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Originally published Friday, December 6, 2013 at 5:50 PM

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Beyond data backup, maybe a backup machine?

Computing catastrophes happen, and besides backing up your data, Jeff Carlson has found that it pays to also have a backup computer available just in case.


Special to The Seattle Times

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Practical Mac

Computer problems happen at the most inconvenient times, but being prepared for them can turn catastrophes into speed bumps.

The first, most important things to remember is that computer components fail and data is ephemeral. I’ve railed in this space for a long time about the importance of having good backups; if you don’t have at least one backup, at the very least go buy an inexpensive external hard drive right now (there are lots of good holiday deals) and set it up as a Time Machine backup. The Mac will guide you through the process when you connect the drive to the computer for the first time.

While hard drives are usually the first to fail, plenty of other vulnerable components in your Mac could also misbehave. Apple hardware is top-notch, but when you’re talking about building complex electronics on the scale of millions of units, failures do occur.

Recently, when I was juggling four simultaneous book projects, my 2010 15-inch MacBook Pro began to abruptly “kernel panic.” If you’ve never had the pleasure, a kernel panic is an immediate systemwide crash of OS X — it’s the Mac’s version of the Windows “blue screen of death.”

In my experience, kernel panics are rare ... as in, one or two per year. When it started, I was running the pre-release version of OS X Mavericks and assumed it was a bug in that developing operating system. But even after Mavericks shipped, the panics continued.

The problem, it turned out, wasn’t Mavericks at all, but a failing graphics processor in the machine. Apple offers a free fix for that model for three years after purchase, even for people who didn’t sign up for AppleCare, but at the time mine didn’t exhibit any of the symptoms, so I didn’t send it in. When trouble arrived, my MacBook Pro, of course, was a few months outside that window.

After consulting with a Genius at the Apple Store, the fix was to get the graphics processor replaced, which involved replacing the logic board (essentially, the guts of the computer). The good news is that it’s a $310 repair, which is perfectly acceptable for a computer that I rely on for my business. I was afraid an entirely new computer would be needed; although I’d love to get a new 15-inch MacBook Pro with a Retina display, my budget favored the repair.

This is the point where, if you’re in my shoes, you start to calculate what your time is worth. If you use a Mac for any type of work, shipping it off for several days to be repaired can be crippling. That’s why I recommend having a backup machine of some sort. In my case, it’s a 2011 Mac mini I normally use for testing but also have in case just this circumstance arises.

You can put a replacement Mac into play with very little effort and not lose much work time. The easiest method is to start up the alternate machine using one of your main computer’s backups. In addition to using Time Machine for backups, I also recommend making a duplicate; I use the utility SuperDuper ($27.95, www.shirt-pocket.com ), but Carbon Copy Cloner ($39.99, www.bombich.com ) is another good choice. Connect the duplicate to your replacement Mac and hold the C key during startup to choose which drive to use. You’ll see the same environment that you’re accustomed to.

Another option is to build a minimal system that includes only the essential applications you need in the interim. I went with this option, and thanks to cloud services, the switch was easy.

First I installed Dropbox on the Mac mini, which transferred all my active projects and important files.

Next, I opened the App Store application, clicked the Purchases tab, and reinstalled any applications I needed that were originally bought from the Mac App Store. Chief among these was 1Password ($49.99,agilebits.com), which stores all of my other software serial numbers. The latest version includes an option to store your 1Password library using iCloud, so when I launched it on the Mac mini, it found my library and made it ready to use.

A few applications needed to be re-downloaded from the developers’ sites, but I was also able to copy some from the Applications folder on the MacBook Pro to the same location on the Mac mini. To ensure their data came across as well, I had to do a small amount of digging into the Library folder in my Home directory. Normally this folder is hidden, but Mavericks introduced a welcome new feature: with your Home folder visible in a Finder window (choose Go > Home), choose View > Show View Options and enable the new checkbox labeled Show Library Folder. Navigate to the Application Support folder and copy over any folders matching the name of the application you’re transferring.

The last step was to reinstall the Adobe applications I use frequently (Lightroom, InDesign and Photoshop). Since I’ve bought into the Creative Cloud, all I had to do was log in and download those applications.

Recent Macs, including my Mac mini, have no optical drives, so reinstalling Microsoft Office 2011 from my discs wasn’t possible. Microsoft offers (as a hard-to-find link) instructions for downloading an installer for the suite: support.microsoft.com/kb/2439384.

Within a few hours, I had a working replacement system that would get me through until my MacBook Pro returned.

Jeff Carlson writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to carlsoncolumn@mac.com. More Practical Mac columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.



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