MacBook: Can’t boot from CD with defective hard drive

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
March 11th, 2010 • 4:15 pm

The other day, a young friend of mine came to be with a three-year-old MacBook in obvious distress. According to him, the symptoms had started on that very morning with a freeze during web browsing. Thinking nothing of it, he had force-quit his browser and then continued working.

Then shortly after the first freeze, he got another freeze, this time working with files in the Finder. And after that he noticed that his machine was becoming abnormally sluggish. So he decided to reboot.

He did, and was faced with a solid grey screen that did not seem to want to go away. After a few minutes, he decided to call me. Then, while we were talking on the phone the folder icon with the question mark appeared.

I told him that it was obviously a problem with the startup volume, i.e. his internal hard drive, and that it could be more or less serious, depending on the actual cause of the failure to boot from the drive. I instructed him over the phone to insert his original system CD, which thankfully he was carrying with him.

The laptop appeared to be able to boot from the system CD. I meant to attempt to guide him through the use of Disk Utility on the system CD, but by that stage he was a bit wary of doing something wrong, so I invited him to come over so that we could look at things together.

He asked me how he should turn off the laptop, and I told him to leave it the way it was and bring it without attempting anything else.

When he arrived here, I saw that he was still at the first screen on the system CD, where the installer asks for the user’s language preference. I then proceeded to go through the usual screens and select Disk Utility in the “Utilities” menu. The utility launched just fine, but then when it came time to displaying available volumes on the left-hand side, Disk Utility got stuck. After a few minutes, it was still not showing either the startup CD or the internal hard drive.

I listened to the machine closely and it was not really making any noise beyond the expected fan noise and very small clicking sound from time to time. It was not a very good sign.

Since Disk Utility was obviously not going anywhere, I decided to try and boot the machine using my trusty DiskWarrior CD. To do that, I went to press the power button for five seconds to shut down the machine. However, I noticed that the machine went down as soon as I had started pressing on the power button, and not after the five second delay.

I then pressed it again to start the machine up and held the trackpad button down to force the MacBook to eject the CD. I got the expected startup chime and then a grey screen, and the MacBook did eject the system CD as expected. But nothing happened while I was taking the CD out and inserting the DiskWarrior CD instead. The folder with question mark did not reappear.

And once I had inserted the DiskWarrior CD, the MacBook failed to boot from it. It just stayed at the grey screen stage. After a few minutes, I went to shut down the machine by pressing the power button. Once again, I didn’t have to hold the button for five seconds. The laptop went off right away.

It was not looking good. I tried to reboot with the “C” key down. Again, I got the startup chime, and then the grey screen, and then nothing. And again when I went to shut down, I only had to press the power button for a fraction of a second.

I tried various power-related things in case it was just a case of PRAM corruption due to the multiple aborted booting cycles. I took the battery out and tried to boot using the power adapter exclusively. I tried zapping the PRAM. It was all to no avail.

Since the hard drive contained a few important files that my friend had not had time to back up, I tried the last option I could think of, which was to start the laptop in target disk mode (with the “T” key down) so that I could attempt to mount it as an external hard drive on my own computer.

Unfortunately, even that did not work. I never got to the black screen with the FireWire logo. I just got the grey screen again.

We tried once again to boot from the original system CD, and again got nowhere.

I told my friend that, provided that the procedure was not overly complicated, we could try and physically take the hard drive out and connect it to my computer using the universal ATA/IDE/SATA-to-USB adapter that I have for such purposes. After all, when my sister-in-law encountered a similar situation a few years ago, I was actually able to extend the life of the failing device by a few hours by simply taking it out and then rocking it gently from side to side while it was powered up and trying to read data.

Fortunately, a quick Google search revealed that DYI hard drive replacement instructions were readily available in PDF format on Apple’s own web site.

I downloaded the instructions and followed them and got the hard drive out in a few minutes.

Unfortunately, despite multiple attempts at gentle rocking, I failed to elicit any response from the dead drive. It just wouldn’t mount on my computer, and the sparse noises coming from it were definitely a sign of complete and irreversible failure.

The price of a replacement hard drive is fairly reasonable (approx. $50CDN plus taxes and shipping). And as indicated in the DYI instructions, the procedure is extremely simple. But of course this will not help my friend recover his lost files.

Once my friend had gone, however, I was left with one important question: Why was the laptop unable to boot from the system CD or from my DiskWarrior CD?

Before my friend left, we were able to confirm that the laptop was able to boot from the original system CD now that the hard drive had been physically removed from the machine.

In other words, it was the very presence of the defective hard drive inside the machine that was preventing the MacBook from booting from any CD. And this, to me, does not make any sense.

I can understand not being able to start with the Option key down and select the startup volume among the row of icons for available volumes. After all, in order to display the row of icons, the MacBook does need to at least attempt to read from the internal hard drive, and it is conceivable that it can get stuck at that stage because of a hard drive failure and never get to the point where it can display the startup volume icons. It is conceivable, even though it seems to me that the machine should be able to display those startup volumes that are available and apparently working even if the other volumes are failing.

But that’s not even what we were attempting to do. We were attempting to boot directly from the CD by pressing the “C” key down during startup. My understanding was that this shortcut would by-pass the hard drive altogether and not even attempt to read from it.

But obviously that is not the case on that particular type of MacBook. Even if you press the “C” key down as soon as you have pressed the power button to start the machine, apparently this MacBook model still attempts to do something with the internal hard drive, and, when the hard drive fails, that seems to be enough to completely block the machine and prevent it from booting from the CD until you physically remove the hard drive altogether.

This is definitely not the case with older Mac laptops that I have had the opportunity to troubleshoot. But it is also definitely something that I have already noticed in the the recent past on another fairly recent MacBook that I was asked to help troubleshoot. (I don’t remember the details, but I remember noticing the same inability to boot from CD.)

Obviously, my experience with this is limited to the number of defective machines that I have had the opportunity to troubleshoot over the years. I don’t have the opportunity to force the failure of internal hard drives on various machines just to see how they behave when it comes to booting from CD.

But if it is indeed impossible to boot a MacBook from CD once the internal hard drive has failed—at least until you physically remove the hard drive from the machine—then I consider this a significant design flaw, and one that partially defeats the very purpose of the boot-from-CD feature. It just makes end users and troubleshooters like myself even more powerless when it comes to trying to fix problems. In my view, as long as all other parts of the machine are functional, a laptop should always be able to boot from CD, regardless of how defective the internal hard drive is.

That does not appear to be the case with this three-year-old MacBook, and I wonder it is a limitation that is in any way linked to the switch to Intel hardware.

2 Responses to “MacBook: Can’t boot from CD with defective hard drive”

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