OS X Lion, Recovery and Reinstallation

August 10th, 2011

In Apple’s efforts to simplify installing Lion on your Mac, they’ve made things more difficult. First, you have to download a copy, at least for now. Later this month, Apple will release a USB-based installer at $69, a $40 surcharge.

Now I’m not about to attempt to explain why Apple needs to charge more than four times the usual and customary price of a USB thumb drive to load Lion on it. That seems excessive to me, and I’m sure most of you will agree, but I suppose Apple could add some extra features to justify the price. My real concern is the shaky method of restoring your OS should something go wrong, and how the file you download is handled.

As many of you have discovered after installing Lion, the file you may have spent hours retrieving is trashed. Yes, you can make a copy right after getting that download, and place it elsewhere (outside of the Applications folder), so you can be assured it’ll be around should you need it again.

Apple’s alternative, while workable, is far more awkward. You see, the Lion installer places a tiny partition on your hard drive, less than 1GB in size, which stores a simple Lion startup with several functions. You can restore your Mac from a Time Machine backup, restart with Safari as the only app, run a Disk Utility repair scan, and, of course, reinstall Lion. You get there by restarting your Mac, pressing Command-R (for Recovery HD), or holding down Option and selecting that partition.

The last is where things can get dicey. You see, that partition doesn’t contain the full installer. Perhaps Apple wanted to service all those MacBook Air users who have the basic model with a mere 64GB of storage. Three or or four gigabytes reserved for reinstallation might be just a little too much, I suppose, although the alternative may be far more inconvenient.

You see, if you want to reinstall Lion after rebooting in Recovery mode, you are forced to download Lion all over again. I suppose there is some logic behind this move, since it allows you to retrieve the very latest version, which might mean something weeks from now after one or more maintenance updates have been released. That way you don’t have to endure a double installation. At the same time, you may have had to go through some pain to get Lion in the first place if you don’t have a speedy broadband connection. Perhaps you went to a local Wi-Fi hotspot, or traveled to the nearest Apple store, and it may have required a drive taking several hours. Regardless, it makes little sense to have to go through all that agony again. Evidently Apple didn’t consider this, or expects you to buy the USB thumb drive version if you’re bandwidth challenged.

In a curious move, Apple this week released a utility, Lion Recovery Disk Assistant, that does little more than create the same type of partition on an external drive. The process will also erase that drive, another curious choice. It might serve if your Mac’s internal drive needs to be reformatted because of a directory problem. At the same time, the newest Macs, the MacBook Air and Mac mini, do not come with any backup software. If you need to recover your computer’s data, and the hard drive isn’t functional, you have to do an Internet Recovery, a new feature on the latest Macs. This means you’re forced to go online to get all the files you need.

You’d think if you are willing to spend enough money to get a new Mac, Apple would honor that purchase by providing a free USB thumb drive, as they’ve done with the previous MacBook Air. But no. To Apple, we are destined to rely on the cloud to enjoy our digital lifestyles. If cloud access isn’t readily available, you’re out of luck.

Now it’s true that Apple tends to predict market trends. Years ago, they knew that you no longer needed floppy drives to store your files, although it took a few years, and the availability of external drives to reassure customers, to fulfill that vision. Eventually they went away.

These days, Apple has placed optical drives on the endangered list. If you don’t need them, and most of you probably don’t, fine. There’s always an external optical drive, which may be an awkward fit in a laptop case, but at least you won’t be left stranded. But the handwriting is on the wall.

Some day, most everyone will be connected with speedy broadband access wherever they go, without having to pay loads of money for the privilege. But with a quarter of the U.S. population still without broadband, and many around the world facing severe bandwidth limitations, Apple may need to rethink this move.

In the end, though, if only a small number of customers complain about being stranded if a Lion installation, or your hard drive, fails, nothing will change. Or maybe they will make that USB version of Lion more affordable. There are already reports that Apple is offering that option to customers who are otherwise unable to easily restore Lion. That’s a positive first step.

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10 Responses to “OS X Lion, Recovery and Reinstallation”

  1. dbtucson says:

    What bunch of whining! I bought a 4 GB thumb drive for 6 bucks, partitioned it to leave 1.5 GB for the Lion reinstall (the rest free) with Disk Utility, downloaded the software, installed it easy as pie and I’m done. Checked it out. It works fine.

    • @dbtucson, You miss the point. Your recovery disk has the same problem as the one on your hard drive. It’s not a full Lion install. You still have to download Lion whenever you want to reinstall it. The other choice is to copy the full installer to another drive (USB, whatever). Again, Apple shouldn’t expect the customer to have to go through these hoops to install or reinstall Lion.


  2. rwahrens says:

    Well, I am encouraged by the new Recovery Assistant enabling me to make a Recovery volume on an external disk, which will enable me to reinstall Lion if the internal drive fails completely and needs to be replaced.

    I know, Apple will reinstall Lion for me if it fails under warranty, but as a long time IT guy, I like to be prepared to do it myself if needed. Call me picky and anal, but there you go.

    I do not see the erasure of that external drive as an unusual choice – the app has to re-partition the drive in order to create its own Finder-invisible partition, which in any case will destroy data currently residing on the drive. I don’t see it as an unusual “choice”, but as an inevitable result of the necessary process. I’m using an extra 320 gig portable drive as my external Recovery drive, so there was no issue of data to save anyway.

  3. Mark says:

    What do you then recommend a novice/new buyer of a Macbook Pro to do? I want to always have a backup system available, but have no idea how to go around doing that inexpensively. Are you saying I need to dedicate an entire external hard drive to a backup system, or can I just do what the earlier commenter said and buy a $6 flash drive and put Lion on there? How much room does a backup of Lion actually take up, anyway? Can’t you put it on a DVD like previous systems?
    Thanks for the tips.

    • @Mark, A Lion installer is roughly 3.5GB in size. It is easily copied to a USB thumb drive. No need to devote a full drive for it, but you should consider having a second drive as a full backup for your stuff. You can sync it whenever you’re at the home or office, and Apple’s Time Machine will copy your data when the drive is mounted/connected.

      My backup routine includes a cloud-based service, plus two local drives.


  4. Ken Heins says:

    What is the size of the full install?

  5. javaholic says:

    Makes the ‘old fashioned’ optical drive/DVD install look even more appealing now, doesn’t it?

  6. Ken Heins says:

    “Makes the ‘old fashioned’ optical drive/DVD install look even more appealing now, doesn’t it?”

    Not really sure because you would still have to download the upgrades.

    I have a good Lion install, so at this point, my best option is a USB that does not require a complete download.

    I had to do a command R and it worked very well.

  7. Jon T says:

    Get it in proportion!

    $29 for a revolutionary new operating system is as good as pricing gets.

    Keeping the process simple and cost effective by only needing the latest download available online makes complete sense to me.

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