This Is How You’ll Reinstall OS X Lion Without A DVD or USB Stick [Bad Ideas]



Apple is shipping Mac OS X 10.7 Lion via the Mac App Store so how will you reinstall Lion without a DVD or USB stick? Here’s one way you can do it, but it might not be the best way.

Lion Recovery Partition Requirements

The Lion installation process adds an extra hidden recovery partition onto your system’s existing boot drive, but apparently only if that drive is formatted with a GUID partition table. You can check for this partition type on your own system by launching the Disk Utility application located in Applications > Utilities on your primary boot disk.

Once Disk Utility is up and running locate the top most item within the pane with the white colored background and click it. You’ll see something like this if you own a 13-inch Macbook Air: 251 GB APPLE SSD TS256C Media.

Now look at the bottom of the Disk Utility window for Partition Map Scheme. This will tell you the type of disk partition you have installed. In my case it was: GUID Partition Table.

Accessing The Recovery Partition

The Lion installer set up and configured the recovery partition on the test computer which had the appropriate GUID partition. However, the recovery partition can only be accessed via the EFI firmware. You access it by pressing and holding the option button while restarting or turning your computer on. You then select it as the drive you wish to boot from.

Contacting the Apple Mothership

Once the recovery partition has booted it offers an option to reinstall Mac OS X, but in order for it to work correctly you’ll need an internet connection because the process requires access to servers at Apple that validate the installation. This is accomplished by the application sending your computers serial number to Apple. It even tells you that it is doing this before doing so.

Apple's Lion installer on the Lion recovery partition has to phone home in order for it to work.

Drawbacks to Lion Recovery Partition

I don’t know about you, but that really bugs me a lot and it is a bad idea. Why? Simply because Apple’s new method of recovering a machine could leave me completely without a computer to use unless I had access to the internet. If I were on travel exploring a mountain, a desert, or some other remote location where there are no Apple Stores or public Wi-Fi I’d be completely screwed — so I don’t like this one little bit.

On top of that what would a user do if there boot drive failed completely and the recovery partition wasn’t accessible? I can tell you not a whole lot and that sucks too.

I’m not sure I like this new age of online software delivery, since it  puts a serious dent in something I’m good at — recovering or replacing dead or failing hard drives. Simply reinstalling Mac OS X onto a new replacement drive may no longer be possible either since the recovery partition will not exist on that drive.

I guess I don’t know what Apple is thinking about here. Perhaps they’ll surprise us with something before Lion is released later this summer. Right now I’m left scratching my head about the whole thing. I know one thing for sure if I had a DVD or a USB stick in my hand containing Mac OS X Lion, like Snow Leopard was delivered, I’d have my system back up and running regardless of whether or not I had an internet connection.

There are a number of possible solutions to this problem including making your own Lion installation DVD or USB stick, but what will you do about the computer serial number validation requirement?  Not a whole lot.

Updated 06/10/2011 03:22 AM PDT: Graham L points out that someone has discovered an InstallESD.dmg image file in the Mac OS X Lion installer. It can be used to create a variety of bootable media to support reinstallation of Lion. Although this discovery is great for expert Mac users it isn’t so great for novice Mac users who won’t necessarily know how to use it.

Specky claims this post is a complaint. I would like to call the lack of traditional installation media to be something I’m concerned about. I’m looking at this from all angles taking into consideration the skills of novices and experts in regards to the lack of independent Lion installation media. Is this a complaint? I think it is a little bit, but what I’m really complaining about is the activation.

I don’t like product activations at all since they force me to rely on something that may not always be there or even accessible depending on the circumstances. I prefer to be independent and empowered to fix my own computer problems. That part of this post is a complaint and a valid one I think. Therefore, I totally loath product activation of any kind, since I feel it impacts honest computer software purchasers like me.

My point about taking an Apple product to the top of Mount Everest isn’t so far-fetched if you consider a pair of iPhones traveling into space next month.

  • EasyOSX

    I think on the one hand, I’m glad there’s a restoring partition for a more localized restore.  But I can see the problem about the reinstallation having to work in sync with a drive and the Internet.  I’ll definitely have a good backup on my external hard drive once I install it.

