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The OS X Recovery Partition: What It Is, Why It's There and How to Remove It

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When you upgrade your Intel Mac from Snow Leopard to Lion, Snow Leopard to Mountain Lion, or even Snow Leopard to Lion and then again to Mountain Lion, the installation process creates a special “Recovery Partition”. There are, however, certain circumstances where you will want to remove this recovery partition. This article looks at what the Recovery Partition is, what it does, and why you might want to remove it. I'll also walk you through the removal process.


Before We Get Started

For the normal Mac owner with a Mac running OS X 10.7 Lion or 10.8 Mountain Lion, there are few compelling reasons as to why the Recovery Partition should be removed. It takes up minimal space and provides handy tools in the unlikely event of problems with the machine.

It takes up minimal space and provides handy tools in the unlikely event of problems with the machine.

For the Mac owner with a Mac that has been upgraded from it’s original OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard operating system, then there are reasons why the removal of the recovery partition might be desirable.

First we’ll examine what the Recovery Partition is, and what it does, before deciding if it should be removed, and under what circumstances, with a step-by-step guide to doing so.

If you already understand the Recovery Partition and understand the implications of deleting it, head straight on to the section How Do I Delete the Recovery Partition?


What is the Recovery Partition?

The recovery partition is a new feature of OS X that allows you to restore system software to your Mac with just a few clicks, without the use of DVDs or USB drives.

It is, in essence, a small (650MB) partition on your Mac’s internal hard drive (traditional magnetic HDD or solid state disc SSD) that is ‘hidden’ and reserved for common utilities such as Disk Utility.

If you are having issues with your Mac, Recovery Partition allows you to repair the hard drive, erase the hard drive and install a new copy of OS X

If you are having issues with your Mac, Recovery Partition allows you to repair the hard drive, erase the hard drive and install a new copy of OS X, or even restore your Mac from a Time Machine backup. It even has Safari so that you can connect to the Internet and get help from Apple’s online support.

If your Mac requires the reinstallation of OS X, Recovery Partition will connect to Apple’s servers and download the operating system for you.

This makes a lot of sense since, from a user perspective, DVDs can be easily damaged and it is easy for critical system DVDs or USB drives to become mislaid if you are not the most organized of individuals. From Apple’s perspective, there is a huge cost-saving to be had in not having to produce and distribute countless DVDs or USB drives with the computers that it sells.

Furthermore, it might be said that this suits Apple’s marketing department as it fits with Apple’s continual drive forward in phasing out, what it perceives, as obsolete technologies in the same way that it has done in the past with serial ports, PS/2 ports, the 3.5” floppy disc and now the optical (CD/DVD) drive. The sorts of legacy technologies that remain for much longer in other personal computers.


How do I access the Recovery Partition?

Tip: To access the Recovery Partition, press and hold Command-R (or hold Option) immediately after the start-up chime just a few seconds after you turn on your Mac.

There are usually two ways to access the Recovery Partition when booting your Mac.

The first way to access the Recovery Partition is to boot your Mac and press and hold the ⌘ (Command) and R keys immediately after the initial chime sounds a few seconds after the machine is turned on. You must keep holding down both the Command and R keys until you see a window with “OS X Utilities” across the top in large text.

If the first method does not work for you, try the second method which works on any Mac.

The second way to access the Recovery Partition is to boot your Mac and press and hold the ⌥ (Option) key, located either side of the spacebar and marked as ALT on newer Mac keyboards.

Again, keep holding the ⌥ (Option) key until the appearance of a grey screen showing connected, bootable volumes. These are represented by icons of internal hard drives with the name of the respective bootable volume beneath them.

In this instance, you will need to select the bootable volume named “Recovery HD” by using the arrow keys to move the arrow to the appropriate icon. You will also have the option to connect to a local wi-fi network to access a Time Capsule or the Internet in recovery mode. There is also an option to choose a network, later, once you have booted into recovery mode. Alternatively, just ensure that you have an ethernet cable connecting your Mac to your network or direct to your router.


How do I use the Recovery Partition?

Regardless of which method you used, you will arrive at an OS X Utilities screen which gives you four options:

  • Restore from Time Machine Backup
  • Reinstall OS X
  • Get Help Online (Safari to browse Apple support website)
  • Disk Utility
OS X Utilities on the Recovery Partition
OS X Utilities on the Recovery Partition

The first three options will require a connection, either wired or wireless, to a local network or router. The second and third options will require your network or router have an Internet connection.

In the case of the second option, the OS X Utilities on the Recovery Partition allows your Mac to connect to the Apple servers to download the appropriate disc image, for your machine, to boot your Mac into recovery mode.


Why Would I Need to Delete the Recovery Partition?

