Wake-up From Your Data Storage Nightmare (Part 2)

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In Part 1, we looked at how as we upgrade to sleeker, faster MacBooks with Solid State Drives (SSD), we need to adopt a robust approach to backing up our precious work and data.

I shared my sorry tale of woe: how I needed to replace my MacBook Pro but finances were limited, and a high capacity drive wasn’t feasible.

I thought that I’d be able to upgrade at a later date but wasn’t aware that SSD storage reconfigurations must be specified at point of sale. After that, there’s no going back.

As the owner of 5 mobile devices that need regular, independent backups, I’ll be the first to admit that I was overly optimistic expecting 128 GB to be large enough.

Online resources indicate that MacBook users with 256GB or even 512GB of internal SSD space are finding themselves quickly running out of storage space.

An internet search suggested 2 possible solutions:

  • Backing up to iCloud
  • Moving the Backup folder to an external drive using a bit of nifty code writing in the Terminal

Neither of these choices worked for me and a 3rd suggestion by my local Apple Store (purchase a new MacBook) wasn’t music to my ears.

There was no time to lose! This was a job for AppleCare!

That’s How Bruno Came Into My Life

Enter a very tech-savvy man named Bruno. Bruno and I spent the best part of a day in each other’s virtual company. We even got to second base in tech support: screen sharing! He confirmed that …

  • Because of the way SSDs are built into MacBooks, they are not easily or cheaply replaced.
  • Moving the Backup folder is not advisable as any operating system issues resulting from doing so would not be supported by Apple.
  • Backing up to the Cloud can be a beautiful thing, but it’s useless when one does not have reliable internet access.

Then he had an idea. It was a solution so simple and elegant that neither of us could understand why no one had thought of it before …

How about if we install iOS X on a portable external drive and backup to that? After all, people already backup their iTunes music and Photo libraries to external drives.

… your external drive is a second computer with its own operating system …

Bruno checked with his tech colleagues, and no one had attempted to do what he was suggesting.

Before we get going, I want to tell you a couple of things …

  • Purchase a shiny new external drive with lots of space (I purchased a 1TB drive, but 2TB would be even better). This is going to be your Macbook’s shadow, traveling alongside it wherever you go, so buy the toughest you can afford.
  • This process should in no way harm the data on your computer but just to be on the safe side, do a full backup of your system and files.

Have you got that?

Let’s Do This Thing

1. Connect the external drive to the MacBook.

You are going to install the latest Mac iOS operating system onto your new external drive. What follows is a simplified outline of the procedure. Here is a very clear walkthrough of this process, accompanied by screenshots and supplied by Apple.

Please refer to this for more in-depth instructions.

2. Fire up your MacBook.

The installer needs at least 8GB of available storage space. This may not sound like a big deal, but when I performed this procedure, my MacBook SSD was so full that I had to start it in recovery mode: a pared-down version of its operating system.

Should you also need to do this, reboot or start your Mac and hold the Command and R keys simultaneously on your keyboard as soon as you hear the familiar startup chime. Keep holding as your Mac boots, which may take a few moments depending on its specific configuration.

3. Once it has displayed on the MacBook desktop, select the external drive’s icon and give it a new name.

I named mine External Backup, so for the rest of this article, I’m going to refer to your external drive by that name.

While the two devices are hooked up, be very careful not to accidentally disconnect them. This will make External Backup very unhappy, and he could internally combust.

4. Format the External Backup as instructed in the manual/help files.

For best results, an external drive should be formatted as Mac OS Extended. Furthermore, to function as a startup disk, it needs to be using a GUID partition map.

If, like me, this sort of detail makes you lose the will to live, don’t panic. Apple explains it all right here.

Bonus tip: If the External Backup is an extra large capacity drive, you may wish to partition him so that you can backup your external devices in one partition and your photo/document files in another.

5. Download and install the latest Mac iOS directly onto the External Backup.

To do this, follow the steps for installing the Mac iOS, but select the External Backup when the installer asks you to choose a destination disk. 

Depending on the speed of your broadband connection, downloading may take a long time.

On the rare occasions when my home broadband download speed reaches 8 MB, I throw a party. Downloading El Capitan to the External Backup took the better part of 10 hours. Of course, this is an extreme example!

6. As part of the installation procedure, you’ll be taken through the usual introduction and setup steps and asked to create an account name.

Your screen will look like a brand new computer because, in effect, that’s what it is: your external drive is a second computer with its own operating system, hooked up to your Macbook screen.

Should you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to backup your iOS device but don’t have access to your own Mac, don’t worry! External Backup isn’t fussy; he’ll start up any Mac, so long as it’s running the same operating system.

A gentle reminder: While the two devices are hooked up, be very careful not to accidentally disconnect them. This will make External Backup very unhappy, and he could internally combust.

Time To Back Everything Up

Now you’re going to proceed with backing up your iPhone or iPad. With External Backup and your MacBook still firmly connected, do the following:

1. Reboot or start your Mac and hold the alt/option simultaneously on your keyboard as soon as you hear the familiar startup chime. Keep holding as your Mac boots, which may take a few moments depending on its specific configuration.

2. Release the alt/option key when you see the Startup Manager window.

3. The MacBook’s Startup screen now will offer you a choice of which account to boot from. Select External Backup then click the arrow or press return.

4. Once External Backup has opened up in all of its glory, connect your iOS device to your Macbook, open iTunes and start the backup procedure in the same way that you would if you were using your MacBook account.

This is the first backup, so it will take time. In my case, it took almost two hours to backup my iPhone 6.

5. Once you’re all backed up, you can shut down your computer and external drive.

Be sure to wait for both drives to shut down completely before disconnecting the external device from the Mac.

And that’s it!

Simple, yes?

From now on, whenever you need to backup your devices you’ll go through the same procedure.

Here It Is Again

Let’s go over it one more time.

  • Connect your external HD to your MacBook.
  • Hit the Start key and hold alt/option simultaneously on your keyboard as soon as you hear the familiar startup chime. Keep holding as your Macbook boots.
  • Select External Backup (or whatever you named your external HD).
  • Backup your devices.

A Final Recommendation

It’s important to keep the External Backup operating system up to date. This is a very simple procedure. Go through the usual download and update procedure as follows:

  • Open App Store.
  • Click Updates tab in the top menu.
  • You’ll see Software Update.
  • Click Update.
  • Wait for Mac OS download and installation. Your Mac will restart when it’s done.
  • Hold the alt/option simultaneously on your keyboard as soon as you hear the familiar startup chime. Keep holding as your Mac boots, which may take a few moments.
  • Release the alt/option key when you see the Startup Manager window. The MacBook’s Startup screen now will offer you a choice of which account to boot from.
  • Select External Drive then click the arrow or press Return.

It’s been fun sharing this workaround with you. This trick worked for me and I hope this is able to save you some serious money in the future.

Put this workflow to good use when your storage is running low and, if you haven’t backed up your devices in a while … go do that now!

Nettie Edwards

Based in the UK and working throughout Europe, Nettie trained and worked as a theatrical designer for over 25 years before accidentally becoming an award winning, internationally exhibited fine art photographer, combining iPhone photography with obscure 19th century plant-based printing processes. She also writes and runs workshops about these things.