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The Hole in My Backup Plan

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 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:

  • Given my line of work, I regularly rely on software that runs only on Intel-based Macs (such as virtualization programs). That fact alone means I can’t get some of my crucial work done on either of the PowerBooks. And even some universal binary applications, like Microsoft Office 2008, are at times painfully slow on a G4.
  • Although my Mac mini has an Intel processor, it’s slow and has half the RAM of my MacBook Pro – it’s better than nothing, but still not enough. (It’s also normally busy doing other important tasks, such as functioning as a backup server, so it’s problematic to switch to it for any length of time.)
  • Because there’s no stand-alone, high-resolution monitor in the house, I’m also constrained to working with a much smaller screen than I’m accustomed to, and that seriously reduces my productivity.
  • Much of my work involves testing software – which means I need to be able to have a reliable Mac to use for writing and other essential tasks, while testing risky or time-consuming programs and procedures on a less-critical computer. Having my most reliable and useful computer disappear from the mix is debilitating.
  • Apart from the issue of sheer processor speed, the limited RAM in my other computers makes it impractical to run as many applications at once as I normally do, further reducing my efficiency.
  • I hadn’t installed all my important software separately on the PowerBook or Mac mini or synchronized my most essential files (as there had never been a need to do so), meaning that I had to jump through some extra hoops just to get back to work. To be sure, I could boot one of our other Macs from the duplicate of my MacBook Pro’s drive. But for a variety of reasons, that makes my work awkward, especially since the capabilities and configuration of the MacBook Pro are so much different from those of the other Macs.

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.

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