The Recovery Partition essentially takes the place of the DVD installation disc that was previously shipped with new Macs. Instead of a physical DVD, the data is now on a hidden partition on your hard drive. This has immediate benefits. It also has drawbacks.

With the Recovery Partition, anyone can boot your Mac and reset your passwords.

With the Recovery Partition (and with the install DVD on pre-Lion Macs), anyone can boot your Mac and reset your passwords. This would enable them (with a little more knowledge) to potentially access your user accounts and personal data. It is also possible for tech-savvy children to bypass any parental controls that you have set on your Mac.

A physical DVD can be stored separately from the Mac, thereby reducing the potential for password resets on the system. This is not the case with a Recovery Partition.

If you are really paranoid about security then you may wish to consider deleting the recovery partition on your Lion or Mountain Lion Mac, but not before you have created a USB Recovery drive.

If your Mac originally shipped with OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and you are restoring your Mac back to it’s original condition then you will need to remove the Recovery Partition. This is essential if you are selling your Mac or passing it on to a friend or family member.


How do I Delete the Recovery Partition?

If you are returning your Mac to it’s original OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard Operating System, you can do so by restoring a cloned copy or backup, if you have one, using Carbon Copy Cloner, SuperDuper! or Time Machine.

Alternatively, to install a fresh copy of Snow Leopard, use OS X Utilities to erase the hard drive before reinstalling the operating system. Be aware that this will not delete the Recovery Partition, for which you will need to follow the procedure below.

Step One

To confirm the presence of the Recovery Partition, open Terminal.app and enter the command:

Now press the return key. You will see some results similar to this:

Recovery Partition in Terminal
Recovery Partition in Terminal: Apple_Boot Recovery HD 650.0 MB

If you do not have a Recovery Partition, then there is nothing to remove. You’ve finished so quit Terminal.app.

If you do have a Recovery Partion, go back to Terminal.app and enter the command:

Then press the return key. This command enables the normally hidden Debug menu item in Disk Utility, which we are going to need for the rest of the procedure.

Step Two

Open the Disk Utility app. Now, in the menu bar at the top, select Debug > Show every Partition.

Revealing the Debug Menu in Disk Utility
Revealing the Debug Menu in Disk Utility

Following this action the ‘Recovery HD’ will be revealed in the left-hand pane of the Disk Utility window although it will be greyed out.

Tip: You will find the Disk Utility app in the Utilities folder inside the Applications directory.

Step Three

Select ‘Recovery HD’ and click the Mount icon, at the top of the Disk Utility Window, to make it active.

Selecting the Recovery Partition and Mounting it to Make it Active.
Selecting the Recovery Partition and Mounting it to Make it Active.

Step Four

You will see that ‘Recovery HD’ is no longer greyed-out and you can delete it using secondary-click on the mouse or trackpad or by using control-click and then selecting Erase.

Erasing the Recovery Partition.
Erasing the Recovery Partition

Step Five

This leaves us with a 650MB partition with nothing in it, so it makes sense to remove the partition and free up the space for the main (only) partition on your internal drive.

To do this, select the Partition tab, towards the top of the Disk Utility window, and click to select the small Recovery HD partition. Then click on the minus symbol, beneath, to remove it.

Deleting the Recovery Partition
Deleting the Recovery Partition

You will get a confirmation dialogue box which summarizes the action that you are about to perform. Read it carefully. Read it twice to ensure that you are performing the action correctly to remove only the Recovery HD partition. When you have confirmed the action is correct, click the box marked Remove.

Deleting the Recovery Partition
Slow down and read carefully before continuing

Step Six

If you wish, you can confirm that the Recovery Partition has been removed, return to Terminal.app and enter the following command:

If you have followed the instructions correctly, you should now see that the Recovery Partition has been erased.

Using DiskUtil List to check Recovery Partition has been removed
Using DiskUtil List to check Recovery Partition has been removed

If you take a look at Disk Utility, you will see that there is now only one large partition on your internal hard drive.

Recovery Partition has been removed
Recovery Partition has been removed

Step Seven

To turn off the Debug menu in Disk Utility enter the following command into Terminal.app:

Turning off the Debug Menu item in Disk Utility
Turning off the Debug Menu item in Disk Utility

And that’s it. Close Terminal and Disk Utility.


Conclusion

In this article we examined what the Recovery Partition is and why it is useful to OS X. We have also examined the reasons why you might want to remove it. Finally, we saw a step-by-step procedure to remove the Recovery Partition.

If your Mac came pre-installed with OS X 10.7 Lion, or 10.8 Mountain Lion, then there are going to be few reasons that make sense to remove the Recovery Partition. You are fairly safe to leave it as is. If your Mac came pre-installed with OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and you are returned your Mac to it’s original condition (perhaps you are selling it or passing it on), then it makes sense to remove the Recovery Partition.

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