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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

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In an emergency, you need to be able to quickly reboot and restore your Mac. You could use your backup hard drive, which should be bootable, but a second device is a good idea. A USB flash drive is simple to use, often more available than a hard drive, and you can take it with you wherever you go (which for notebook users means it's always available). These are the traditional reasons for owning a flash drive and they are all valid. However, the key for me is that I can also put troubleshooting tools, such as Disk Warrior, TechToolPro or Tinkertool on the flash drive. No longer do I have to dig out the disks for those applications.

Although some users have used specialized software and only installed part of the operating system, it's a lot easier to install OS X directly from the Install DVD. I eliminated foreign languages and printer drivers and pared Leopard down to about 6.4 GB. It fit on an 8 GB flash drive and I had about 800 MB left to install some troubleshooting software. I suggest you use a 16 GB drive which has room for a full copy of OS X and some troubleshooting applications. 16 GB flash drives cost approximately $50.

Flash drives are very handy, but they're not the fastest devices in the world. USB flash drives generally have a read speed of about 20 - 25 MB/s, but the write speed is only about 4 - 9 MB/s. However, there are faster drives and I've seen claims of up to 35 MB/s read speeds and 30 MB/s write speeds, but these drives are very expensive. See for a review of flash drives.

Most flash drives are formatted with FAT32, the normal Windows format, so your first step is to reformat the drive. The steps are:

  1. Insert the flash drive into one of the USB ports.
  2. Launch Disk Utility (applications/utilities)
  3. Select the flash drive from the list of drives. You should select the drive itself and not the volume which is indented below the drive.
  4. Select the partition tab.
  5. Enter a name for the drive. I used "bootable".
  6. Select "One Partition" from the Volume drop-down menu.
  7. Select "Mac OS X. Extended (Journaled) from the Format drop-down menu.
  8. Click the "Options" button.
  9. Select "GUID Partition Table" from the partition alternatives.
  10. Click the "Okay" and "Apply" buttons. You'll get a warning that all data will be erased from the disk, after which select "Partition".
  11. Quit Disk Utility when it has completed formatting the drive.

Install OS X
The next step is to install OS X. Since there's no data on the drive, I'd use Erase and Install which I understand may be somewhat faster than Archive and Install. You'll also want to customize the installation, removing any unneeded foreign language support and printer drivers.

Since most of us have installed or upgraded a Mac operating system a number of times, and since the instructions fully explain the process, I'm not going into minute detail. It's really simple.

Insert the OS X Install DVD in your Mac and when the Install window opens, double-click on the Install icon. When the Install window opens, click restart, enter your password and click Okay, and your Mac will restart and boot from the Install DVD.

The next steps are probably the trickiest. Remember that you will install OS X on the flash drive, not on your main hard drive. Slow down. Click the Options button and select the default choice, Erase and Install. You'll again have to select the Mac formatting option. I wonder if you can eliminate formatting the flash drive in the beginning

If you want to save some space, click the Customize button and follow the instructions for eliminating all or some printer drivers and language translations. Once that's done, click the Done and Install buttons and wait one - two hours for the installation to be completed, after which the Mac automatically restarts. You will have to complete a number of indicated setup steps and you're almost done.

If you're still using Leopard, update to the latest version you desire and you've made a bootable flash drive.

The Pièce de résistance
Now, if you have room left on the drive, here's the piece de resistance. I suggest you install your recovery/emergency tools. You already have disk utility installed on the flash drive as part of OS X. Thus, if you want to repair your main hard disk, you can do it from the flash drive. In addition, it would be very convenient to have applications such as Disk Warrior, TechToolPro, Drive Genius, TinkerTool, Applejack or whatever other applications you use in emergencies.

CONCLUSION. As you can see, it's not that difficult to make a bootable flash drive and I think you'll find it handy to have one. You'll find it's faster to boot from the flash drive than from the OS X Install disc.

P.S. Snow Leopard took only 5 GB for a complete install and 4 GB with printer drivers and foreign language support eliminated, so you can probably make do with an 8 GB flash drive rather than a 16 GB one. And doesn't everyone have an 8 GB flash drive hanging around?

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