MacBook Pro survives fall, sort of

Two mornings ago while carrying a cup of coffee and my relatively new 15″ MacBook Pro, I tripped over a box and went flying. I wish someone had been there to take a picture as I know it was a spectacular fall. The sound of the computer hitting the wooden floor was so loud that Anne thought a bookshelf had fallen over. I’m pretty sure I was completely airborne and parallel to the floor before I crashed down.

We drink our morning (Peet’s) coffee out of large Starbucks tumblers with closed tops so only a bit of coffee spilled but the computer hit hard. Very hard. Worse than a mere drop from 4 feet, it had much of my weight attached to it. Oh god.

I survived physically although my 55 year old psyche is definitely battered. “Old people fall down but you’re not an old person… uh… you fell down…”

Right, let’s not go there. The computer, which was sleeping (HD heads park in sleep) got some dings and the case is warped but the screen did not shatter and when I opened it it woke up like nothing had happened. Lucky me, or so I thought.

Portable Computing
I’ve had PowerBooks as long as Apple has made them and one or another has traveled all over the world with me and until two mornings ago I’d never dropped one, spilled coffee on a keyboard, or done a thing to cause these important parts of my life any distress. Since I got involved with computers in the late 1970s, whatever computer I’ve had has been the center of my life and once I moved from desktops to laptops the computer has become even more entwined in my life. I like it this way and my wife likes it this way. With a desktop computer I’d be in the office most of the time; with this computer I can sit in the living room with her reading Salon or google news while she reads or knits. This computer is not a second, portable computer, it is my only computer, and as such, the absolute center of many aspects of my life. I know how valuable it is, I treat it well and back it up and love it “up one side and down the other.”

Fit and Finish
Another complicating factor in this situation is that the case on this MacBook Pro has been slowly coming apart at the seams. Nothing huge but the fit and finish on the top edges/corners where the sides intersect with the top of the keypad area has been a problem ever since I got it and it was getting worse. This is the second MacBook Pro I’ve had; the first one was returned in less than a week and exchanged for this one for the same reason: the fit and finish on the case was just not right. I decided to live with this one as exchanges and data movement is a drag and there had been a “bump” in dealing with our local retail store that Apple corporate had to step in and make right (they did and they were wonderful).

So, now that I’ve dropped the computer whatever issue I had with the case is pretty much blown as there is now a lot more case damage than there was “naturally” before. I repeat, it amazes me that the entire thing didn’t shatter so while I am less than enthused about the fit and finish of the case, I am delighted that it withstood this fall.

Given that this is my only computer, it’s not like I can just send it off for repair. And, I have AppleCare which I love as it’s been very useful to me over the years, but, a fall like this is not something they cover so a repair is gonna cost me. However, the case is just cosmetic so what the heck, I can live with a beat up case.

Backing up is not hard to do
I have two external hard disks that I use for back up and I’m religious about backing up. I use SuperDuper! which is a great product and I back up daily, rotating the hard disks so I always have two successive days. When I travel I take one external hard disk with me and leave the other at home and I continue to back up onto the one with me on the road. I’m serious about backup, my computer and my data is important to me and as they say, shit happens.

Bootable backups and Intel considerations
I had backed up the night before the fall so had the computer not started up I could have used that backup to run this computer, or any new Intel-driven computer. Right, the PowerPC to intel transition has a small speed bump: when you initialize external hard disks for backup you have to make a choice about which kind of machine you want to be able to boot from. You see, I don’t just make backups, I make bootable backups. I don’t just want my data, I want my entire work environment. The idea of having to reinstall a system on a new or on any machine is intolerable to me, so, I make a complete, bootable mirror of my working computer. That way I have an external drive that’s a complete work environment. I’ve done it this way for years and when OS X came along which took away the ability to just drag files (permissions, etc.) SuperDuper! kept me going.

Now, with this Intel transition, there is no more universal bootable backup on any Mac until all Macs are driven by Intel processors. One has to decide if one wants an external drive to boot a Mac running a PowerPC processor (G3, G4, G5) or an Intel processor. Given that I’m now running Intel, I formatted my externals to boot Intel. All of this is a long winded way of saying that my backup hard disk will not boot Anne’s G4 iBook. So, if my computer goes in for repair, I’m offline.

