Mac Mini hard drive failing? Steps to recover for a PC guru / Mac novice

Posted on 2011-10-25
Last Modified: 2012-06-27
Greetings mac gurus!

I have a client with a failed Mac Mini and while I have extensive experience supporting PCs, I have virtually none with Apples (because they never break, right?) :)

Here's what happened: My client fired a disgruntled employee. That person took the Mac Mini home claiming he wanted data off of it. When my client found out he immediately had the unit retrieved utilizing law enforcement. Now the Mini won't boot! My 1st thought was sabotage but apparently the guy who took it has been desperate to access the unit after it was taken back to "retrieve his personal data" so that seems unlikely that he would damage it on purpose (unless his request is to cover his tracks). My client is pretty convinced the guy didn't damage it. However it was moved from place to place several times. Maybe it got dropped or bumped.

Anyway, drama aside, it now just gives the spinning circle or wheel of death. I tried going into recovery or repair mode (following a guide online) and it did load into something where I was able to select an option to check and repair the disk but that didn't do anything. No error messages that I can recall. It just scanned and did nothing.

Normally with a PC I would just rip out the drive and plug it into an external enclosure and see if it is detectable on another PC and then retrieve data off it (if it's failing).

However, since it's a Mac, I have no clue what to do. I did pull the drive (which was not fun) and hook it up to my PC and the BIOS detects it. I then ran MacDrive Standard trial version which also sees the drive but doesn't display. It has a repair option but it just freezes when I try it.

Any ideas? What is the proper procedure on a Mac to diagnose a failed / failing drive and/or retrieve data off it? And to make this extra challenging for the gurus, what is said procedure without having access to another Mac?! Plenty of PC and Linux boxes at my disposal and an iPad2, but alas, no Macs...

I guess in theory I could put a new drive in the Mac Mini and reinstall the Mac OS and then try to hook this drive up externally? Reeeeeeally hoping to avoid that in the short term. I just want to tell the client if his data is pooched or not but I'm not sure how to proceed.

It's a newer model Mac Mini. Maybe a year old? The hard drive is a 320GB Toshiba.

Thanks for your help
Question by:clarityclark
    LVL 53

    Expert Comment

    Really, you need another Mac to retrieve the data. See if you can borrow one. If the drive is now in an external enclosure, connect it to another Mac and see if it can read the disk. If not, your best bet is to use DataRescue III to recover the data:
    LVL 53

    Expert Comment

    Doesn't your client have another Mac that you could use?

    Author Comment

    I was afraid you guys were going to say that!

    No, this was the client's sole Mac. It was the web designer's PC.

    I'll see if I can gain access to one. If not, I can always install the MacOS fresh on his Mini with a spare laptop SATA drive.

    If I do the latter, what will I need to reinstall the MacOS fresh on the new drive? In theory he should have the discs it came with (assuming it comes with anything. Most Windows laptops make you burn your own media which I doubt was done). License key?
    LVL 53

    Expert Comment

    You install the Mac OS using the install DVD that came with the Mini. Insert it and boot while holding down the c key to force a boot from the DVD drive.

    The concern I have is it sounds as if you have disk directory corruption which cannot be repaired using the built in disk utility program. (I am surmising this from your first post in which you said you could not repair the drive. (Perhaps you can explain more specifically exactly what you tried.)

    If in fact there is disk directory damage which the Mac Disk Utility (or the command link fsck instruction) cannot repair, you are not going to be able to re-install the system. You will have to repair the disc directory corruption first.

    A heavy duty commercial disk repair program might repair the drive when Disk Utility won't, but if that won't work, your only choice is to erase and reformat, but of course, that destroys the data.

    I guess at this point we need to know whether your priority is to recover the data or to re-install the system?
    LVL 53

    Expert Comment

    If you do have the system DVD, try booting from it while holding down the c key, then instead of going ahead with an install, pull down the Utility menu to Disk Utility and run Repair Disk. If the disk repair is successful, try rebooting from the hard drive to see if it now works.

    Also, have you tried a safe boot by holding down the shift key?
    LVL 19

    Expert Comment

    now you can try advise above. but a spinning wheel problem can be fixed by following the procedure below.

    1. Turn it off completely.
    2. turn it back on but at the same time press and hold cmd+s key down . keep the buttons held down until you see a windows like command prompt.
    3. it will be like root:
    4. type exactly   /sbin/fsck -fy  (you might see this in the text mode)
    5. wait till it finishes, you will just have to wait and the shell will return to root:
    6. now type, /sbin/mount -uw / (again you will see this return to root: )
    7. now type, rm -rf /library/caches  (exactly as it is)
    8. once done, type reboot and press RETURN.

    see if it boots now.

    Author Comment

    Hey guys, sorry for the delay getting back re: this issue. The client put it on the back burner.

    So to update, it was the Mac OSX Disk Utility that I was booting into. When I ran repair disk it claimed it was unable to repair the drive and I should reformat and restore from backup. I tried other things like booting into Verbose Safe Mode (Shift-Command-V) which said Disk I/O Error in amongst all the stuff that goes flying by. Safe mode fails to load.

    Sounds like you're right, Strung. Whatever errors the drive has (it passes SMART ironically), the Apple OS is unable to repair.

    Innocentdevil. Command+S didn't work. It either went to the built in Disk Utility again or just sat there and wouldn't boot.

    So at this point, put the drive in another Mac and try commercial recovery software?
    LVL 53

    Accepted Solution

    If you don't have a backup and need to recover the data, your best bet is DataRescue III:

    You have several options:

    1. You can purchase a bootable CD with Data Rescue on use it to boot the Mac and recover to a USB external.
    2. If you have another Mac and both have firewire ports, you can connect the two Macs using a firewire cable and use Firewire Target Disk Mode ( ) which will make the mini's drive accessible from the second Mac and allow you to use DataRescue from the second Mac to recover the data.

    Author Comment

    Just a follow-up.

    I installed the Mac OS on a replacement drive and then gave Data Rescue 3.2 a try on the failing drive hooked up via external enclosure. Data Rescue was able to recover a bunch of files. Thanks for the advice.

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