  • Clayton Zimmerman

    I think Apple’s whole philosophy in the future will be that OS 11 will be entirely cloud-based.  You just log-in with your Apple ID and all of your files are accessible.  There’s no need to restore because the entire OS is on Apple’s servers.

  • Anijake

    I am curious, what would you do today If you were on travel exploring a mountain, a desert, or some other remote location where there are no Apple Stores or public Wi-Fi. Do you carry a OSX install CD everywhere you go?

  • Graham L.


  • Marcio Morgado

    I agree, not only is it using my bandwidth for a download that I could easily have on a disk. I also don’t see the point. They should have a feature that allows you to burn that data onto a DVD.

  • Marcio Morgado

    If you are going to distant location it’s a good idea to have them with you or a backup hard drive just in case. If you are talking your laptop to a mountain I’m pretty sure it’s not a recreational activity and it’s better safe then sorry.

  • Marcio Morgado

    That creates a problem to your allocated bandwidth. If you have a provider with unlimited bandwidth that’s great but those are becoming rare to find. The idea is great but our ISP care about the bottom line first.

  • Marcio Morgado

    I agree, it’s always a good idea to have a backup drive anyways. You can get a pretty inexpensive one with a good size now anyways.

  • Applefan

    That sucks. I was hoping I could make a USB recoverey. Can I still? Because I would boot from the USB Stick and have it write Lion back to the computer’s internal HDD. It would still take take the serial from the computer right?

  • Eat Sleep Mac

    This solves some issues but your still screwed if your hard drive bites the dust. Not to mention the need for internet to even install it. To many holes as of right now, we’ll see if Apple fills them in..

  • netnerd258

    So much for building a Lion hackintosh / frankentosh. About dead hard drives, aside from MacPros, its really a trip to an authorized Mac service center anyway.

  • threedeuce5

    With all that experience as a programmer, author, and consultant I can see how he didn’t have time to learn how to use a spell checker or grammar correction software.  Seriously, I am growing increasingly tired of the overall level of grammatical errors in stories today.  Am I the only one??  I’ll bet this guy makes $100K plus and he’s borderline illiterate and can’t even formulate a decent argument structure.  

    “On top of that what would a user do if there boot drive failed completely and the recovery partition wasn’t accessible? I can tell you not a whole lot and that sucks too.” Really?

    “If I were on travel exploring a mountain, a desert, or some other remote location where there are no Apple Stores or public Wi-Fi I’d be completely screwed.  So I don’t like this one little bit.”  Nice fragment sentence… but that’s besides the point; if I were exploring a mountain I highly doubt I would have my 15″ Macbook Pro with me.  

  • Farrell Ian

    So I guess you don’t use SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner then?
    If you were up a mountain why would you carry every install disk in case the Internal Hard Drive failed.
    Sounds like you’re being just a tad too worrisome.

  • marioyohanes

    This is an awesome feature! Snow Leopard doesn’t have it!
    If you want to restore with USB Stick, download OS X Lion and restore the whole DMG to your USB stick, it’s that simple. A Mac wouldn’t come with no OS remember?!

  • Cameron Gary

    I think it’s just checking the serial number with Apple, not really downloading much.  From what I’ve read, the recovery partition is 800 MB, which should be enough to boot and patch things up.

  • CharliK

    Well David, since you know this is the score way before Lion is even available, if you are going to be on a mountain with no internet and you fear your computer will take a dump on you, the logical thing is to figure out another solution

    As for ‘what were they thinking?’, that’s easy. They were thinking of the common man who wants and needs a way to recover their computer with as few steps as possible. Internet access won’t be a problem for most because they will have carted it into the local Apple store. And if their boot drive ain’t working they have bigger problems to deal with first. 

  • CharliK

    As someone that works with a lot of 3rd party plugins for FCP etc I”m going to have a second partition for Lion until I am sure that everything is working okay. I have to cause a single lost day for me can mean hundreds of dollars. I’ve done this for every new OS in fact. And each time after I get all my apps installed, serials registered and updates checked I will clone the drive onto an external before I do anything else. Makes it a hell of a lot easier if I need to rebuild anything. I’ll be trying that again this time. 