But, none of this mattered as my MacBook Pro’s internal hard disk seemed fine and I had a working backup. Lucky me.

Everything was fine, or so I thought
So, back to our story. I started working on this machine and everything was fine. I went through my normal morning email, checking the back ends of my weblogs for moderated comments and spam, looking at flickr, my normal morning routine. Then I needed to open a document that was done with the AppleWorks spreadsheet and AppleWorks, being the ancient program that it is, does not run native on Intel so an invisible part of OS X gets used to run it. That invisible part, called Rosetta, emulates the PowerPC processor so programs written for it can run on Intel. This is a transparent process and unlike “Classic” running in OS X it works quite well. This particular morning, however, the AppleWorks icon in the dock got a triangle under it as I launched the document and then, after too long a delay, nothing. I tried other programs I knew used Rosetta and nothing. Uh oh, something was up.

I quit everything and restarted from the most recent backup to see if I could launch programs that used Rosetta and on the backup hard disk everything worked fine. So, while running from that hard disk I used Disk Tools to test the internal hard disk on this machine and it found nothing. Now I wasn’t sure where the problem was but since I had a working backup I made a plan to update it with the email and other new things from the internal hard disk manually, then, starting up from the backup hard disk, initialize the internal hard disk and use SuperDuper! to copy the backup back over to the internal.

I did that yesterday morning and it worked like a dream, no problems with any part of it and I spent all day yesterday catching up on work that had been sitting around waiting. I did a lot of work, and while I was at it I tested lots of documents and opened every app on the computer to make sure it ran. All was well, or so I thought.

As I got ready to stop working for the day yesterday I decided that I should back up the now, seemingly good internal hard disk so I connected my second backup drive, the one that was now out of date although contained a working backup from now 4 days earlier. I started the backup process and went down to cook dinner. A little while later I went up to check on things and found that SuperDuper! had “choked” on a read from the internal HD. It was an old image inside iPhoto. I quit SuperDuper! and ran iPhoto and searched for the image. It was there but it would not open. I restarted with the good working backup hard disk, opened iPhoto, searched for the same image and it opened no problem.

This problem that I thought I’d solved was not quite as simple as I’d thought. Something was up with the hard disk and I have enough experience with these things so that I knew it was time to get the backup hard disk updated and boot and work from it. That’s where I am right now.

Today I’ll order a new internal hard disk for this computer and until it comes, I’ll run from my backup and (hopefully) back up onto backup hard disk #2. My larger plan is to keep using this computer, as banged up as it is, as long as I can. As long as it works reliably I can tolerate the cosmetic stuff. Stay tuned…

Here’s the post on replacing the internal hard disk of my MacBook Pro: MacBook Pro hard disk replacement.


  1. Richard, I’m glad you weren’t hurt in the fall more than anything, but what a mess with your new MacBook Pro. You’re so quick and nimble in everything, so I bet this was quite a puzzling tumble. It could happen to anyone, though. Thanks to your recommendation, I use SuperDuper! too and it’s great for backups. Fast and efficient. I trust your new hard disk will get here very soon. Thanks for the report, but what an odyssey of frustration for you. I’m wishing you quick delivery of that new hard disk.

  2. Sarah and Gary, thanks for your comments. My friend Dale recommended formatting the internal with the option to zero all data which is an option that I thought was only useful for security purposes (impossible to get data off a drive formatted this way) but in when I attempted to reformat the internal drive again with this option Disk Tools choked and the drive made a clicking noise about 1.5 hours into the operation. This told me that the drive was hurt and I need a new internal drive. I ordered one this evening and hope to have it in place on Wednesday. Meantime I successfully used SuperDuper! to back up my main external backup drive that I’m running on now to a second one. So, I’m back to running with a backup which makes me happy.

    Stay tuned, more on this on Wednesday or whenever I take this machine apart to get the new drive in.

