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You are here: MacNN Forums > Software - Troubleshooting and Discussion > Mac OS X > flashing question mark--fearing the worst

flashing question mark--fearing the worst
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Oct 18, 2008, 03:12 PM
 
I've read a few old threads about this, but haven't found one that follows the problem all the way to point I've come to. I'd appreciate any help you can offer.

Working on my old "white dome" iMac running OSX 10.4. I'm getting the start-up screen with the flashing question mark and feel I really have tried everything. I've inserted the OSX 10.4 install CD and tried to reboot doing all of the following:
- holding down C
- holding down X
- holding down apple-S
- holding down option-apple-P-R
- holding down the left shift key
- unplugging the keyboard and mouse and rebooting

Same result every time--the system chimes, a gray screen flashes for a second, and I get the same folder with the flashing question mark. I read something about reinitializing the HD. How do I do that? I keep all of my important files on an external HD--the only things on the internal HD is the system files. So I'm not worried about losing data. Does anyone think this is a viable option for getting it going again? If not, are there any other options or does this mean my HD is fried?

Really frustrated. I know it's an old computer and computers die, but I really can't afford a new Mac right now. Let me know what anyone thinks. Many thanks.
     
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Oct 18, 2008, 03:20 PM
 
The one thing you didn't mention was holding just the Option key while restarting. It'll look for a startup system on your Mac. Hopefully there is one.
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Oct 18, 2008, 03:37 PM
 
system chime means Mac has passed POST (Power On System Test) so you have a logic board and RAM insatalled, - good to know eh. The flashing question mark means that the Mac cannot find a valid OS to boot from. This can be because the drive is damaged OR the system is damaged. If the system has gone west them booting the Mac into Firewire Target mode and connecting to another mac will mount the drive and you can recover your data and/or reinstall the OS (archive and install will usually recover your settings etc while giving you a working system).

if the drive is damaged the damage is liely to be in the boot sector (since this is what your Mac is trying to do), often the drive will still mount using Firewire targt mode and you can recover your data. In this case though the damaged drive will not take another system so you will need to get a new drive.

In short, it's not the end of the world. Most data is recoverable from this situation. However it is importnat to try to get the data off NOW, before further damage occurs.

Good luck.
     
FTrain  (op)
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Oct 18, 2008, 03:39 PM
 
Just tried it, and at least it did something different. It gives me a screen with two boxes--one has a circular arrow, the other has a straight arrow pointing to the right.. When I click the circular arrow, I get a ticking clock for about 20 seconds but nothing else happens. When I click the straight arrow, nothing happens. What does that mean? Is there anything else I can do from this screen?
     
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Oct 18, 2008, 03:39 PM
 
accidentally posted reply twice so deleted second one.
     
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Oct 18, 2008, 03:43 PM
 
It's the same issue , just showing from a different angle. holding the alt key just forces the Mac to look foe any drives with valid OS's on them, often your main hard drive and an optical drive with an install disc on it. Because your OS is toasted open firmware cannot locate a system drive. The circular arrow instructs it to look again, the pointing one to boot from the selected drive.
     
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Oct 18, 2008, 03:48 PM
 
If you have the original system discs, try inserting disc one into your optical drive and restarting the Mac by holding the c key down, or holding the option key again and selecting the dvd to start from. When the OS install language option screen appears select your language. On the next screen you wll see some menu options along the top menu bar including one that says "utilities". Select Disk Utility from the drop down list. This will start Disk Utility from the DVD. It "should" show you your main hard drive and trhe DVD as mounted volumes.

From here you can check and repair your hard drive and file system. IMPORTANT - doing this before you have tried to recover data may result in data loss if repair fails so try the firewire target mode recovery FIRST. If you can't do that now becasue you don't have another MAc to connect yours to them WAIT until you can. You do not want to mess with a sick hard drive containing your only copy of data.
     
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Oct 18, 2008, 03:49 PM
 
btw If you rdrive doesn't show up in disk utility when booting from the install DVD then it is more likely that it is damages, however damaged drives do show up fairly robustly under FWTDM so don't panic if it fails to show up.
     
FTrain  (op)
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Oct 18, 2008, 03:54 PM
 
How do I boot to firewire target mode? If I just hook another Mac to my computer, when I click reboot, will it automatically recognize that the other machine is there? Is there any risk to the other Mac?

If I try this, how will I know if it's problem 1 (the system) or problem 2 (the drive)?

Thanks for the advice.
     
