Laptop crash forces creative recovery solutions (plural)

2010 May 27
by Steven R Jones
Creative Recovery

Creative Recovery

I’m going to stick my neck out here right from the start and admit publicly that my Apple MacBook Pro crashed on me earlier this week. Us Mac folks aren’t fond of acknowledging failures with Apple gear but rest assured that it can and does happen to everyone.

After a successful complete restore from Time Machine – which was so ridiculously easy that I could devote a whole post to praise for that miracle tool – I found myself in a bit of panicked state. Time Machine, like any good backup tool is only as useful as the effort you put into it. Thankfully I had been diligent about keeping timely backups so I only lost a few days of data BUT —

I had made the decision awhile ago to exclude all my media including music, videos, and photos from the regular backups because it would have quickly filled up my external hard drive. So my “recovery” was tinged a bit and as it sunk in that I may have just lost countless hours of organizing family videos and the memories that come with that work. That’s when I started my frantic search for miracles.

Turns out, I had a few unexpected options that helped me stave off the tears that I feel the urge to share in case you find yourself in this situation.

Step 1: Recover music from iPhone/iPod using Pod to Mac (or Pod to PC)

A quick web search and $20 from my PayPal account let me install this magic little app that will simply pull back all the music from your previously-synced mobile device into iTunes.  In my haste, I didn’t look hard to see if a previous iPhone backup would have been a cleaner option but I know that a fresh sync from my restored iTunes could have increased the damage by wiping out everything still working on my iPhone. Within minutes of running Pod to Mac, I recovered all my music, complete with playlists, album art, and podcasts, audiobooks, and iTunesU material. Simply outstanding – kudos to the myPodApps folks!

Step 2: Recover photos and videos from hacked AppleTV

There is an option with Pod to Mac to recover photos from the phone as well but as I had only synced a portion of my rather large iPhoto library so at best, it would only be a partial recovery. I remembered that I had been pushing my entire library to my AppleTV to view on a larger family TV and that I had recently hacked it to install the Boxee app (highly recommended btw). One of the side benefits of the hack is that you gain shell access to the underlying operating system on the AppleTV which is a godsend if you need to reverse the one-way media syncing Apple uses to get content on the box. Even if you don’t know any Unix commands, you can find simple instructions on the web for installing the software and for executing the commands from your computer to pull back the media files.

There is a downside here however. While I was able to fully recover all my photos and videos by copying the physical files back from the AppleTV device, I lost all the  information I had used to tag and organize them. By design(?), Apple rearranges and obfuscates all the files that are synced over. So while I copied over “Hiking Mt. Mitchell” video, I got back “GDZX.m4u”. I also pulled back TIFF versions of my photos which are fine for organizing back in iPhoto on my laptop but not exactly the most convenient image format for sharing. At this point, I’m grateful to still have the photos – even if the true original versions are lost.

Step 3: Recover iPhone apps with iTunes App Store

In the third and final(?) recovery step, I went looking for all my iPhone apps. There was no one-click retrieve method for pulling down all the missing apps I had previously bought and downloaded but the iTunes Store stores your history so there is no danger of accidentally buying something twice. To keep track of which apps were already installed (and how I had organized them) I made snapshots of each screen on the iPhone and emailed them to myself for reference. From there, it was a short stint in the iTunes Store to pull down all those apps and stage them for syncing back to the phone.

The best part is that many of the apps that maintain any kind of “state” (e.g. preferences, high scores, etc.) completely survived the ordeal. At last check, it looks like I didn’t lose a single thing!

You don’t miss your water…till your well runs dry

The main message here is that you should absolutely invest in a good backup solution – advice I’m sure every one of your techie friends have passed on. But if you’re like most people (including me) that plan poorly or take seemingly innocuous shortcuts, then you should be prepared for having a bit more excitement in your post-crash venture.

Truthfully, with disk storage so cheap these days, there really is no good reason why we can’t all make suitable preparations for keeping digital backups of every bit and byte. I know manufacturers continue to push ever-simpler solutions for making this feasible with near zero-configuration, run-in-the-background, non-intrusive “magic boxes” but we users are still not completely conditioned to appreciate the total cost of ownership for our digital homes. Even for me, despite a setback like this, I have yet to make any new resolutions to change my ways, much less follow through with any immediate plans to head off future disasters….sigh.

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