Beware! OS X Lion Can Hose Your Recovery Partition! Here’s How You Can Try To Fix It



Apple’s new MacBook Air models don’t ship with OS X Lion on a USB thumb drive like they used to. That diminutive little white wedge of flash storage is gone, no where to be found inside of the box that these computers ship in. If you want one, you’ll need to pay Apple $69 for the privilege in August.

That’s a potentially big problem for some users. Yesterday, I found this out the hard way after an attempt to install Mac OS X Lion onto a 32GB Class 10 SDHC card failed. Apple’s failure to ship their new Macs with any media can leave you with a hosed Recovery HD partition, and a potentially lengthy fix may be the only way to get it back.

I’ve used this particular SD card as a Snow Leopard bootable recovery disk on the last three portable Macs that I’ve owned, including last years MacBook Air. It has always worked like a champ and it still does, but the OS X Lion Recovery HD partition that I used to create an OS X Lion bootable recovery disk on that same SD card failed badly.

It failed hard trashing the Recovery HD partition that shipped on my new MacBook Air. The OS X Lion installer went through all the right motions, but the computer refused to boot properly after the installer forced it to restart. I was left with the Circle with Slash startup icon which translates to: could not load boot.efi, or some other issue. That failure killed my Recovery HD partition and initially I didn’t have an easy way to recover it.

I’ve built many bootable devices to use for recovering Macs. The SD card makes a great compliment to the MacBook Air since it makes a handy tiny emergency disk for the road and a 32GB Class 10 SD card is fairly zippy. I’ve written numerous How Tos on creating and customizing bootable SD cards for Mac OS X. Apple even offers Knowledge Base article HT4718  titled OS X Lion: About Lion Recovery with instructions on how to do this.

The whole process worked like I expected, but as I said after the installer restarted things went badly. The end result was loss of my Recovery HD partition – it was stuck inside of the Mac OS X Lion Installer process. That process was an endless loop from which I couldn’t escape every time I tried to access the Recovery HD partition. The worst part? At first I could not find a way to fix it myself and AppleCare could not fix it on the phone. If the average user encounters this problem they might have to go to the local Genius Bar.

We might not have to go anywhere if Apple provided a USB Stick like they did with my MacBook Air last year. Why do I need it? Well for several reasons:

  1. The MacBook Air ships with a special build (11A2063) of OS X 10.7 Lion that cannot be re-downloaded from the Mac App Store.
  2. I could not use the Internet Recovery feature mentioned in Knowledge Base article HT4718 because I cannot trigger it – my MacBook Air does not have a blank or damaged hard drive.  So the Mac continues to try to use the damaged Recovery HD partition even after I used the work around Apple recommended. That work around involves using CMD+OPTION+R to force the Mac to enter Internet Recovery mode.
Endless Looping Error Message From Damaged Recovery Partition.

I found it interesting that as of yesterday the key sequence forcing the Mac into Internet Recovery mode wasn’t included in the Knowledge Base article mentioned earlier. I pointed that out to Apple so hopefully they update their document soon.

So we can be inconvenienced all because Apple decided not to provide us with another tool – a copy of Mac OS X Lion on a USB stick that we could use to try to recover our machines with. I’m convinced that the quickest and easiest solution to my problem is to reinstall Lion over itself. However, after the test where I forced the MacBook Air into Internet Recovery mode it discovered and used the existing Recovery HD partition leaving me in the same endless loop like before.

Fortunately after some back and forth with Apple sharing some of the screenshots you see here we arrived at another possible fix for this problem. Apple suggested that I zap the PRAM on my MacBook Air by holding CMD+OPTION+P+R during startup until I heard the second chime. Afterwards I was told to try the CMD+OPTION+R trick again. Well, this broke the endless loop cycle and I once again had access to my Recovery HD partition.

That is a good thing since I’d come to the conclusion that since I wasn’t able to easily get a copy of Lion built of my MacBook Air I’d probably have to go through a long process to fix the Recovery HD partition. That process includes these steps: back up the existing Macintosh HD partition with SuperDuper! to an external USB hard drive, boot the Macbook Air using that hard drive, completely format and repartition the internal SSD drive, shut it all down, remove the USB backup drive, and restart the MacBook Air.

Next, I will use the Internet Recovery feature to force the reinstallation of Mac OS X Lion and a new Recovery HD. Finally, I’ll have to restore Macintosh HD from the backup I made. This whole process will take double or triple the time it would take to reinstall Lion over itself using a USB thumb drive. Granted that might not fix the problem based on my experience above, but at least it would take less time and it would be worth a try.

I’m also assuming that I’ll be able to access the version of OS X Lion I need for my MacBook Air from the internet since it isn’t in the Mac App Store, but who knows. I’m not very confident about Apple’s new recovery features in OS X Lion right now. However, I’ll be fair the whole concept is new and maybe I just need to learn more about it and make adjustments to my attitude about it after spending more time with it.

