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When The Macs Go Blue – How I Diagnosed Macbook Pro Which Refused To Boot (Even From a DVD)

I’d like to share my recent experience dealing with my Mac after it suddenly broke down. My Macbook Pro (2010 series) stopped booting. I was watching Netflix in Firefox browser and paused the film while I was moving my Macbook Pro from one table to another. The moment I put it down, my screen got frozen and no matter what buttons I pressed, it would not react. So I held the POWER button to shut it down to reboot.

However, on my next boot, all I see is the spinning wheel (the wheel of death!)… I waited for 5-7 minutes – nothing happened. I rebooted again and see the same picture, so I waited longer. After about 10 minutes, the wheel was gone and the light blue screen appeared (it’s light blue right after it switches from the white and then it quickly becomes a darker blue, but not in my case). I waited for 10 more minutes and the light blue screen was still there. “OK, not my first,” I thought. I pulled out my original DVD and decided to reinstall the Mac OS X (which in my case was 10.5).

Booted from the DVD, chose the language, chose re-install the OS, but keep the files option. It was about to begin the install when I received a message saying: “An error occurred, please reboot and try again.” No mentioning of what kind of error it was. Rebooted from a DVD again, launched Disk Utility. It got stuck right after it started verifying volume. Rebooted again, but this time the DVD activity stopped during booting and nothing was happening for more than 10 minutes… There were no noises at all from the DVD-ROM, even no vibration from spinning, and all I could see was the light blue screen. I thought it was some kind of a virus for Mac that was slowly killing my computer. I got a bit nervous…

I pulled out another original DVD that tests the hardware. It read it well and found no errors with the hardware.

I quickly pulled out my old Gateway PC with Pentium 4 processor and Windows XP, which I bought in 2005 and which is a bit slow but still works great (the only part I changed was the battery – $40 on eBay) and started digging the Internet to understand what the heck was going on.

Gladly, I used Time Machine backup every once in a while, so I was not worried as much about my data, as I was about the possibility of needing to buy another computer!

I tried every single booting advice I could find online (resetting PRAM and NVRAM, booting in safe mode, single user mode and so on). Nothing. It kept showing me light blue screen every time I boot with or without the DVD. Booting in a single user mode was getting stuck after mentioning loading the Airport utility and giving numerous messages saying “Still waiting for root device.”

I got my hands on another Mac (iMac also with 10.5 Mac OS X) and a firewire. I decided to boot my Macbook Pro in a Target Mode (holding T after turning it on) and see if the hard drive would respond. And it did! I got the remaining non-backed up files out. Then I tried to load my iMac’s OS on my Macbook Pro, and it worked. Thus, it seemed that the Macbook Pro was OK, but each time the computer would try to load something from its internal drive, it was becoming paralyzed like as if it had a virus. I tried loading vice-versa (my Macbook Pro’s OS on iMac) and that did not work, it got stuck again on the light blue screen. After that, for some reason, each time I reboot the Macbook Pro it would show me a broken folder icon – a crossed circle icon, which means the system can’t figure out where to boot from.

On a side note, I find it quite amazing that you can load one Mac’s OS on another just like that. Very convenient!

I kept trying different methods and then all of a sudden, after I let my Macbook Pro rest for a night, it booted from the DVD. It got passed that light blue screen in a manner of seconds and switch to a darker blue and then to the background galaxy image almost instantly. I tried full re-install with no backup option. It showed the installer window and again: “An unknown error occurred.” Reboot from DVD, blue screen again! Come on you silly Mac! I should have started taken bets: ladies and gentlemen, make the bet! Is this Mac going to boot this time or not!

Ah well, it was time to open this thing up (for the first time). Not worrying about the warranty that expired a year ago, I opened it up, and boy was it dusty!! I carefully cleaned it, checked all the connections, and all looked fine. I unattached the Hard Drive blew on the connection, connected it back, but did not screw it back in, so the hard drive was loose. I decided to try booting, maybe it was the dust. It booted the DVD! YEAH-HA!!! WOW!! So much for dusting! This time, I ran Disk Utility which did not find any issues with the disk. I still decided to format the drive and zero it out completely. After it was done, I chose clean install of the Mac OS option and it actually began installing it!!! I was amazed how much dusting could do and couldn’t wait to tell my friends about how weird it was!… Then it got stuck on 82% and that was it. The install log was not showing any activity…. I waited for an hour and it just sat there… frozen… like when I tried to install Windows in Parallels… succeeded after a few tries. So I decided maybe it would take several attempts as well. I screw in the hard drive holder bar, but booting from a DVD stopped on a light blue screen again. So, I unscrew it back to make hard drive loose again, and it booted OK. “So strange,” I thought, “why would it have any effect?” I tried to install again, but each time install would freeze, sometimes on 12%, sometimes on 25%.

