Traveling with a Mac

‘Tis the season for traveling. Christmas, Chanukah, the Winter Solstice, doesn’t matter why you’re going from here to there, but chances are you’re doing some going. Chances are, you’re also taking along some form of mobile computing device, and for many of us, that means a laptop.

So what are some things to keep in mind when traveling with your trusty MacBook, MacBook Pro or MacBook Air?

✈ Battery life is good, but still short. Even the newer MacBook Air models can only go about 5-8 hours on a charge, less for the more power-hungry MacBook Pros. If you’re on a really long flight, especially if you’re watching movies or doing other high-disk-activity actions, you’re going to need a power solution. There are some battery bricks sold on online retailers that you can plug a regular plug into, but always double-check to make sure they’re safe with your country’s power specifications. Also check with your airline to see if they’re allowed on the plane – you’d be surprised.

Some planes also offer power, but it may not be through a standard type of outlet. Be sure to check with your airline to see what kind of adapter you’ll need.

✈ Portable isn’t always small. While a MacBook Air will easily slip into the seat pocket in front of you, that 2002 17″ MacBook Pro will definitely need to go under your seat or in the overhead.

✈ Even without moving parts, it’s still an Electronic Device according to the FAA. You will need to make sure your gear is turned off for takeoffs and landings. You’ll also need to make sure to remove it from your carry-on and place it in a bin to go through the security screening. This goes for iPads too, at least at many airports around the US.

✈ Bring power adapters. If you’re traveling internationally, you’re going to need a power adapter. Apple sells lots of different power supplies for different countries, or you can purchase compatible adapters at most electronics stores and online.

✈ Bring a USB charger. Portable Macs are famous for a lack of USB ports. You don’t want to use up a port just to charge a gizmo, so bring either a USB hub (self-powered or fully USB powered, but not “unpowered”), or a USB charger. There’s lots of chargers to choose from, some come with mats to kep your gear from moving around, others are just unconnected USB hubs that offer power, but that’s it.

✈ Get a case or sleeve. You spent a ton of cash on that shiny, aluminum portable. Spend a few more bucks and get a good case or sleeve to keep it in. Even in your carry-on, it’s going to get bumped around a little, and you really can’t get dents out of that unibody aluminum frame, no matter how hard you try.

Finally, if you want to be everyone’s friend while you travel, pick up a small, portable power-strip. I have one that turns a single power outlet into three, and has two additional USB ports for charging through. I have to tell you, when I plug that thing into an airport or coffee-shop wall outlet, I’m suddenly EVERYONE’S friend!

Of course, you can also take the train whenever possible. It takes longer, but there are outlets at most seats and you can stretch out more. Either way, travel smart, travel safe, and enjoy the holiday season!

Is that drive really bad?

External hard drives can be funny things. Sometimes, they’ll throw up errors for no apparent reason, and sometimes those reasons – though not immediately apparent – will destroy your data.

So how do you tell the difference between the occasional USB connection hiccup and the imminent failure of a hard drive?

Natively, it’s a bit difficult, but doable. Internal drives have S.M.A.R.T. monitoring software, but USB drives can rarely use that form of monitoring, so troubleshooting is much more complex. All Mac OS installations have a suite of disk tools installed by default in the Utilities folder, and you can start there.

In the Utilities folder, open Disk Utility and click the hard drive in question in the left-hand column. Note that there are disks and volumes. Disks are hardware devices that hold volumes. Volumes are sections of a disk that contain data. Even when you’re creating a disk with only one volume, it still holds a volume (the volume just takes up all useable space on that disk).

Once you click on the disk, you’ll notice that most of the right-hand section of Disk Utility is greyed out, but the key tools are available here. Click First Aid, and then click Verify Disk. This will do a check across the disk to make sure that there are no major errors, and report back if everything is ok, or something looks wrong.

If you do find some issues, you can try using Repair Disk to fix them. If the error is logical (i.e. not a physical fault on the drive itself), this option can often fix the problem and get you back to normal. As always, try to back up everything off the drive before you begin. Repair Disk is meant to be as non-invasive as possible, but it can and WILL overwrite data if it finds errors.

If the Verify comes up clean, but you’re still having problems, then there could be a physical issue going on. They come in two flavors: minor hardware hiccups and bad sectors/blocks.

Hardware hiccups can be caused by a lot of things. Check that the power supply is firmly plugged in first. I know this sounds stupid, but you’d be amazed how many times I thought an external USB drive was dying, but in reality it was just that the power cable came loose and was shutting off the drive every few minutes.

Also make sure that all cables are security seated both at the drive and on the Mac itself. I have found on more than one occasion that a USB cable worked itself lose at either the drive or hub end. Of course, checking to make sure the USB hub is working – if you use one – is also a good idea. Try plugging other devices into the hub and looking for errors or problems.

If the hardware seems ok, but you still have issues, then it’s possible that a block or sector on the drive has gone bad. This is rare these days, as most internal and external drives will automatically mark a bad sector and simply not use it anymore, but bad sectors/blocks can indeed still cause havoc if the drive doesn’t – for whatever reason – realize they’re actually bad.

Try copying everything from the drive to another drive or set of drives if you can. If there is a bad block or sector, this process will result in the drive un-mounting itself with no warning. Power the drive off and back on, and move on to the next section. If that process works, copy everything back to the drive. If both operations succeeded, but you still get other odd behavior or other problems, then the drive is most likely failing and should be replaced.

If you do have a bad block or sector and the system dropped the drive but it came back online, you may need a new drive, but there’s still a chance you can get around it. Back up everything you can off the drive. I can’t stress that enough, because we’re about to wipe the thing clean. Copy everything you possibly can off of the disk to other storage before proceeding. That means copying everything you can off ALL volumes on that hard drive, even those that seem ok. You have been warned.

Back in Disk Utility select the drive (not the volume) that you want to attempt to fix. Go to Erase, and near the bottom click the Security Options button. Move the slider to the first position away from “Fastest” on Lion, which will show text stating that the system will write zeros over all data on disk. On Snow Leopard, chose the Zero Out or 1-Pass option. Click OK.

Click the Erase button, and read the warning that comes up carefully! This will totally destroy all data on the hard drive, and consumer data-recovery tools will be unable to get it back. Make triple-sure you have the right drive and that you backed up everything you could.

As the Erase operation goes through the process, it writes zeros to each bit on the disk. This will force any bad blocks and sectors to be recognized on write, and hopefully flagged as bad so they won’t be used anymore.

If that process works without errors, then you can use the disk again. If the Erase operation fails, then the disk has indeed gone bad, and must be replaced.

Since disk errors can happen without warning, keeping regular backups is the only true way to be sure you can always get to your data. If there is a problem, you can troubleshoot, but sometimes disks die, and only a backup can get you back up and running.