A solution to the frequent Question mark of death for Mac laptops

Greg Hung. SFU MBA Ex IT manager from Vancouver. Aerial Video producer and Digital Nomad in Taiwan learning Mandarin

A solution to the frequent Question mark of death for Mac laptops

I hope you don’t have the same issue as I had, but if you have been getting the frequent question mark of death when trying to boot up your MacBook. I want to give you a solution that has worked for me. I’m happy to share the solution!

solution to the frequent Question mark of death for Mac
My actual laptop with the question mark folder

I was frustrated at the advice that was currently on the web so I decided to once again put on my IT hat and write a post with one possible solution that won’t cost you a lot and that you can do yourself.

Being a digital nomad in Taiwan my laptop is my livelihood, so I was freaking out for the last 48 hours.  I had plans to travel to Thailand, but after this scare I was thinking of an early return to Canada. Yes some drama. I have an early MacBook Pro 2013 15inch Retina currently on Yosemite 10.10.2 I used for creating many videos and on-line courses. I have a 13-year background in IT so I have some technical chops that I could lean on to figure this out

Who is this for?

MacBook Pro’s or MacBook air owners with frequent blinking question mark folders when powering on your laptop. I’m going to write a solution in lamen’s terms that you can do yourself.

Applies to:

This solution should work with most recent MacBook Pro’s or MacBook airs with a thunderbolt connection, the one with the lightning bolt.

What happened?How

I started to get frequent blinking folders with question marks infrequently and then more frequently. The common advice on the web is to hold down the option key, which will give you an option to select the start-up disk. They then recommend you go to system preferences to set the startup disk. Great I did this, but then it started to happen more frequently.

I would hold down option at start-up, but it wouldn’t find the internal storage. I even started to press command R to bring up the emergency options. I would then see a spinning globe call Internet recovery. This would install the operating system from the Internet and wipe out my hard drive. I didn’t want that, and besides the laptop couldn’t find the main internal hard drive anyways.

When did it happen?

I think it happened around the time I installed OS X Mavericks. I’m always weary when it comes to upgrading operating systems. In my experience with upgrading the operating systems whether it ‘s an iPhone, windows desktop, or in this case a Mac laptop there is a high chance that something will not work.

What did I do?

I had a hunch it might be a hardware issue, but there was a chance it might be software related. To make sure it wasn’t a software issue I recommend doing the following

solution to the frequent Question mark of death for Mac
the disk utility to format your external hard drive
1. Turn on time-machine and make sure you have a full-backup

The time-machine back is awesome because it will backup the OSX with all your apps and data unlike the old Windows backup. Make sure you have a successful backup. Disconnect any external hard-drives that you are not going to back up to during this backup otherwise it will take up more space. It will give you the estimated size of back up. If you can’t find time machine search by the spotlight logo and open the clock logo in the top-right.

2. Upgrade your operating system to the latest and backup again

Yes I know I don’t like this, but you have to go in logical steps. Make sure you have a previous back up in the operating system. After upgrading to the latest try starting up your laptop. If you’re still having the problem make sure you back up your system again with the new operating system

3. Replace your hard-drive at the apple store or do it yourself

At this point it looked like my hunch that there were a hardware problem was correct. I found a great resource if you wanted to open up the laptop yourself and try fix the hard drive cable or replace it. This has never been my strong suit so I thought hard for another solution.

I went to a premium apple reseller, as there are no Apple stores in Taipei. They wanted 800nt just to look at it and tell me what the problem was. On top of that they need my laptop for 3 days. This wasn’t an option.

In case you want to do it yourself this site is awesome and provides all the information


MacBook Pro 15″ Retina Display Late 2013 Teardown

4. Restoring your system onto an external hard-drive
solution to the frequent Question mark of death for Mac
make sure to exclude your other hard drives on the backup

You will need to find a space external hard drive. I recommend a 1tb thunderbolt hard-drive, as you need fast access. I’ve always relied on this hard-drive for intense video editing and it has been fine. Thunderbolt is awesome, but expensive.

You will need to Press command and R at the same time at boot up. This will give you the option to access the disk utility and restore using time machine.

You will need to format your hard-drive with Mac OS journaled using the disk utility. After formatting select the option to restore your system on the external hard drive. Make sure you backup your stuff on this hard drive, as it will wipe out everything.

I tried restoring my system onto an external USB 3 hard-drive. It took a long time, but it worked. The system was as slow as a turtle so I made some space on my LaCie 1tb thunderbolt hard drive and restore it on there. I went for a workout as it takes a while. When I came back I restarted the laptop. Anxious to see if my solution worked I logged it after seeing the Apple logo for a long time. The system was a bit chopping doing things on the laptop, but slow on anything on the actual laptop. My instinct was to restart right away. When it came back up things were crisp.

The benefit of this solution is that I didn’t have to open up my laptop and I can now use my laptop with all your programs. I was asked for the serial key to my MS office, and I tried loading Final Cut Pro X for video editing. Everything has been fine so far. Technically I could select the internal hard-drive, but this would give me random success. I could also replace the internal hard-drive at some point if there was an apple store. I think the internal hard drive at 500gb SSD goes for about $105 on this site. In the process I can still use my external hard-drive, but I’ve lost about 200gb on my 1gb to the system. Whew I can take off my IT hat for now.


MacBook Pro 15″ Retina Display Late 2013 SSD Replacement

Did I help you out? Save you some money? If so please share my post. It let’s me know that the time I took to write this made a difference. Thanks!

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