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Oct 18, 2008, 03:59 PM
 
hold the T key down while booting the machine. It will chime and a great big yellow firewire logo should appear on the screen. Connect the mac to another mac using a firewire cable and the macs drive will mount on the other mac as an external firewire drive
     
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Oct 18, 2008, 04:02 PM
 
if the drive mounts copy the data off and THEN run disc utility on it from the other mac. If it finds no errors then it was probably your system that was borked. If it reports errors then it was the drive. If it reports errors it cannot fix then the damage is in the drives boot sector and the drive is history. Mind you in today's low drive cost world, even if you can fix the drive I would put a new one in. I never trust a repaired damaged drive with my data
     
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Oct 19, 2008, 12:08 AM
 
I just had to step out for several hours, and when I got home and rebooted the machine again, it finally recognized by OSX 10.4 install disk in the optical drive. However, as you predicted might happen above, my hard drive is not showing up in disk utility. The only drive that's being recognized is the external hard drive where I keep all my media and important files. I haven't been able to hook it up to another Mac, and I'm not sure when I'll be able to. But would you guess my internal HD is probably shot? Crap.

Is it worth re-installing OSX on my external drive (it has plenty of capacity)? Or if the internal drive goes, is there anything about that happening that would make it more difficult to run the machine? Would it be a lot slower to run the OS through firewire?
     
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Oct 19, 2008, 12:51 AM
 
Disk Warrior has saved me in the past from non-mounting boot drives/question mark folder failures.

"The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground." TJ
     
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Oct 24, 2008, 07:49 PM
 
My daughter's iMac had this problem and it turned out that the HD was on its last legs. I have taken apart the Boob to put in a DVD rw drive and it wasn't much fun. If you want to keep the iMac for a while longer, you can replace the HD with a 160 gb drive, but as I did, you will probably want to have someone else do the work. Local mac shops can do this. While you're doing this, you might want to replace both memory strips with 512mb versions. The internal strip is different than the external, so have someone do this for you. When I had this done it was about $300 for parts/labor to replace the drive and both memory strips for total memory of 1gb. Still runs great. Installed Leopard on it while connected in firewire mode (it's a little below the MHz requirement for Leopard) and it works fine. Just can't let it sleep!
( Last edited by efithian; Oct 24, 2008 at 08:02 PM. Reason: none)
     
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Oct 25, 2008, 04:32 PM
 
It is always possible to run the thing from an external Firewire HD, seems a lot cheaper and easier the paying someone to replace the internal HD. These machines are worth about $200-300. Plus you can get a bigger drives, which you can take with you when you get a newer computer.
     
FTrain  (op)
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Nov 12, 2008, 07:20 AM
 
So, I'm buying Disk Warrior to give that a shot. If it doesn't work, can someone advise on what my options are on an external hard drive? I currently have two--one that I keep all my media on (music, photos, etc.) and one that backs up that drive. Can I load the operating system on the media drive, or would that wipe out anything on it? (Obviously I don't want to wipe out all of my music, etc., and I can't guarantee that it was fully backed up the day the hard drive failed.)

My priority is to avoid buying a new computer right now (as much as I'd love one), so I appreciate any advice. Thanks.
     
FTrain  (op)
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Nov 12, 2008, 11:00 PM
 
I got Disk Warrior, and I don't think it's going to work, but I'm curious what this means. When I ran it as the start-up disk, the only directory it found was my external media drive. When I ran a test on the hardware, it recognized that I had an ATA internal drive, but said "this hard drive does not have built-in S.M.A.R.T. diagnostics." So, does that mean the drive is still there and could still be rescued, or does that mean it's finished because Disk Warrior can't rebuild its directory?
     
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Nov 12, 2008, 11:14 PM
 
OK, at the moment you are, very wisely, running 3 HDs, which allows independent backup on two of them. I do the same.

So go get a 250G HD for $52 at http://eshop.macsales.com/item/Hitachi/0A35390/ and a FW enclosure for $35 at http://eshop.macsales.com/item/Other...puting/NP35FW/. For $87 you now can have the same setup as you had at a fraction of a new computer's cost. This just an example, you can find larger HDs, or go to Newegg.com, or where ever you can find a good deal. Stay far from Maxtor, though, IMHO. BTW, I have no financial interest in the aforementioned sites, except for using them.
     
FTrain  (op)
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Nov 13, 2008, 08:19 PM
 
Can I really run the OS off of an external HD? Seem like it would be impossibly slow. (The machine is already pretty slow, given the processor.) But let me know if I'm wrong.
     
