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OS X System Recovery: Explored and Explained

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There may be a time, in the life of your Mac, where you need to restore or recovery your machine, either to try and solve problems you've encountered or simply clean house and start from fresh.

In this tutorial, I'll show you through the various options for restoring or recovering your Mac and the process of bringing your Mac back to a clean, healthy state.


OS X Recovery Explained

Your Mac has a built-in set of tools that form the Recovery System; services which reside on a special partition of your primary hard drive that OS X set up during installation.

This partition, Recovery HD, lives in the shadows of your Mac's hard drive, invisible even to Disk Utility, and only ever comes to life when you need it.

The recovery partition eliminates the need for physical restoration material (such as the traditional DVD most older Macs shipped with, or the USB drive that was available to purchase around the launch of Lion). It includes all the tools you need for restoring your Mac from a backup, finding help on the Internet, modifying drives and even reinstalling the entire OS.

If you can't get access to your recovery partition, which may be the case if your issues lie with your hard drive, machines that shipped with Lion or above (or those that have been updated with a patch that brings Internet Recovery compatibility) have another built-in service, Internet Recovery.

Internet Recovery uses an available Internet connection to boot your Mac from Apple's servers and run the same set of recovery tools as if you had access to them locally, including the downloading and re-installation of the operating system.


Your OS X Recovery Partition

You can boot into the OS X recovery partition at any time by restarting your Mac (through Apple menu > Restart) and then simultaneously holding down Command R until the Apple logo appears. If the Mac boots up as normal, you'll have to repeat the process, taking care not to hold down the keys too late or release them too early.

You'll know that you've successfully booted into your recovery partition when the OS X Utilities window appears, though it is normal if this takes a moment to appear.

The OS X Utilities screen rather than your own desktop signifies youve booted into your Macs recovery partition
The OS X Utilities screen, rather than your own desktop, signifies you've booted into your Mac's recovery partition.

There's four distinct options here for recovery, re-installation or support. What you choose here depends on your specific situation.

Restore From Time Machine Backup

The first option you have is to recover your system from an existing Time Machine backup. This option is, however, a little different to using Time Machine features in the regular OS as this will entirely erase the contents of the selected drive and replace them with the contents of the backup. The process won't discriminate and your Mac will act as if it had literally been taken back in time to an earlier state.

The warning Time Machine erases your drive entirely before it restores
The warning: Time Machine erases your drive entirely before it restores.

If your problems are serious enough for this, or if your preferences simply dictate, you can select Restore From Time Machine Backup from the list and then click Continue on the next screen after reading the warning message.

You'll need to go through a series of steps that involve selecting your Time Machine drive, the specific backup you wish to restore to and then the destination drive that you want restored, being sure to read and accept any final warning that appears.

Following this, your Mac will restore from your chosen backup and then reboot into the newly recovered state. From there, you should be good to go.

Get Help Online

Choosing Get Help Online from the list of available options allows you to access Apple's support website or, in fact, any Internet-based resource through Safari.

You can access a version of Safari to gain access to Internet-based support
You can access a version of Safari to gain access to Internet-based support.

You'll need to connect to an available wireless network. This is done by clicking the WiFi icon on the menu bar, selecting an available network and, if applicable, entering the password. Then, you can select open Safari by clicking Get Help Online from the list of OS X Utilities and either navigating to Apple's support site or any other site you desire.

Disk Utility

Disk Utility is used for repairing, editing or erasing drives, which you can use to try to repair issues with your Mac's internal drives or prepare them for a fresh install.

The OS X recovery utilities includes access to Disk Utility for managing storage volumes
The OS X recovery utilities includes access to Disk Utility for managing storage volumes.

You can select an internal drive from the list in the left pane and then do anything you would normally do with Disk Utility inside OS X, including repairing your disk in the First Aid tab.

You can get a more in-depth look into the various functions of Disk Utility by checking out our Complete Beginner's Guide to Disk Utility.