  • CharliK

    I disagree. I don’t think that is it at all. They are not about to risk the hell of a server crash and all your data is gone. Or you can’t run your computer because while you have your data, the OS is unreachable. Not to mention bandwidth issues galore

    This whole recovery partition idea is likely based on the notion that your drive isn’t bonked completely, but rather some one or two files are screwy. So it is a very basic start up system that will allow it to link to a software diagnostic program, compare your system drive to how things should be and grab the appropriate bits to replace. Plus perhaps even record the incident in your serial number’s service history in case it happens again. The “Geniuses” would already have a record that it is an ongoing thing and can possibly skip steps and go start to the repair/replace phase.

  • Kimberly North

    Enthusiastic job. I did not expect this on a Weekday. This is a beatific
    story. Thanks!

     jersey nfl
    nyc web design

  • Jay Floyd

    David, if you’re on top of a mountain… WITH YOUR COMPUTER… first, you’re missing the point of the mountain.  If you happen to be working ON TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN, chances are you have a satellite phone with tethering capabilities.  This article is sort of one of those ‘somebody will always bitch about something’ moments.

  • Jay Floyd

    For people who do ‘big work’ with big files, this solution is many years away — and quite undesirable. 

  • Higuma

    Perhaps it will be just as simple as Lion asking you if you would like the option to create a recovery cd/dvd disk when you install it… That way they don’t have to sell or send you one ??

  • Alated8261

    If you’re tired of the overall level of grammatical errors in stories today, here’s an idea…DON”T READ THEM, GENIUS!!!  STFU

  • Sebastian Kouture

    Several years ago I worked in a national retail chain where I sold Windows PCs (yeah I know, I suck). I remember these recovery partitions quite well. They came on every PC we sold. The PC industry stopped shipping disks with their computers years ago! Everything is on the recovery partition and you boot into it in case of problems. 

    The difference is you can make DVD backups of the recovery. We would drill this into our customer’s heads when we were selling them the computer. In fact we would insist they buy blank DVD’s to do it themselves or even do it for them if they so wished. We were so insistant on this because we knew if their drive failed it would be a pain the rear to get up and running again. 

    So what will happen if you have a failure on the recovery partition of your Mac ? Probably the following. Uou won’t be able to fix it yourself by wipping the drive and reinstalling Mac OS, you’ll have to take your Mac to an authorized Apple reseller and have them reinstall it. Apple Repair Centers will surely be the only one’s with Lion on disk or stick.

  • dt-travis

    What about unauthorized installations on non-Mac machines? With a online check apple can be sure your backup won’t be on a pc. I think it’s the smartest way for Apple and a backdoor for “hackintoshers” will be hard to find.

  • FenTiger

    and it always seems to be David Martin…

  • FenTiger

    Why is no one talking about restoring from Time Machine???? Surely just reinstall the base OS from the disks that came with your Mac and let Time Machine do its thing, or am I missing something?

  • SteveSebban

    maybe this serial number check is only for developer preview and won’t make it for the release.

    This behaviour doesn’t make sense for general public but it does for developers, don’t you think?

  • Clydeskid

    Reading the comments to the above article I see the reason Apple can charge 1000 bucks more for their computers and offer less and less with each upgrade. I’ve read attacks on his grammar and his analogy about being on a mountain. But no one is addressing the actual point. 
    We pay a shit load more for our Macs and one big reason was ease of use. One of those ease of uses features was having a physical disk and not having our precious hard drive space eaten up by a cheap assed recovery partition.

    I agree with him, but it’s Apple knows it either switch to Linux or Windows or take it on the chin. Apple also knows anyone who points out the obvious about Apple will be ripped apart by the fanboyz. 

    I wish Ubuntu would mature and I could get out of the silly cult. 

  • Deocliciano Okssipin Vieira

    OH! c’mon, it also applies to you.

    Language is plastic after all, i know.

  • Deocliciano Okssipin Vieira

    OH! c’mon, it also applies to you.

    Language is plastic after all, i know.

  • Adam

    I think anyone who publishes their writing should take proper and clear communication seriously. Having spelling and grammar that is correct and standard shows respect for your readers and that you care about their ability to understand your message.