By the way, if you are going to open your Macbook, make sure you discharge any static electricity before digging into it to avoid any close circuits. Follow the instructions in the beginning of this post:

I must admit, compared to the desktop PCs that I used to build which had wires hanging everywhere and the modules were plugged in wherever they could fit, the inner-content of my Macbook Pro was very elegant, well designed and organized! Really neat!

Back to my problem, I was certain it was my hard drive at fault, so I started looking for a new hard drive online. I heard some stories that original Macs’ Hitachi hard drives would break after 3 months after purchase, so I was not that surprised. But usually the first sign of a faulty hard drive is its making of a cracking noise. Mine was very quiet and it did mount on another Mac, so I was confused…

When you look for a new SATA hard drive for a Mac, be careful, firstly you have to find the one that supports Mac OS Extended (Journaled) format. Secondly, some Western Digital hard drives I found will not allow you to format them without some special configuration with pins (that were used on old desktop machines) since there is some Owner/Slave config issues. As for the prices, at that time, there was a flood in Thailand which caused some major shutdowns on hard drive factories and all internal and external hard drives went up in price! Just grrreat!

Since I wasn’t 100% sure that it was my hard drive at fault, I got a hold of a device in which you can plug the 3.5 or 2.5 SATA internal hard drive and connect it to your computer via USB cable (you can find one for $20). So, I extracted my hard drive and connected it via USB. I tried booting from a DVD, and not only had it worked, but the whole installation went SUPER FAST, it took 40 mins to complete the install of Mac OS. Reboot, everything is perfect! Then I put my hard drive back inside of my computer, boot, light blue screen again (at least no broken folder icon).

Then it hit me, maybe, it is loading but very, very slow, something like an old 386 IBM. So I rebooted and just let it sit there. Sure enough, after 40 minutes, I see the desktop but without the background image. It felt like the memory Usage was at 101% all the time – it was extremely slow! To open a Finder window took 10 minutes.

So since the hard drive worked great outside, it was not it, so it must have been a Hard Drive Cable which connects it to the mother/logic board. Maybe that is why it was booting better when the hard drive was loose. Something must have close circuited and some connections got broken. If not, then it might have been the board itself. I googled the price of my board and it was around $800… Like a new Mac almost… That got me upset.

Considering it was some unrepairable board connection between itself and the hard drive, I could always use an external USB drive to avoid spending this kind of money, but that kinds of shutters the purpose of a laptop, which is supposed to be compact. Carrying and booting from an external drive all the time, getting “Incorrect Device Removal” notices when the USB cable is shaken was not a pleasing thought… Laptop won’t feel quite movable and portable anymore…

I decided to check how much that hard drive cable is. It was hard to find, a regular hardware store won’t carry it, nor would the Apple Store (they have them, but not for sale individually, only with labor). I found a local store that had them and one reliable store online (iFixit). Both had them for about the same price ($50). eBay had it for $25, but even though it looked similar to the one needed, its part number was different. I did not want to risk it – it’s not just some plastic door nub, it’s a complex wire that has a potential of frying a logic board.

Digging the Internet for all that info, I read some posts that mentioned it was ridiculously expensive to bring your Mac to Apple Store’s Genius Bar without warranty. They also mentioned that the store performs a free diagnostics, but if your issue is complex, it would have to be shipped out. I thought that my issue was complicated since it required more than simply plugging in the DVDs for diagnostics, which I had already done. It needed opening up, trial and error, connecting drives and so on. I didn’t want to spend a bunch of money at Apple store only for diagnostics since I thought they would charge me, or worse – ship my Macbook Pro to Texas for a month. So I wanted to go to them once I knew what was wrong to avoid any diagnostic fees. At that point, I had already figured most of it, and the only thing I needed was to verify what else it could be if not the wire before I spend $50 on it.

