A Mac OS X Hard Disk Upgrade

It is the nature of software to grow. The math is simple. More features equals more software code. The cost is a hard drive upgrade once in a while, a process much simplified by Carbon Copy Cloner for Mac OS X.

Carbon Copy Cloner has been around long enough to be in a 2.x version these days. In fact I had actually taken it for a spin far enough back to have let it drift out of my attention span's purview. At that time I found that locked files were a problem and couldn't be copied; ergo, an incomplete disk clone. Whatever the exact nature of the problem was then (finger trouble, probably), it works like a jet now.

What is the purpose of Carbon Copy Clone? As the name implies, it makes an exact duplicate of your original Mac hard drive. To do a disk upgrade on an otherwise serviceable machine, ideally you want to clone the original disk, rather than reinstall the operating system and all of your applications. In the end, you want everything to be exactly the same as before, except to have lots more storage space afterwards. This is just what CCC accomplishes.

This isn't a sector-by-sector cloning, the way DriveCopy in the PC world is, for example. Carbon Copy Cloner is a graphical interface to unix disk tools that already come with Mac OS X. It's a thing of beauty. Mac OS X Jaguar implemented some changes that facilitated unlocking locked files and folders, a crucial element in making a faithful clone of a unix installation. I don't profess to know how this works. CCC systematically copies over data, temporarily unlocking items on the fly as required. The process was totally transparent to me as I watched CCC work its magic. I could continue to work on other things at the same time too. Of course any files changed after CCC has copied them will not be up-to-date on the clone. So don't work on your doctoral thesis right now.

I did two hard disk clonings using CCC. One was for a blue-and-white G3 tower in my office, the other a slot-load iMac, my home machine. I had originally intended to plug in a standard ATA-100 IDE cable, attach the original disk as a master and the new disk as a slave, and go from there. In both cases that wasn't possible. The G3 tower was built at a time when the hard disk controller chip could not support two hard disks on one bus. Fortunately that machine has two IDE ports. So, temporarily surrendering the removable drives and using my handy ATA-100 cable to connect the new drive, the clone process was straightforward, with one disk on each bus. The iMac turns out to use a proprietary cable to connect between the logic board and the drives. Although the hard disk is a standard unit, the connector on the logic board is expanded, to provide power for the slot-load CD/DVD-ROM drive. A generic ATA-100 cable will not fit into the iMac. As it turned out, I was able to plug my iMac disk into the G3 tower and boot it - the tower! - successfully. Cloning the disk was a piece of cake from that point on.

By the way, opening an iMac is a somewhat delicate affair. If you don't feel at least a little mechanically adept or if your machine is still under warranty, then leave this job to your dealer. If you do tackle it, be patient, bring a cup of coffee with you, and be prepared to wiggle a lot and force nothing. Got that? Wiggle, not force. The iMac case is a precision piece, and everything fits properly. Screw threads are easily stripped, so use the smallest screwdriver you can get away with and still maintain feel. Be prepared to remove the bottom plate and the EMI shield plate inside. Then the hard disk is easily exposed for removal. Be gentle with those cable connectors. I found removing the RAM modules gave me extra wiggle room. Take all anti-static precautions. Remember, wiggle.

Carbon Copy Cloner runs from your boot disk. So you'll want to install the program first before doing anything mechanical. Installation is merely a matter of downloading and dragging the CCC folder into Applications. You have to love this. Then, when you do attach a new drive, CCC will be ready to go.

A fresh drive needs to be prepared before running CCC. Use Disk Utility for this, found in your Applications/Utilities folder. This is the time to install Mac OS 9 drivers, just in case you ever need to boot there. This option is selected by default. Just for fun, run First Aid a couple of times on the newly-formatted and partitioned disk before you close Disk Utility. If it comes up with a single error even once, then stop. You can't live with that disk. It has to be perfect first time.

In fact I tested a new disk for a friend of mine, who was having trouble formatting it in his Mac tower. Sure enough, while I was able to format it, First Aid reported errors randomly. Though I "fixed" the supposed errors, CCC reported errors midway through the copy process, at which time I bailed and returned the disk to its owner. I am certain that this disk wasn't defective in any way. It was merely the wrong choice for this situation.

I chose a Maxtor 120GB hard drive for my iMac upgrade. Having had great success with Maxtor in the past and to the present, and Maxtor having a great warranty program, I specify Maxtor every time now. The 120GB unit happened to be what my dealer had in stock on the day I came. What I didn't know was that 120GB is about as large as you can go in a G3 machine without some special trickery, which trickery is handled transparently in a G4. So, you could say that I chose the perfect upgrade disk by accident! To my mind it and its 8MB cache big brother, which has a three-year warranty, are perfect disk upgrades for a G3 iMac. Max out your Mac with a Maxtor. It performs really well too. Whether that's the disk itself (probably) or the fact that the copy procedure places all the files onto the disk in a reasonably optimized and contiguous way (surely), it feels like I upgraded the processor, not the hard drive.

Of course there are other wonderful hard disks out there also. I understand that IBM, for example, makes a performance screamer in this category. So do your due diligence before purchasing. Or buy a Maxtor. At today's prices, hard disks are a terrific value, at not much more than a dollar per gigabyte! Does anyone remember when RAM cost $50 per megabyte? What a deal.

A deal indeed. Now, what about your leftover drive which is perfectly good, apart form being a little undersized for the job? Keep it in your sock drawer for a month or two, to make sure you are insured if your new drive suffers infant death syndrome. While drives today are more reliable than ever, it still happens that a company can have a bad run of drives. You never know, and the insurance policy is free.

The author of Carbon Copy Cloner has done the Mac OS X community a great service. An attractive and straightforward interface belies the complexity of the activity beneath it. You could do the same things from a Terminal command line that CCC does from a GUI. But CCC does it right the first time, and it's plenty mature and rock-solid. The price is right too, a donation for commercial and personal use, and free for educational use. Now that's a deal. When the time comes for your Mac hard disk upgrade, look no further than Carbon Copy Cloner. Ciao.