Reinstall OS X

If your problems can not be sorted through restoring from a Time Machine backup, finding a solution online or repairing your local storage, you can install a new copy of OS X.

Reinstalling OS X through this method should keep your data, only replacing the core system files.

If, however, you need or want to run a clean install without any of your existing files or applications being kept, you first need to select Disk Utility from the initial list of tools and select your desired primary drive from the left pane. Then, open the Erase tab and follow the instructions there, leaving Mac OS X Extended (Journaled) as the format unless you know of a specific reason not to. Depending on the size of your drive, this process can take some time.

Tip: Some network configurations are incompatible for downloading OS X or accessing Internet Recovery. You may first want to consult this Apple support document to ensure your wireless network will work.

Whether you've erased the hard drive, or not, reinstalling OS X involves downloading the installer from Apple's servers, therefore requiring you to first select and enter the password to a wireless network under the WiFi icon in the menu bar, if you haven't already.

To reinstall a copy of OS X, select Reinstall OS X from the list of utilities and click Continue. On the next screen, click Continue again. A message will appear informing you that your machine's eligibility will need to be checked with Apple; click Continue and wait a moment for this process to be complete.

The installer will need to take a few seconds to check your machines eligibility
The installer will need to take a few seconds to check your machine's eligibility.

You'll need to agree to the terms of the software license agreement to continue. Select Agree to progress, or Disagree if you wish to decline the terms and close the installer. Then, from the available options, choose the drive which you want to install OS X to and click Install.

The installer will give you an opportunity to select which drive you want to install to useful if youre using a new disk
The installer will give you an opportunity to select which drive you want to install to, useful if you're using a new disk.

If the version of OS X you're reinstalling is not the original version that your Mac shipped with, you'll also need to sign in to the App Store at this point using your Apple ID. Enter your Apple ID and password to click Sign In and continue.

After that, your Mac will begin downloading the OS X installer and continue through the standard installation steps. Any further input needed of you will be asked for and explained and then you'll be set to go!


Internet Recovery: When Your Recovery Partition Fail

Introduced on models that shipped with OS X Lion, or later, (or those that have been updated with a patch that brings compatibility) is Internet Recovery, an alternative means for accessing your recovery utilities and reinstalling OS X.

Attempting to access your local recovery partition should always be first priority but if that fails due to problems with your hard drive, Internet Recovery is the way to go.

Internet Recovery will download a new copy of the OS X recovery utilities from Apples servers when a local copy isnt available
Internet Recovery will download a new copy of the OS X recovery utilities from Apple's servers when a local copy isn't available.

To boot into Internet Recovery, restart your Mac and hold down Command Option R. Internet Recovery will then begin, first completing a background check on the status of your hardware.

When the option appears, select a wireless network from the list and the entering it's password, if applicable. Internet Recovery will then begin downloading a new copy of the OS X Utilities that would normally be accessible through a local recovery partition. When this is complete, you can carry out any of the steps that I explained in the last section.

If you choose to reinstall OS X through Internet Recovery, the OS X version that your Mac originally shipped with will be downloaded and installed. If that wasn't Mavericks, you'll need to access the App Store and update once the process is complete.

Therefore, if possible, using your local recovery partition provides a quicker means of re-installation as this downloads the latest version of OS X that you had installed.


Recovering Your Applications After a Clean Install

If you opt to reinstall OS X by first erasing your Mac's internal drives, you can easily recover preinstalled apps and those downloaded through the App Store. To download any apps missing from your recovered Mac, launch the App Store and select the Purchases tab. Then, click the Install button next to any app you wish to download and restore.

If you haven't already, you may need to click the Accept button next to iMovie, iPhoto and/or GarageBand in order to tie them to your Apple ID and make them available for download.

The App Store provides instant access to downloadable versions of your apps
The App Store provides instant access to downloadable versions of your apps.

Conclusion

In this tutorial, I've explained the various tools and utilities for restoring your Mac through the built-in recovery options. OS X's recovery options aren't too difficult to navigate if you run into some problems but hopefully they won't be something you'll need to deal with often.

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