started doing it backup quietly and flawlessly. After a while you forget about it. It's part of the system. It's just a safety net...

About a week later, I noticed that my secondary iMac was getting quite slow. I checked to see if one of the softwares was dragging the system down, but couldn't find anything wrong. I rebooted just in case, but nothing changed. The system was still slow to respond to any command. So, last Thursday, in frustration, I decided to turn the computer off, thinking of doing more tests later. When I turned it on again on Good Friday afternoon, it refused to boot. I tried several time and all I was getting was the Apple logo, the spinning wheel, the fan was starting to run like crazy after a while, and sometime ending up with a kernel panic (the multilingual screen of death). My computer was dead! I was busy and there was nothing much I could do, so I left it alone.

Finally, Sunday I had a little spare time (it was Easter, my wife was working and the big family dinner would not happen before next week) so I decided to do some tests. I succeeded to boot the iMac with the Leopard install disk. It could be either some corruption in the OS software or some problem with the hard drive. First, I checked the drive with Disk Utility. I thought that doing some repair on the disk would probably solved the problem. Wrong! Disk Utility gives me right away a “Fatal Hardware Error” on the drive. Bad news... So the drive is dead. It is confirmed by the Apple Hardware Test that gives an error code on the SATA bus. Now I know what to do to resuscitate my iMac (which is quite appropriate on Easter!) Unfortunately, all repair shops and computer stores are closed until Monday. It leaves me some time to do a little thinking. My AppleCare warranty has already expired in December, so bringing it to the repair shop will probably be quite costly. On the other hand, the hard drive on this model is still easily accessible so I could simply purchase a new drive and install it myself. If it doesn't work I could still bring it to the repair shop. So I download the “how-to” instructions from Apple website, check my iMac specs to make sure which drive I need and go to Microbytes to purchase a new (twice bigger) hard drive. It takes fifteen minutes to install the new drive, reboot with the Leopard install disk and reformat the drive. Now comes the big test for Time Machine. It takes a couple of hours to restore the iMac with the Time Machine backup, but it finally reboot and looks like nothing ever happened! Alleluia Time Machine!

I've never seen a backup system so easy to use! If you have a Mac and are running Leopard, the safest thing to do is to make sure that Time Machine is on. You never know when you'll need it.

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