Surviving a Sudden Computer Failure

MacBook AirLast Monday night the unthinkable happened. My MacBook Air, less than 7 months old, froze requiring a force reboot. It never woke up. I’ll have a longer blog post later this week detailing the trouble and the repair process. The short version is my MacBook Air suffered a logic board failure that likely then caused corruption in the hard drive. Both were replaced by Apple and in total I was without the machine from Monday evening to Saturday afternoon.

With the Air being my only computer and a busy schedule of events in my week, my attention quickly shifted to how do I survive the week without my computer? The solutions I developed, combined with some pre-planning worked quite well to keep me running with minimal down time and inconvenience.

Thankfully, because I practice what I preach in the area of backup, data loss is a non-issue. It wasn’t even something I had to think about which took a lot off my mind in an already stressful time. I had a clone backup of the drive from the night before the crash and had done less than an hours worth of work on the machine since that backup. I use CrashPlan to create off site backups of my data that updates every fifteen minutes and have a second CrashPlan backup of my entire home directory to a Drobo on my local network for good measure. I also have a Time Capsule that stores hourly Time Machine backups of my machine.

The newest addition to my “backup” strategy and one that was never intended for backup, but turned out to be the most useful in this time, was that I recently transitioned my documents folder to my Dropbox. This meant all my documents were instantly up to date and accessible on my iPad, iPhone, or through the Dropbox web interface. I also use “cloud” solutions for much of my data including IMAP mail, Calendar and Contacts syncing via MobileMe and Google Reader for RSS feeds.

One of my first concerns was the fact that I was scheduled to give two Keynote presentations at a nearby Mac Users Group Tuesday night. Thankfully, the work on these presentations was completed, so it was just a matter of retrieving the files and giving the presentations. This is where my recently implemented strategy of storing my documents in the Dropbox cloud saved the day.

Because I use Keynote for my presentations, I had completed copies of the presentation sitting in my Dropbox folder. Using the Dropbox App on the iPad I was able to retrieve the presentations and use the “open in” feature to open them in the Keynote iPad App. One presentation used fairly simple transitions and imported flawlessly. Another presentation was more involved and used complicated builds and fancy effects and was simplified in the conversion process. However, I ran through the slides and they were perfectly acceptable for the presentation. Thankfully, I previously purchased the Apple VGA Adapter so I could use my iPad with the group’s projector.

I like to stand and talk while giving a presentation so the idea of  sitting at a desk swiping the iPad wasn’t appealing. However, I remembered he Keynote Remote App for iPhone was recently updated and decided to give it a second look. Now, the app allows you to pair Keynote on the iPad with an iPhone via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to not only trigger slide transitions, but also to see the current and next slide as well as any presenter notes. While the remote (the iPhone) was a bit clunkier than I was use to, it allowed me to control the presentation while walking around the front of the room. I connected the devices via Wi-Fi and noticed some occasional lag, so would triggers weren’t instantaneous. Next time, I’ll try bluetooth to see if the results are better. However the presentation went off without a hitch.

One problem was updating podcasts in the week my machine was gone. Normally I use iTunes and Apple’s iPod app on the iPhone for most of my podcasts. I know many people love Instacast, but it didn’t fit well in my workflow. I keep an iPhone and an iPod Shuffle that I use at the gym in sync with podcasts and while Instacast is great on the iPhone, it doesn’t work for keeping in sync with my Shuffle. My car’s audio system also defaults to playing whatever is on the iPod app so it’s a manual procedure to stop and start Instacast. However, without a computer, updating podcasts through the iTunes store on the iPhone became a pain. Instacast to the rescue! Since I first tested the app the developer has made several improvements. Unfortunately, my car audio system and Shuffle limitations still will probably keep me from using it as my full-time podcast player, but I loved having access to all my podcasts and being able to listen to them whenever I wanted without a big production. If I could figure out a work-aroud to keep the Shuffle or even an iPod Nano (I don't want to use my iPhone at the Gym) in sync I'd gladly use Instacast as my primary player.

For everyday activities, the iPad fills in nicely in a pinch for the rest of my computing needs. Email, web surfing, twitter are easy enough on an iPad. Using tools like Dropbox and GoodReader gave me access to my files when necessary.  I wish more applications had built-in Dropbox support, especially the Apple iWork apps. However, I still have access to my iDisk so I saved quite a few documents there and used GoodReader as an intermediary to transfer when necessary. DropDav could have solved this problem, but I didn't use the service to justify the $5 monthly price. Having 1Password on the iPad and iPhone allowed me access to my web sites and passwords securely so I could pay bills and get business done while my Mac was gone. The bluetooth keyboard was also helpful when I needed to do more long form writing. A good chunk of this blog post was written in Pages on the iPad.

I did “cheat” and borrow my mom’s MacBook Pro for a couple of hours one evening to record an episode of Mac Power Users with David. I was prepared for a work-around to use Skype on the iPad and a USB headset with the iPad Camera Connection Kit. David would have to record the conversation on his side and do the editing or save the recording in our Dropbox for me to edit when my Air was returned. I couldn't figure out a way to record my own Skype audio and save it on the iPad. The configuration would have worked in a pinch, but wouldn't have had the best audio quality.

While I hope that Apple’s iCloud service will make this process more seamless in the future, the real saving grace in my situation was having my documents stored in Dropbox so they were accessible to the iPad. When my Mac returned, the new files I added to Dropbox (including this post) were right back on my Mac. While I had plenty of backups of my documents, without Dropbox, I would have had no way to access them using the iPad alone. I could have tried to borrow a friend’s computer for the presentation and pulled the documents out of Dropbox or off my backup drive, but in this case, I didn’t have to inconvenience anyone else.

Overall, my week without a computer went okay. I did have my work PC at the office for all my work related activities. With the possible exception of recording the podcast, there was nothing mission critical I had to do that couldn’t be accomplished on the iPad. However, I am planning on buying a Mac Mini in the Fall once they’re updated to use as a home server and backup computer. I’ve been considering purchasing a Mini for a while, although this may have highlighted that need.

Lessons learned from this episode:

  1. Backups make the difference between inconvenience and disaster.
  2. Bad things happen without warning. You have to always be prepared.
  3. Cloud storage of my documents saved the day in allowing me to have continued access to my documents on the iPad even when my computer was in for service.