  • Alex

    I note your quote next to your name that says: “Who cares if it’s the fastest, most powerful device on the planet if it’s battery won’t last”

    Your second “it’s” should not have an apostrophe as it is not a contraction.

  • Miche Rutledge

    I had the same question as I know several people, including my stepmother, who lives where there is no internet connection.  People who live on farms and in rural areas, such as reservations, have less access to the internet, if they have access at home at all.  

    What is Apple proposing to do in those cases where there is no internet access?  It’s an important question I hope you’ll press further with Apple.  It’s easy to forget that not everyone lives in Silicon Valley with its champagne internet taste.

  • Hampus

    How big is the recovery partition? If it’s over 1gb they better make 128gb the standard in the new 11″ MacBook Airs when they come around… (Should be able to do than anyway since SSDs have gone down a bit in price)

  • Ciccio Willy

    @David W. Martin

    I want to answer to your UPDATE:

    Novice users, Never ever perform a clean installation from the dvd or similar..
    They always update leaving defaut preferences and options.

    I consider myself a power user.. so I am really really happy that they have found the ESD.dmg
    I hope that DMG make his way in the release version of Lion.

    The first thing I will do is burn to a DVD and make a clean install.

    Novice users wont do that even if they can.

    Also i really think that activation could be necessary to avoid the spreading of developer preview.. and could not make his way in the release.
    You should verify if the burned DVD (Lion) ask it.. if not.. problem solved!

  • GregsTechBlog

    Apparently, you can make a bootable Lion disk. TUAW had a guide on it a few days ago. It’s actually pretty simple. 
    1) Use Finder to locate the Mac OS X Lion installer, right-click and select “Show Package Contents”2) Find the SharedSupport folder and look for a file names “InstallESD.dmg”. This is the Lion Boot Disc image.3) Copy the “InstallESD.dmg” file to another folder such as your desktop.4) Launch Disk Utility and click the burn button5) Select the “InstallESD.dmg” copy as the image to burn, insert a DVD, and in a few minutes you will have a brand new Lion Boot Disc.

  • threedeuce5

    Good call out.  I shall change it post haste

  • sebzar

    This is very un-apple like and not user friendly at all. I agree with the author that this sort of things can only be thought of by Microsoft employees. Apparently they hired some but haven’t re-brainwashed them yet. An easy way during or after the Lion install to make a bootable DVD/USB installation disk is all it takes. And is far more user friendly then validation over an internet connection with a recovery partition.

  • threedeuce5

         Yes everyone should stop reading simply because there may be a problem with the story.  I read this because I look forward to hearing others’ opinions about the products I use daily, but all I ask is if you are getting paid to publish to the masses, at least have respect for your readers and learn how to write properly.

    You can also keep posting your opinion because it’s your right to do so, but do us all a favor and never reproduce.  This country needs no more of your kind and your ilk running around.  Thanks.

  • Robert X

    Capital letters are already considered “shouting” or “emphasis” so the multiple exclamation points are redundant.   lol

  • Robert X

    You have two question marks on “Am I the only one??” and grammatically that is incorrect.  lol  :)

  • Kuipo

    Look, if you’re an expert… make the recovery disc.  If you’re not… it’s unlikely that you even know how to do any of this stuff… and you’ll just bring your Mac to the Apple store and they’ll do it for you.

    I agree that this is some serious nit-picking.  Most people will have a leopard/snow leopard DVD laying around, and new customers will have to do one of the 2 things listed above.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if they make an easier way to make this boot disc in the near future.

  • Svenster

    Well I hope they fix the “serial number not recognised” by the system issue when you get your motherboard replaced it could also throw a spanner in to the system.

  • Akfreeridemtber

    OMG these goody two shoe collage boys think they KNOW!!! everything…
    very smipal… lol
    How to burn a Lion boot disc:

  • Flip

    true… true…

  • amybradley111

    So I use google’s step-by-step directions a lot with the Kindle 3G.. People who have Kindles rarely know that a web article you select can be viewed via Menu/Article Mode and it makes it great to do quick reads.