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Nov 13, 2008, 09:52 PM
 
Originally Posted by FTrain View Post
Can I really run the OS off of an external HD? Seem like it would be impossibly slow. (The machine is already pretty slow, given the processor.) But let me know if I'm wrong.
If you run the external via FW800 it's not much slower than an internal drive. FW400 and USB2 are ok...USB1 is useless...
     
FTrain  (op)
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Nov 14, 2008, 07:15 AM
 
hmmm. well, my iMac is pretty old and only has FW400. But I guess this is worth considering. Or I replace the internal drive, as efithian suggested.
     
FTrain  (op)
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Nov 16, 2008, 09:24 AM
 
I have a follow-up question: I ordered my new external hard drive, should have it in a couple of days. But how do I get OSX onto the drive? When I boot the computer, it rarely gives me anything but a question mark (one time it recognized that I had the disc in the drive, but I haven't been able to replicate that). What if the machine never gives me the option of looking for another drive?
     
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Nov 18, 2008, 08:17 PM
 
Any help?
     
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Nov 18, 2008, 08:23 PM
 
Connect your external drive, insert your OS X install/restore DVD and turn on your Mac (or reverse the last two steps, but quickly insert the disc). Hold down option as it starts and you'll be able to choose to boot from the OS X DVD. Boot from it and run the OS X installer. At the proper point in the install, you'll be able to choose the external drive as the destination.

Once it is installed, you'll be able to boot from this external drive by holding option at startup and selecting it. Once booted you should be able to go to system prefs > startup disk and make that one your default.
     
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Nov 18, 2008, 08:30 PM
 
Thanks Cold. I'm curious, if I load the OS onto another external drive that already has things on it (it's my current back-up drive) will it erase the stuff that's already on it? Just trying to think through how I want to structure all this.
     
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Nov 18, 2008, 08:43 PM
 
I recommend you partition the drive in that case. One partition for backup and another for the OS and all your user files, system files, and applications.
     
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Nov 18, 2008, 09:08 PM
 
Make sure you back up your current backup drive before you go installing stuff onto there. I always hate to see people lose their main drive and their backup on account of them being the same thing.
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FTrain  (op)
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Nov 18, 2008, 10:06 PM
 
So I installed OS X on one of my external hard drives, but now that I'm logged in, why doesn't it see that the other two drives are connected? And why won't it let me boot to the start-up disk again (I was going to go there to create a partition on the disk)?
     
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Nov 18, 2008, 10:17 PM
 
Now when I insert my OS X install disk it says I've inserted a blank disk in the drive. I'm really confused. I don't understand what has happened. I got it installed on one of my (now three) external hard drives, but if I wanted to change and install it on one of the others instead so that I could partition my disks and make better use of the space, how would I do that? Why does it think my install disk is blank? And why doesn't it recognize that I have two other external hard drives attached? One of those other drives has all my media on it. I can't lose what's on that disk.
     
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Nov 18, 2008, 11:49 PM
 
So, I thought I had worked through the problem. I got OSX loaded on one of my external hard drives. I got my new external hard drive partitioned and formatted. I got the machine to recognize the old media drive. I was starting to rebuild my desktop, preferences, etc. All four volumes appeared on my desktop. Life was great.

And then the system froze, I manually shut down to get it unfrozen. I booted back up and I'm right back to square-one. Blinking question mark every time. It doesn't recognize that I have the install disk in the drive. I even put in disk warrior and it doesn't recognize that I have any of the external drives available. Beautiful. Dead again. I am so @$&^%#*$ sick of this crap. What the @$#^%&^%*#! Does anyone have any idea why the hell that would have happened again?
     
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Nov 19, 2008, 03:24 PM
 
I suspect your dead HDD may be causing issues as the OS tries to mount it or the Mac gets stuck trying to boot from it.

Do you have the know how to open the iMac up and unplug it?
     
FTrain  (op)
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Nov 19, 2008, 10:05 PM
 
Probably not. I guess I could try it, but I've been online and read things about "thermal paste" and "pain in the ass" and I'm a little uneasy about cracking it open.
     
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Nov 20, 2008, 01:50 PM
 
Thermal paste is easy but pain in the ass sounds about right.

Perhaps some other members can give you some tips, since I've never opened one before.
     
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Nov 20, 2008, 10:14 PM
 
My concern at this point with opening it all up and installing the new drive (or just unplugging the old one) is I still can't figure out if the new drive even works. Sometimes the installer disk recognizes that there is a disk there (though it won't let me format it) and sometimes it doesn't even register that any disk is there at all.
     
   
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