The Apple iMac Hard Drive Replacement Program – What you should do

Over the past few days, clients who own iMacs have asked us what to do in response to an email they’ve received from Apple. The email advises that:


Apple has determined that certain 1TB Seagate hard drives used in 21.5-inch and 27-inch iMac systems may fail. These systems were sold between October 2009 and July 2011.


If the iMac seems to be running just fine, do we really need to bring the computer in to Apple to have the drive replaced? That depends on your tolerance for risk and hassle. It goes without saying that you should have a complete backup of all of your data already set up, in case of hard drive failure. I’ve explained the reasons for this in great detail in previous articles, as well as provided a video clip on how to configure Time Machine (the program that creates backups for you) already built into the system.


Personally, I find the 1TB size of the drive limiting, and would opt instead for upgrading the drive to something larger (something you would have to pay for – it is NOT an option offered as part of this replacement from Apple). But, for many folks out there, who only use their iMacs for internet and email, the 1TB size is just fine.


It seems pretty clear that in order for Apple to go through this whole replacement program, there must be some serious flaw they’ve discovered in some of the drives provided by Seagate for this series of iMac models. While the drives are covered for three years from date of purchase (if you also purchased the extended Applecare warranty), that warranty would have expired by now – so Kudos to Apple for making the offer in the first place.


If it were my machine, and I didn’t have a need for a larger drive anyway, I would go ahead and take Apple up on the offer. But, there are some preparations necessary before you haul that beautiful machine down to the local Apple Store Genius Bar.


First, make absolutely sure your backup is complete and current. Then, realize that Apple will NOT transfer your data for you as part of the replacement program. That is something you would have to arrange for yourself. And finally, keep in mind that schlepping the computer to the Apple store also means you may be without it for up to ten days (though Apple usually has a much faster turn-around time than that). From our understanding of the program, Apple will take your computer, remove the original drive, and replace it with a new drive, formatting it to Apple specks. In the email they sent, you’ll note that they say you will need your original installation disks. Hmm. Looks like you’ll be installing the OS back onto the hard drive yourself? Not likely. They surely will be handing you your iMac with the original factory OS installed, so that the system can be tested after the hard drive has been replaced.

IF you’ve since upgraded to a more recent OS, installed programs, updates and so forth, NONE of those will appear on the iMac when you retrieve it from the store. Take the time NOW, prior to bringing it to Apple, to check the version of the OS on your machine. To do that, click on the Apple icon at the top left corner, and then select “About this Mac”. Write down the OS version (10.5.8, 10.6, 10.7 or 10.8) You’ll want to restore your iMac to the SAME version or higher when you get it back.


Before you have a coronary, know that restoring isn’t very difficult, as long as you have a complete and current backup available at home, and a bit of time.


Once your get your iMac home again, and if you didn’t run any upgrades since you purchased it, simply connect the external backup drive via firewire, launch your iMac, and navigate to the Utilities folder in your Applications folder. Find the Migration Assistant, and launch it. You’ll be able to restore all of your profiles and data using the assistant. The interface for doing so is fairly self-explanatory.


If you did upgrade the computer since your initial purchase (and who hasn’t to some degree?), you’ll want to wait to attach that backup drive, and instead, upgrade the OS again.  Why? Because it’s always better to migrate into a completely updated, newly installed system, rather than move upgrades from a backup into an older system.


What this means is you’ll want to bring that baby home, get it online, and run all of your updates. Depending on what OS you were running before you brought it in, you’ll want to install whatever upgrades you need to bring it back to that level. If you had OS 10.7.4 before, you’ll want to upgrade your iMac back to 10.7.4 BEFORE you migrate your data back from the update. The iMac may only be running 10.6.8 or even the earlier 10.5.8 when you get it back.


And this is where the hassle-factor comes in. The replacement program is not a simple “bring-it-in-swap-it-out-go-back-to-work” procedure. There is some work involved in getting it all done right. For some, it’s daunting. For others, it’s part of the maintenance routine required to keep their computers in tip -top shape. Some users regularly backup their drives, wipe them, reformat them, re-install the OS, and migrate the data backup back in – creating a clean, lean, apple machine – once a year. They are the “Felix Ungers” of the computer world, but I digress . . .


If you’re not comfortable going through all of that, note that you have until April of 2013 to decide what, if anything, you want to do about it. You may want to just hire someone like us to do the leg work, and migration, for you. It’s also possible that Apple will do the data restoration for a small additional fee, once you bring the machine in. Or, you could decide to just skip it, and take your chances. It’s up to you.


Before you feel too outraged about the hassle factor, keep in mind that Apple is offering this replacement well after the warranty period for many of you has expired – something they technically don’t have to do. The fact is, hard drives are very much like the tires of an automobile. It’s not a question of  “if”, but rather “when” that should concern you.


I’ve said it many times before on this site. At some point, your hard drive WILL fail, and whatever was on it will be irretrievable unless you have a backup copy. It’s up to you to make sure you have a current backup, on an external drive or online.  Frankly I believe external, local drives attached to the computer are better. Restoring from an online backup is incredibly, painfully slow – and in my opinion, not nearly as reliable.

As long as have your backup, you should have nothing to worry about.