External USB drive won’t mount on OS X? Try safe boot.

I like to reuse old computer parts where possible. I’ve got an old 2.5″ hard drive rescued from a laptop headed for the junkyard Recyclinghof in a USB enclosure that is serving Sarah’s much more modern laptop quite well as a back up driving, using Time Machine. We’re using the same drive, but it’s partitioned into two different Time Machine volumes.

"Timemachine gallery windowsquicklook20070611". Via Wikipedia.
Timemachine gallery windowsquicklook20070611“. Via Wikipedia.

But try as I might, I could not that make that drive mount reliably on my machine. Until now.

Symptoms

I could plug in the drive into one of my USB ports and the green drive light would go on and you could hear it whir to life, but it never mounted. The System Information and Disk Utility never showed the drive. And yet it mounted quickly and painlessly on Sarah’s Macbook Air (a couple years older than mine, but running the same OS version).

Sometimes I would leave the drive connected (but not mounted!) overnight and come back to find that it had eventually mounted and the Time Machine backup had run. But usually not. I thought it might be a question of the cable, the connector pins, even something mechanical about the drive itself. One time it came to life while standing vertically, so for weeks I thought that must have something to do with it — kinks in the cable or drive inertia or something.

Solution

It’s working now, but I still don’t know what the problem was or why the fix worked. All I did was start up the machine, a late-model Macbook Air, with a safe boot, while the drive was connected via USB, after googling for similar problems. I am not aware of any other problems on this Mac, so I figured a safe boot couldn’t hurt. It’s “safe,” right?

  1. Turn your Mac off.
  2. Turn it back on, and press and hold the shift key (either one? I used the left shift key) as soon as you hear the chime.
  3. It’ll check the startup disk, and take longer to boot than normal.
  4. When you log in, not all the usual stuff that happens upon login will happen. But that’s when my drive started happily blinking away, and I saw it was mounted and ready for business.

Safe Boot

Here’s what Apple says about starting your Mac in “safe mode.” Nothing on that page really leaps out at me with a solution that indicate external drives connected via USB are handled differently, unless maybe the failure to recognize and mount the drive was caused by an unnecessary kernel extension, and disabling it via the safe boot made the drive usable again. But if that’s the case, then a subsequent normal, non-safe (um…unsafe?) boot should have caused the drive to fail to mount again. But it doesn’t. So safe boot must have fixed something else.

I kinda want to know what it did, but I’m just glad I didn’t junk this drive without giving it one more try.

External USB 3 drive unmounts on OS X Lion when the iPhone is plugged in

Sarah noticed something weird today — might be related to her recent upgrade of her iPhone 4’s OS to iOS 7-point-something. Or maybe not.

Ours looks like this.
Ours looks like this.
Our aging Mac mini is what we’re keeping around for iTunes purposes. It’s how Sarah gets her stuff (apps, podcasts, music, etc.) onto her iPhone.

The mini model we have only has an 80GB drive, so our collection of music and apps and stuff has to reside on an external drive, a 1TB USB 3 external drive we snagged in Hong Kong a couple years ago. Up until this week, that drive worked great even through a powered USB hub. We plugged it in after bringing home, migrated our iTunes music library onto it, and forgot about it.

Hers has a few more scratches.
Hers has a few more scratches.
…until it started making ominous clicky noises this week. That started the beachballing in the Finder. I thought for sure the drive must be kaputt, but after unplugging it and replugging it and running the diagnostics on it via Disk Utility, everything still seemed hunky dorey. I even ran Apple Jack to see that would help with anything. Sarah mentioned that it only made the clicky noises when her iPhone was plugged in, and that it might have been around the same time that she was applying an update to iOS7.

USB 3But this all seemed pretty strange to me. Could an iOS update really influence the mounting behavior of external USB drives? Sure enough, while the drive was making the clicky noise, I unplugged her phone and the drive mounted itself normally, ready for use.

What the heck?

I googled some for it but couldn’t find any direct hits immediately, or even anything close. I saw other people with newer computers and external drives discussing voltage differences through USB hubs and overheating problems, but nothing that seemed applicable to our situation.

But on a whim, I tried plugging the USB drive into the last remaining available USB port on the Mac mini — skipping the USB hub completely.

And it seems to have worked. iPhone and USB drive are both plugged in and working normally. Hope it stays that way.

Skype 2.2 on Mac mini under Kubuntu 10.10 with USB mic

Haven’t geeked out here in a while!

This morning I put Kubuntu 10.10 onto my Mac mini’s hardware (in parallel to OS X 10.6) sort of for a lark and sort of because I like the KDE desktop so much. It went surprisingly smoothly and painlessly, despite my hodgepodge of cannibalized hardware (but hey, that’s what a Mac mini is for, right?).

I had no trouble getting all the basics to work: external hard drives readable and usable, WLAN was a snap, even got Kdropbox (though it’s not called that anymore) going quickly and painlessly.

Except for Skype. I downloaded the latest .deb package from skype.com and the audio output stuff seemed to be working just fine. But not the audio input from my USB microphone. Couldn’t figure that out. I did some googling, but mostly found references to Skype beta versions and hacked up wrappers from years ago, like version 1.2 or 1.3. Didn’t really seem appropriate anymore. There was a hint in the Skype Sound Devices options about PulseAudio and messing the with the settings outside of the Skype software.

So I kept digging in the KDE System Settings dialog. First weird thing I noticed: no obvious “Sound” or “Audio” control panels? Hmm, what about this Multimedia setting? I looked in there more than once before I realized that I need to take a look at “Phonon”.

In here I finally saw that I could adjust the preference order of my sound input devices, moving the USB microphone higher up on the list. Then Skype worked like a champ!