Catastrophic Laptop Failure

Thursday night as I was headed off to bed, I noticed that my MacBook was making some strange sounds. It was as though its fans were running full blast, even though it was supposed to be asleep, so I opened it up to take a look and found that the screen had frozen. I tried to restart, but after multiple attempts, it just wouldn’t boot up. Something was very, very wrong with it.

To give a bit of background, I’ve had this MacBook for almost four years now. I got the cheapest model — the plain white plastic one — back when I was attending my college classes at UIC, and even though it’s not made of metal or anything, I’ve found it to be a very rugged little machine. You might even say it’s spent the past four years patiently enduring the worst abuse any laptop should ever have to suffer.

See, I had this tendency to never turn it off. I would just close the lid and shove it in my bag, and it would sleep in there until it was time to whip it back out again — then, I’d just open the lid and it’d be back up in three seconds. I loved that I could do that. Over the past four years, I don’t think it’s ever been powered off for more than a few minutes at a time. Not to mention that I’ve dragged it across the country, taken it on camping trips, left it to sit in the car in summer heat and winter cold… All things considered, it’s held up pretty well.

Until Thursday night, when it gave up the ghost without warning after a quiet evening in our living room.

Joe and I made some attempts to figure out the problem ourselves, but when nothing seemed to be working, I made a “Genius Bar” appointment at the nearest Apple Store for first thing Friday morning. It was actually at their new Lincoln Park location that just opened last year:

Shiny new Apple store. Too bad I couldn't visit under happier circumstances.

Long story short, one of the friendly Apple employees was able to determine that the hard drive was shot. The laptop would boot up fine from an external disk, and from there the hard drive was visible, just refusing to mount. I actually saw this as pretty good news — the machine would be completely fine with a new hard drive, and the cost of a hard drive is relatively small compared to the cost of a whole laptop.

They could sell me a new one, the same size as the 250 GB one I had, for $171.00 including installation. Or, I could buy a 3rd party hard drive from somewhere else and probably save some money, but I’d have to install it myself — they wouldn’t be allowed to assist with it. They could still re-install the operating system free of charge if I did that though.

So I ended up walking down the street to the Best Buy and buying a new 500 GB hard drive for $119.00. Then I walked back to the Apple store, sat down at the Genius Bar, sweetly asked to borrow some tools, and installed the new hard drive myself. It was nice to be surrounded by Apple employees who could (theoretically) come to the rescue in the unlikely event that I set something on fire, but of course that didn’t turn out to be necessary — installing a hard drive in a MacBook is very straightforward.

After that, they installed Mac OS X on the new blank hard drive. (They actually installed Snow Leopard, probably by accident, instead of regular Leopard that I’d had on there before. So I essentially got a $30.00 operating system upgrade for free.) And all this got done quickly enough that I was still able to go into work at the usual time that day.

Interesting side note: this seems to be a pretty bad time to need a new hard drive. There’s been some flooding in Thailand, where a lot of hard drives are made, and it’s apparently created a shortage that’s affecting hard drive prices worldwide. Check out these signs that were posted all over the place in our local Micro Center store:

Hard drive shortage notice at Micro Center.

Anyway, the new hard drive was indeed all that was needed to get my MacBook running good as new, although an OS reinstall makes it kind of a blank slate, like getting a new computer right out of the box. And the big downside to the old hard drive being dead was that I’d lose some baby photos and such — all of the most recent files I had sitting on the desktop were never backed up or uploaded anywhere, unfortunately.

I was a little sad about that, so I started looking into an inexpensive piece of software called VirtualLab Data Recovery. It offers a free trial version that lets you see which files (if any) might be recoverable from your busted hard drive, and you can decide whether it’s worth $40 for the full version to actually recover them. So I had my old hard drive plugged into the laptop, and I left it there to run the free scan all night.

MacBook connected to the old hard drive. (Yes, my laptop is held together by FrogTape.)

When I came back in the morning, I was surprised to see that the old hard drive had actually mounted itself at some point during the night, so I could copy everything over myself — no data lost, and no software purchase necessary. Cue the happy dances!

