The Lion Report: The Recovery HD

July 27th, 2011

The scenario isn’t uncommon. Your Mac is suffering from constant crashes, or other system anomalies, so you decide, or a technical support person suggests, that you reinstall the OS. In the past, this wasn’t so serious an issue. You got your most recent system DVD, mounted it, and launched the installer.

With Lion the rules have changed, but not necessarily in a way that you might appreciate.

As you know, Lion is strictly an online purchase and download. There are no physical discs, although there will be a USB thumb drive version some time in August for a “mere” $69. In passing, I will not attempt to guess out why Apple requires a $40 premium to supply Lion on a USB device that can be purchased for less than $10 at most retailers. I understand the greed factor, but maybe they plan to bundle other goodies in that package, maybe even support installations from older OS X versions.

But when it comes to a reinstallation, when Lion is placed on your Mac’s drive, there is also a tiny partition that can be used to boot your Mac in case of an emergency. Getting there involves restarting and holding down Command-R (or holding down Option and selecting Recovery HD) during the startup process. Simple enough.

You will reboot into a simple system that handles several recovery and maintenance features, such as running Disk Utility to not just examine but make simple directory repairs on your startup drive. This isn’t something you can do while booted under Lion. Yes, you can also restart in “command line” mode and accomplish a similar task, but this solution is simpler, not to mention more elegant.

The most important options, though, are recovery and reinstallation. If you opt to just start over, erase the drive, reinstall Lion and copy your stuff, you’ll need a current Time Machine backup. Don’t have one? Well, that’s the only restore process offered. Sorry ’bout that.

But the option to reinstall Lion is the one most likely used, and therein lies the problem. You see, Apple doesn’t store a full installer in this hidden partition, no doubt to reduce the physical size. That’s a good idea if you have a MacBook Air, particularly the model with 64GB of storage. Every bit saved helps, but at what cost?

If you must reinstall Lion, Apple will first verify your Apple ID, after which the latest Lion will be retrieved. The obvious advantage is that, if there is a later version of Lion when you perform the reinstallation, that’s the one you’ll get. You won’t have to perform a double install. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reinstalled the OS for myself or someone else, only to see Software Update offer to download yet a later version.

But what if you don’t have a broadband connection? What if you acquired Lion from a visit to your local Wi-Fi hotspot, an Apple store, or someone made a copy for you? What can you do then?

Obviously, the Recovery HD will be of no use to you if you cannot download Lion. If that’s your situation, you’d have to use a physical disc, if you have one. Or go without.

I suppose for most Mac users, these restrictions aren’t serious. But there are millions of potential Lion users who will chafe at the limitation. Maybe that will be sufficient reason for Apple to sell loads of USB versions of Lion, at least to those who are unable to retrieve online versions in an efficient fashion.

All in all, however, Recovery HD is actually quite a good idea for most Lion users. I don’t expect it’ll be used that often, but it’s a good safety net. And, yes, as a matter of testing, I did do a reinstallation of Lion several hours after the original installation just to evaluate the process in the real world. To me, everything went fine, but I also have quite a speedy broadband connection.

Apple could improve the process by not deleting the Lion installer after installation. That seems a wrongheaded approach, though I grant that Apple does the very same thing with the iOS. Sure, you can duplicate the Lion installer, and toss it to a location other than the Applications folder, and be safe; there are even hacks to make a bootable DVD. But why? Why can’t Apple, as part of the installation process, include a checkbox where you specify whether you want to keep the installer or not.

Besides, even if you do have a really fast broadband connection, some of you may also confront bandwidth limits. If you download Lion a few times, at 3.5GB each, and purchase or stream a bunch of high definition movies, you may find yourself stuck. For example, Comcast, a major U.S. cable provider, puts a limit of 250GB on many of their broadband customers. Only a few percent are apt to approach those limits, but if you exceed that number repeatedly, I’m informed you may lose your Internet access for an extended period of time

Lion on a USB drive seems more tempting, if only Apple would price it sensibly.

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6 Responses to “The Lion Report: The Recovery HD”

  1. dfs says:

    From a recent article on the MacRumors site:

    – Once Lion is released, purchase and download it from the Mac App Store.

    – Locate the OS X Lion installer and right-click on it. Select ‘Show Package Contents’.

    – Inside the ‘Contents’ folder, there is a ‘SharedSupport’ folder. Inside that is the Lion Installer. It’s called ‘InstallESD.dmg”.

    – Copy ‘InstallESD.dmg’ to the Desktop by clicking and dragging it while holding down the Option-key. You should see a little green plus icon if you did it right.

    – Open Disk Utility. Head to the Go menu in the Finder and select ‘Utilities’. Disk Utility should be in there.

    – Click the burn button.

    – Select ‘InstallESD.dmg’ from the Desktop, insert a blank 4.7GB DVD and wait. Once it’s finished, you’ll have a shiny new Lion install DVD.

    I haven’t tried this yet, but am passing it on for what it’s worth.

  2. Bob Forsberg says:

    “I will not attempt to guess out why Apple requires a $40 premium to supply Lion on a USB device that can be purchased for less than $10 at most retailers.”? Really?

    10.6 ($29.95) is required to download 10.7 ($29.95). If Apple is going to distribute 10.7 on a thumb drive ($10) don’t you think they would want to collect the $29.95 + $29.95 + $10 for unlimited Lion installs?

  3. barryotoole says:


    I’ve copied the Lion app to a 4GB thumb drive and hope to use it if my HDD crashes. Would it work?

    Also, I make two backups of my TimeMachine: one in an external HDD connected to my Mac through a FW800, and the other OTA into my TimeCapsule.

    Q1: If I do have a crash, and have to replace the HDD in my 2010 MacMini, which process will be better to get the OS X up and running?

    Q2: If I back up in my TM regularly, is it even useful to keep a separate Lion app copy on a thumb drive?

    Q3: Can I loan this TD to other family members to install the Lion (they all have the 10.6), or would they have to download the app separately on their own Macs?


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