So I finally decided to take advantage of a free appointment at the Genius Bar. I was expecting 15 minutes of preaching about “Oh, you should not have opened it up yourself, you’re not the expert – we are, it might be this, or that, we can’t tell for sure until we take a closer look, we charge $100/hour…” and so on. HOWEVER, after I explained to the Genius guy about my trial and error testing, I was pleasantly surprised to hear him say, “Probably it’s the cable.” Wow! He actually took me seriously! And that took only a minute to explain! I asked, what if it is not, is there anything else that it could be. He said then it would be the logic board BUT, (LISTEN TO THIS) for about $300 (incl. tax), they ship your Mac to Texas where they fix EVERYTHING that is wrong with your Mac. And he meant EVERY SINGLE THING, for about $300 (incl. tax). A pixel on a display is dead, they put a new display. The only thing, they won’t fix a part if they see a water or some physical damage administered to it. I double checked, “Even the logic board for $300?” He said, “YES, everything!” I got so relieved that I forgot to ask a bunch of other questions.

[UPDATE Aug 24, 2015] – I just learned they stopped this kind of service for Macs made on or prior to 2010. Not sure if 2011 as well. So it does depend on the age of your machine.

I left them my Mac to put in this Hard Drive Cable and see if it fixes it. It was $60 (incl. tax); however, if the cable was not the reason, they wouldn’t charge me for it and just send my computer to Texas, which at that point would be cheaper anyway than buying a new logic board.

Next day I picked it up and everything was fine again!

Here Are The Lessons I’ve Learned:

  • Always back up your files. Restoring data from a Time Machine did not go well for me. It refused to load the Libraries and System files (gave a permission error). I had to do it manually, so I came up with the whole system that would allow an easy full system restore.
    Overall, I partitioned my 500GB external backup drive into 3 drives:
    1. Time Machine (dedicated it 150GB) – I use Time Machine to backup only the areas I work frequently with like Users folder. I excluded all system files, Dropbox (does it on its own), Libraries, and Applications (unless I work with the data in their folder, like folders in MAMP program)
    2. For a full backup that I sync weekly or after major software updates, I use Carbon Copy Cloner (250GB to match my internal hard drive’s size) – it’s a great program that makes a bootable copy of your drive (it’s free, but if you love it like I do, I suggest you donate $20 or more to its developer! He truly deserves it!). If your Mac crashes, you can use this copy of your internal drive booting it on any other Mac until you get yours fixed.
    3. Third partition I use for the Parallels (50GB) since I do not want to back up 20GB each time just because I launched the Virtual Machine once. I prefer to manually back it up once in a while since I don’t change much in it.
  • Always KEEP YOUR ORIGINAL DVDs!!! Will save you so much headache, money and time!
  • Unlike many forum posts say, opening your Mac is NOT the last resort, and should be done BEFORE formatting the Hard Drive. I could have saved myself the need to restore the Hard Drive. Just make sure you do not void warranty. If you still have it, just make an online appointment to visit the Genius Bar, they’ll fix it
  • Don’t be afraid if your screen goes blue, or gray, or shows some icons you have never seen before, it may be easily fixed!
  • If you want to buy an external hard drive, make sure it is a firewire or USB 3. Regular USB drives are slower.
  • Macs are like any other PCs where you can plug stuff in and out and it will still work after (I removed RAM, unplugged some logic board plugs, unplugged battery, and all works OK. Just be gentle and careful, don’t connect or touch the metal spikes on the board)
  • If you can’t boot from a Mac DVD, unplug the Hard Drive, if it boots most likely there is something wrong with the Logic Board or Hard Drive Cable.
  • Genius bar is a place to go, especially if you think you have a faulty logic board

I leave you with a wonderful song by The Corrs and Bono from U2 called “When The Stars Go Blue.” Just substitute the words “The Stars” with “The Macs” and it will still make sense!

Have you had any issues with your Macs? Did your hard drive or anything else failed? Have you visited the Genius Bar, how was your experience? Please let me know, I am curious.
I’ll be happy to help with what I can.