  3. Ugh, I’m so sorry to hear that you dropped your laptop. Reminds me of last Christmas eve when I dropped my 20D headfirst into the concrete at Jim Thompson’s House in Bangkok. I am so anally careful about my electronics I felt like my heart was breaking. Mostly it was just damage to the filter (cracked through and jammed onto the lens) and a power connection problem, which luckily was fixed for free by Canon this summer. I hope you get your ‘puter up and running in the near future and I’d highly recommend for transferring hard drive data, installing new hard drives, etc (for those of us who aren’t familiar with that process ourselves!). Hope it’s healthy soon. I also *love* apple care too….

  4. Thanks Michaela. I’m up and running, just not on the internal drive. The computer is working (so far) and my backups were and are good so I’m all set. SuperDuper! really works for me and good thing I’m religious about making daily backups.

    Ordered new internal drive last night and the plan is to take this beast apart when it comes (hopefully Wednesday) and get it installed. The issues during that process will be that I undoubtedly warped the case in the fall and the case is what has to come apart to get the old HD out and new in. So, once I take this beast apart, it may be hard to get it back together again because of warped/bent metal. We’ll see. Anyway, I’m still around and running fine off my backup, which, now has a backup of its own so it’s not a backup anymore, it’s my primary (external) drive.

  5. I think I would have had heart failure if I had a fall such as yours…not physically, but mentally, due to the damage to the laptop. It’s amazing that the case is still OK…just another tribute to Apple and their quality products, Richard’s knowledge about techie things. ;-)

  6. Richard,

    I am so sorry to hear about this! Though the news of your damaged Mac is heartbreaking, I’m sure, I am most happy that you are OK. In addition, it is nice to know that you are vigilant about saving your photos. Laptops can be so problematic, as you found, and it is even more important to do what you do with your data. I don’t back up as quickly as you do, but I do backups simultaneous backups to both DVDs and my new 750GB external HD. My partner spilled coffee on her laptop when it was relatively new. The cost was huge to repair it. Unfortunately, if a laptop goes it really goes. If the coffee mishap with my parter happened with a desktop, it would only have required a replacement keyboard.

    I am sorry this happened but most of all I am happy that you and your photos are well.


  7. Diane: I just posted the continuation of the saga: my notes on replacing the hard disk. It wasn’t that bad, you could do it if you had to.

  8. John: I don’t back up photos, I back up everything every day. Simple and easy to do. I don’t find laptops any more problematic than desktops really. They are more prone to damage because they’re portable but hey, they’re more useful that way so I don’t consider that a liability. I’ve had a laptop as my only computer for close to ten years now and I doubt I’ll ever go back to using a desktop computer. I like having everything in one place and taking that one place with me when I travel.

    Yes, the coffee on the keypad is worse with a laptop, to be sure and thank god that’s not happened to me… yet.

    Anyway, thanks for your kind words, as they say, shit happens. It’s not that it happens that’s important, it’s what you do when it happens to you. ;).

  9. SD works with direct-connect hard disks, firewire or USB in its regular backup mode. However, you can’t boot from a USB drive, only firewire so using SD in the scenario I described above is only possible with a firewire drive.

  10. Thank you for documenting this. The same thing just happened to my Macbook yesterday, and unfortunately I hadn’t been backing up my folders. (This is the first lesson I’ve learned in this. I’m now using Mozy.) I’m currently in a frantic attempt to save everything before it completely falls apart/

  11. Pamela, I’m sorry this happened to you and it’s rough to learn about backing up from data loss.

    Why not use SuperDuper! and an external hard disk? The great thing about this method is that if somehow things really go bad you can take that hard disk and boot a new computer and be right back where you were. The problem with online backup is that if you lose your computer, how can you login to it to get your stuff back, let alone boot from it.

    I highly recommend an external drive and SuperDuper. Then, once set up, use it every day.

  12. Thanks for sharing, Richard. I bought 4 x MacBook pros a year or so back and one of the PSU cables popped and burst just short of the magnetic plug with an internal short. It really had had VERY little use and no stressful episodes. Fortunately I have apple care (only 20 mins to get through and an hour on a pay call to get it sorted – oh joy!) so unit being replaced and my credit card won’t be billed as long as I send the blown PSU back with their (free) post bag. This hardware failure did surprise me as I’d thought what a good idea the stress-avoiding mag connector was. ho-hum.
    Thanks for the heads up on SD. I’m taking delivery of 10.5 tomorrow but won’t delay with SD. Good thinking, Batman ;-)


  13. Rob: I think I heard about this happening to a few early magsafe plug setups but they fixed it (hopefully). Mine (knock wood) hasn’t caught fire yet.