So in the end, this turned out to be more of an unscheduled laptop upgrade than anything: bigger hard drive, newer OS, and I even got to keep all my files. I still need to get everything configured and organized, but overall it seems like a pretty happy ending to a story about a crashed computer.

How about you guys — what’s the worst computer catastrophe you’ve ever had? And for other Mac users out there, have you had any interesting experiences (good or bad) with the “Genius Bar” folks at the Apple store?


  1. Wow! That’s awesome that you were able to get it taken care if that quickly and efficiently. I am also very impressed that you were able to install a hard drive! You are one talented lady! Joe is very lucky to have you! Thank goodness you were able to retrieve your pictures.

    The worst problem I had with a laptop was with a Dell laptop I had for a couple of years. I originally got it for my work-at-home job as a medical transcriptionist, but I used it for surfing as well. It had been giving me a pink screen occasionally which would cause me to have to restart before it would do anything. This continued for a couple of months until finally one day, it happened! It was the infamous blue screen of death! It also displayed a cryptic message, “Dumping physical memory.” Then, it died. Luckily, I was able to work on another computer, but that laptop was down for a couple of years. One day last summer, Geoffrey got a virus on his laptop which wiped the memory clean. He put the free OS Linux on it and got it to work, so I tried it on mine. It worked! So now, Amy has a laptop in her room to use, and I didn’t have to buy a new one. Love you all and can’t wait to see you!

  2. Glad you got your files back! One good thing about Macs being a bit “redundant”, though backups are always preferred. I think the funniest Mac “recovery” I ever experienced was with a desktop model at school, years back. One of the first “All In One” models, not even called iMac back then. I’d go to turn it on, and it’d light up some of the keyboard lights, but then it’d make the “chimes of death” (sort of a DUH duh duhhhhhh, like the notes before the murderer is accused), and shut down. The guy at school who usually fixed Macs or had the forms for sending them off was absent, and everyone I told had to come hear the sound, as PC’s didn’t make such a sound at the time. About the 10th time, it started up! When the Mac guy returned on Monday, he said the humidity in my room over a 2 week break must have been shorting the startup cycle, but every attempt sent a tiny amount of voltage through, drying the circuits until they dried enough to work again! I got another 2-3 years out of that computer, no real work done other than poking the start button repeatedly. Heh, sort of like Joe’s friend who said “Don’t poke me when I’m dead, either!”. Though in this case, it was good that I did.

  3. Thanks for the comments and computer stories! “Just install Linux on it” has been the only way I’ve ever successfully fixed the Blue Screen Of Death, but it’s so much better when they start magically working on their own again, hehe. :)

    I am really, really glad I was able to retrieve those pictures though. It’s sad that my biggest worry when the computer crashed wasn’t “I might not have a computer for a while” or “this is going to be expensive to fix” but rather “dear god I might lose some photos, noooo!!”

  4. I love the apple stores. I took my white macbook in because I had cracks in the palmrest. They replaced the entire piece along with the keyboard(!!) and fixed a problem I was having with imovie along the way.

    • Hi Kathie, thanks for dropping by! I actually had the exact same thing happen with this MacBook when it was a little under a year old, and they replaced the whole keyboard free of charge while I waited. It’s starting to happen again now, though since it’s almost four years old I figure it’s past the warranty period for them to do that (hence the FrogTape, haha…)

  5. Sarah, you should still take it in and have it repaired. They just repaired mine in November and my macbook is 4 years old and well out of warranty too. Also, they told me if I have to have it replaced twice more there’s a good chance they’ll just replace the laptop with a new macbook…Love apple. LOVE LOVE LOVE.

  6. Wow. Good to know I suppose.. I have a MacBook as well – I guess I didn’t know they “needed” to ever be shut off? lol. I NEVER turn mine off, unless it has to restart for an update or something. I suppose maybe I should start doing that every once in a while…

  7. Hi Kate! Just to be clear, I’m not sure my habit of keeping it on constantly had anything to do with the hard drive crash… I think hard drives just wear out naturally after a certain amount of time (2-5 years?) although it probably happens faster with heavier use. The lesson I’ve taken from this is to constantly back up any files I’d rather not lose, just in case something like this happens again. :)

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