This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2008-06-30 at 2:53 a.m.
The permanent URL for this article is:
Include images: Off

The Hole in My Backup Plan

by Joe Kissell

A couple of weeks ago, my 17-inch MacBook Pro, which has been my primary computer for the last year, stopped working. I know a thing or two [1] about troubleshooting, and I tried all the tricks I could think of, but the problem appeared not to involve the hard disk, RAM, NVRAM, PMU, or any other component my ministrations could affect. My Mac was showing the signs of having a logic board defect, and since I couldn't even boot from a CD without a kernel panic, it was necessary to put my Mac in the hands of professionals for repair.

The timing couldn't have been worse, as I was simultaneously pushing to meet several major writing deadlines, trying to spend time with family visiting from out of town, and preparing to move to a new apartment! And this little crisis has highlighted a deficiency - or maybe a few deficiencies - in what I thought was an excellent backup plan. Being without my main computer this long (I hope to get it back this week) has been excruciating, and as a public service I'd like to explain why that is.

First, I want to be very clear about the fact that I follow my own advice. Of course I have multiple backups of my data, including a bootable duplicate. I also have AppleCare for this laptop, so even though it was a couple of weeks past the end of its standard 1-year warranty, I knew that any potentially expensive repairs would be covered. (And yes, that coverage extends here to France even though I bought the computer in the United States.) I also have two other Macs here (and my wife has a third), so there are other Macs I can use in the interim.

However, apart from all the hours I've had to spend troubleshooting and dealing with the repair, the biggest problem has been that none of these other Macs comes close to giving me the capabilities of my MacBook Pro, which has a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 4 GB of RAM, a 250 GB hard disk, and a 1920-by-1200-pixel display. The other Macs I have at my disposal are two PowerBook G4s (including the 1 GHz TiBook on which I'm now typing this) and the Intel-based Mac mini that's our media server (and whose only display is a standard-definition TV). All of these have significant problems as backup machines, but I'd never realized this was the case because I'd never had to rely on them completely.

Here's what I found:

So what's the lesson to be learned from all this? Honestly, I'm not yet entirely sure. It would be easy enough to say I should have had a backup computer with as much (or nearly as much) oomph as my main computer, but I can't afford that, and for the 99 percent of my time that my main Mac is working, it would be overkill. I'd like to make the argument that we now clearly need a high-definition TV - you know, just so we have a decent monitor to use in emergencies! - but that could cost more than a new Mac. I'm leaning toward the opinion that, at the very least, I should buy new Macs a bit more frequently (again, finances permitting) so that my previous computer is still recent enough to do real, demanding work.

Needless to say, your mileage may vary. You may suffer much less inconvenience, or much more, to be without your main Mac - or your only Mac - for a couple of weeks. I can't make a good general-purpose suggestion about having a backup Mac available, but this experience has made me aware of an entirely new set of issues to think about when considering what's needed to stay up and running when trouble strikes.