    Good move to get SuperDuper!, it’s a stellar program and frankly, I’m so comfortable backing up with it every day that I’m not pushing for 10.5 and TimeMachine as I don’t really need it and would probably not use it, for a while anyway.

    Have fun and happy Thanksgiving (if you celebrate it).

  14. Hi! I was stupid enough to sit in my bed, really tired, chatting in msn, last night/today. When I woke up my only a couple of months old MacBook Pro was found on the hard “tile” floor. Would any insurances been able to help me in the first place, you think?
    I really feel stupid:S My bed is one of those with two levels and I sleep at the upper one of them. It must be like close to a 5 feet fall. Well it still works fine, it seems. But I really think I would want to fix these cosmetic details. There are several marks on the top (the back of the display), and the fit and finish on the top edges/corners where the sides intersect with the top of the keypad are damaged plus there are a couple of dents on the sides. I come from Norway and these computers cost around 20 000 norwegian krones, which with the low dollar of today will be around 4k $!

  15. Bobby: Oh man, I know the feeling well (as you know) so if it’s any comfort, you are not alone in how you feel at the moment.

    I can’t speak to the insurance issue, that’s one you’ll have to take up with your insurance agent. Some policies cover accidental damage and if yours does, you’re in good shape.

    If you have to live with it my suggestion is to back it up immediately and if you have a good backup from before the fall keep that one pristine and make the new backup on a new drive. If the fall damaged the HD you’ll have a copy of your data from before (as I had).

    As long as all the ports work I would not be too concerned about the cosmetic damage to the case. I lived with mine in that state for over a year with no problem. I even upgraded the HD a few more times taking it apart with no problem. If the hinge is intact, it will go into sleep mode and the latch is intact and the ambient lighting on the keyboard works you’re probably in good shape.

    I know, this is a high end and very aesthetic computer so having it all dinged up like this is not a great thing, but all I can tell you is that if the HD and the inside is working fine it’s no less of a Mac for it’s dents, maybe more of one.

    Lastly, there are iPod-like silicone covers one can buy for these machines so they can be treated a bit more roughly. Not sure how I feel about those but you might look into it if you’re paranoid about another drop. I’ve never done it, although your story brings back memories.

    Do run hardware tests on it to make sure everything is working correctly before you live with it as is. And, of course, be religious about backing up on multiple hard disks. I have 4 in rotation now, one always outside the house.

  16. I dropped my brand new week old Macbook pro -17inch few days ago. It slipped out of its case and fell from height of one feet, falling on its right side and then flat onto a hard tiled floor. Not scratches, but a dent on the corner (that it hit the floor)above the cd slot opening, and i feel the rubber lining around keyboard seems uneven since then . I immediately turned it on and it came on no problems. I even put in a dvd and checked it out, apart from a small whirring sound when the dvd loaded -the film played fine.
    I am worried whether there is anything wrong internally, but like you said the display lites are fine and so is the latch. I would like to do perform a hardware test, how would you go about that? Please help. i have even lost my appetite in the last few days since this happened.

  17. Richard,
    I know more than two years have passed since your mishap, but I think it could be useful to clarify, to anyone who may have not yet found about it (maybe most of you did, already), that bootable SuperDuper backups of Leopard volumes are, in fact, compatible with both PowerPC and Intel processors, as Leopard is the only fully Universal Mac OS X version, and will stay that way.

    Those who either stuck with PowerPC and Intel Tiger, or get a new Mac with the Intel-only Snow Leopard pre-installed further this year will preety much be stuck in the same situation you were.

  18. João: Ah, I didn’t know that, or, I forgot. But, doesn’t the way the disk is formatted make a difference? I thought it was less the system, more the partitioning scheme on the hard disk.

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