  • oanda

    GRAMMAR NAZI. When will you idiots learn? i can type with or wihtout pucntation and incorrect spelling if i want to. if u dn’t like it 2 f’in bad.

    u sound like my grandfather.

  • Abriwin

    I think this idea really is doomed to failure. I wonder what percentage of Mac users have access to a reliable and fast connection that would allow for downloading such an OS? Not only that, if there’s no way to create a bootable disk or pendrive it’s going to be a real problem when we need to do a restore as the very machine that we are having a problem with might not be in fit condition to access the net.
    I only just installed Snow Leopard for the only reason that an older friend who runs SL occasionally has problems that I need to see to know what he is doing (on line or phone). Personally I cannot see much difference between Leopard and SL, maybe as someone wrote, the differences were ‘under the hood’.For me then. Lion will remain on Apple’s servers until they see fit to produce either a DVD or pendrive for upgrades/restores.

    If my SL continues to work well then I will stick with it on the premise ‘if it ain’t broke etc…’

  • James T. Kirk©

    ” if there boot drive failed?” English is my third language, but even I can see, you must have meant “their”, so who’s the illiterate? ;-P

  • Jlgdiderik

    And you sound like a moron.;-)

  • James T. Kirk©

    Why don’t you try Linux Mint?

  • Shivam Gandhi

    Unless you’re 14, the only “techy” in the house, and the rest of the family wonders why you want an external harddrive even after you explain countless of times, and even after you explain they just roll their eyes and say whatever. I hate not having an income.

  • Ivonne Spinoza

    This is what worries me too. I’ve had an internal HD die on a previous mac and easily replaced it myself, installed the OS and restored my content from a back up. I sure as hell hope I’ll still be able to do that with Lion.

  • Ivonne Spinoza

    Try to do some serious HD video editing with everything being cloud-based. I dare you.

  • Alfonso Giordano

    Any “novice” would never ever need to re-install, replace, or mess with the hard drive.  They would bring it in to get fixed.  In face any novice would probably never upgrade to anything let alone a new OS.  They would get Lion pre-installed on their new computer.  Apple is offering a cheap upgrade and hopes that “novices” already using snow leopard might upgrade.  Also I’m not a novice yet I have never had to use any OS X disc more than once (starting with 10.1) and I just threw away Puma, Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, & Leopard discs (all used once) plus most of us reading this usually have a new system before any hard drive fails anyway.

  • Dan Palka

    I have a feeling that Apple is simply collecting serial numbers to use in a statistical way, like keeping track of installed user base. Since one needs only to purchase Lion once, and then is allowed to install it on all their systems, this would otherwise be rather complicated.

  • ian drobney

    same here. i am the family “IT” guy, and only 15. ahhh well. i have a usb drive to use.

  • Sgt_Pepper

    But you’re writing a comment on a blog, not writing an article under the guise of a professional in the subject. If you’re writing even semi-professionally or formally, there is no excuse for poor grammar and spelling – if you care about your work you should do it properly.

  • Vetle Økland

    And you sound like an undereducated kid.

  • toddsullivan

    Justin, you should check out our website We climb mountains with MacBooks. In fact, my partner Lauren just got back from a 1,000 mile expedition across the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. And yes, she took her MacBook along with solar panels, secondary batteries and satellite communication equipment. She strapped the solar panel to the back of a support camel during the day to juice up her MacBook. We’ve taken our MacBooks everywhere, including to find lost civilizations in the Peruvian jungle. They’d never seen caucasians, but got to see a MacBook in the same day. Just FYI, not a flame or anything. :)

  • toddsullivan

    Specky, as I mentioned to Justin, we regularly climb mountains and cross deserts with our MacBooks. But downloading a 3Gb operating system over satellite would cost about $18,000.

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  • God

    David. I have trouble installing Lion, seems I have Lion already installed on my mac, I can use safari, terminal, disk utility, I’m connected to the internet and it sends apple the request, but when I select the drive it saids “Drive is lock” so I can’t install LIon. Can you help with this? thanks

  • Antonio

    you really haven’t read the article, this mac doesn’t came with any base OS disk lost fen tiger. 

  • Boo-boo-27

    I do not have internet at home.  So I guess I will have to activate my Macbook at Work or McDonald’s.