Friday, June 17, 2011

Analyzing the Death of an iMac

The story so far:

My iMac died this past Sunday.
I ordered a new one, but it's not exactly what I want.

While I wait for the replacement computer to arrive, I'm going to practice taking something boring and making it interesting.  That's what we sci-fi writers do.

What could have caused the death of my hard drive?  I have no idea, but I can venture a couple of guesses.

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon.  We were already back from church.  I was working to free up 10GB of space on my hard drive.

You see, for the past few months, my iMac had been running with less than 1GB of space on the hard drive.  A long time ago, that would be plenty of space, but not today with all the memory-hogs we all run.  Snow Leopard always likes to do stuff in the background, such as search indexing and defragging the hard drive.  Once it got down to 500MB free, pop-up boxes kept telling me that space was getting low.  I said, "Okay!  I get the message!" and I set a goal to free up 10GB by the end of the week.

Saturday I had gotten it up to 9.1GB.  So close!!  On that fateful Sunday afternoon, I only had to get rid of 0.9GB more.  It took a while, but I found some duplicate video files.  Delete!  I was then up to 9.7GB.  I tried compacting my Outlook database.  It saved less than 0.1GB.  I saw that iTunes wanted to be updated.  I did that and restarted the computer, though I noticed it was going slow.  Startup showed one of those progress bars that you only see when it's checking the hard drive for problems.

I thought that was interesting.

After upgrading iTunes, I was up to 9.8GB.  Then I thought, "What about all those unnecessary language files and fonts?  I'll probably never need 'Swahili.'"  So, I downloaded Monolingual, and let that chug away.  It went for a LONG time.  I was thinking, "Oh yeah!  I'm almost there!  Come on 10GB!"  When it finished, a window popped up: "I just saved you 0.1GB."

NNNNOOOO!!!!!  I was only at 9.9GB.  I thought I heard the computer laughing at me.  Then I searched for any more video files I could delete.  After 15 minutes, I finally found a few.  Delete!  And there I was!

10GB even!!!!

I was so happy that I had to get up and tell my wife.  She said, "Good for you," patted me on the head, and I went back to the computer to go play. 

I was surfing the internet, when thirty minutes later the free space had gone back down to 9.9GB.  Snow Leopard was doing one of its things.  "Oh, no you don't!" I said.  "You're not going to take this away from me!"  I went searching for something else to delete, and then it happened.

The computer was going really slow.  I thought it was one of those graphic-anomaly enhanced freezes.  It would chug for about 2 minutes, and then it would let me get in a click.  I said, "Okay, I'm going to shut down the computer and let the restart process fix whatever problem's going on."  Every two minutes, I was able to shut down another application.  Finally after fifteen minutes of struggling, the Temperature Monitor application gave an error saying something like, "I have lost your hard drive temperature.  Your S.M.A.R.T. is broken."  I knew that wasn't good.

When it finally rebooted, it did that hard disk checking thing again, and then I heard these strange clicking sounds.  I knew I was done in.  It was the spinning circle of death!  The hard disk's heads weren't doing what they were supposed to be doing!

Over the next hour, I did EVERYTHING.  It wasn't so much that I wanted to save the computer.  It's just that I didn't want the computer to get the last laugh with that 9.9GB thing!  I restarted the computer's internal settings by unplugging for 15 seconds and holding down command-shift-P-R.  I still got Click-click-click.  I put in the original install disk.  I ran the hardware checker.  It reported perfect scores.  (It doesn't check the hard drive.)  Then I ran the Disk Utility.  It said, "What disk?"  Great!  The disk can't even mount!  The heads just upped and left the building!  I was hosed!

What killed my hard drive?  I've narrowed it down to two possible causes and the one straw to break the camel's back.
  • I had less than 1GB of space left available for a long period of time--probably resulting in excess chugging that added wear and tear on the disk heads.
  • My wife discovered a vent in the back of the iMac under where the stand goes in.  It was filled was all kinds of dust.  I never realized that vent was there.  A clogged-up vent could have possibly contributed to both a hard-disk crash and the graphic anomalies I was experiencing.
  • Even though Monolingual didn't kill my hard drive, it certainly did locate and destroy thousands of tiny little files.  This increased hard-disk activity probably pushed it over the edge.  I was already experiencing unexplained slowdowns prior to running Monolingual, and halfway suspected a crash coming, though I didn't want to believe it.  If these signs happen to you, then it's probably a good idea to stop whatever you're doing and back up your stuff before you lose your chance.  And don't run any other hard-drive intensive programs until after you've backed up.
In summary, my advice is: Leave more than 1GB of space on your computer; clean out your vents--even that one behind the stand; back up your stuff often--especially when you notice your computer going extra slow and you hear your hard drive chugging away.  Then may you enjoy having a computer that lasts more than 4.5 years.

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