In the meantime I’m not really ready to let go of traditional media like a USB stick or DVD that I can use to recover my Macs after this experience today. I think Apple has prematurely assassinated the USB thumb drive and the DVDs that used to ship with all Macs before Apple shipped the 2011 MacBook Air and Mac Mini last week.

Anyhow if you are reading this Apple go ahead and drop one of those expensive $70 Mac OS X Lion USB thumb drives in the mail. I’ll be waiting.

As far as the rest of you go I’d like you to think about the new media free frontier that Apple is shoving us into and what it might mean to you when you are stuck without media or an internet connection to fix your computer with.

  • axet

    you are right, they should give an abbility to create usb recovery drive from internet to everyone.

  • Justin Ferrell

    I burned a DVD the day I got my dev copy of the golden master, and I’ll do it when the next OS comes out too. Call me old fashioned…

  • Fearless_fred

    Agreed. It should also be a simple “Click here to create a Recovery Disc/USB Drive” and follow the onscreen instructions, so that any ordinary user can do it. Make it as simple as the set-up routine for when you first boot a new Mac…

  • Howie Isaacks

    While I’m glad that Apple decided to ship a USB drive for Lion next month, it’s stupid that they wouldn’t include one with new systems.  It’s like sending us out into the ocean with no life jacket. Would it be so hard for a company with $76 billion in the bank to give us an install drive?  Broadband in this country is a JOKE!  It’s not always feasible to download a new copy of Lion every time we need to reinstall, and we shouldn’t have to extract the boot image and make our own USB driver or DVD.

  • gregorylent

    they want to have their own private internet and their own private access to it . you and i can use it for the fee we pay to rent their machines. or so it seems.

  • BrianVoll

    Zapping the PRAM is always the first thing I do when I have a problem with any of my Macs. Usually works. Could have just saved yourself a loooooot of time. 

    But, I guess not everyone will think of that as the first thing to do.

  • DavidWMartin

    Brian: In this case this was the last thing to try on my mind, because the two are not connected. However with the new firmware in the Air perhaps now they are. In any case you should not just reset your PRAM out of hand. Of course people could argue about that with me too, but I try not to do that usually. Now that gives me a story idea…

  • sebzar

    It was only a matter of time before something like this would pop up. Apple apparently had this scenario in the back of their heads right after they launched Lion in the App Store. Now they woke up and made USB sticks with Lion available for those who like to play it safe. 

  • Steve Hall

    “The MacBook Air ships with a special build (11A2063) of OS X 10.7 Lion that cannot be re-downloaded from the Mac App Store.”

    What if I already purchased Lion from the App Store? Can I redownload that to my Air?
    Also, what if I have made a DVD or flash drive copy of the Lion installer (which I’ve done, from my  MacBook Pro, that I subsequently sold before ordering the MBA)? Can’t I use either of those to reinstall Lion to the MBA if necessary?

  • DavidWMartin

    The Mac App Store version of OS X Lion that I purchased through a redemption coupon (it was free because I bought my iMac after June 6th) will not install on my MacBook Air. However, Apple reassures me that when I connect to the internet using Internet Recovery that my MacBook Air will get the right version.

  • adriancaron

    Also in that kbase article… is this little gem I don’t think has been pointed out:
    “To redownload the installer on a computer running OS X Lion, press and hold the
    Option key while you click the Purchases tab.”
    So those who buy a new Mac should probably do this and make a bootable copy.

  • AMDeeb90

    I am running my MacBook on Lion, with NO Recovery HD!
    I don’t know why Lion installed didn’t create a Recovery Partition during Installation.

    This is the most annoying issue I face with Apple. The internet connection in my country can’t afford to downgrade back my Mac to Snow Leopard, and then download Lion from App Store, after that copying the DMG from Applications folder. It would need days and 10s of dollars.

    Apple should car about users in developing countries…

  • bav14

    I found this new apple blog and it great!

  • DavidWMartin

    Ironically the version in the App Store isn’t compatible with my MacBook Air – see I mentioned that above.

  • CharliK

    Well ya, cause everyone will be trying the exact stunt that David did and thus will screw up their computers.

    What, no one considered that David, not Apple, is to blame for borking his computer

  • Cowicide

    I love the lion’s expression.  You can tell he just hosed his recovery partition.

  • DavidWMartin

    Can you tell me how your primary partition is formatted? What model Mac are you using?

  • AMDeeb90

    I had:
    1) Mac Snow Leopard on Macintosh HD   Mac OS Extended (Journaled)
    2) Windows 7 BootCamp: NTFS
    3) FAT Partition

    It seems the FAT Partition prevented Recovery HD from being created

  • AMDeeb90

    I had:
    1) Mac Snow Leopard on Macintosh HD   Mac OS Extended (Journaled)
    2) Windows 7 BootCamp: NTFS
    3) FAT Partition

    It seems the FAT Partition prevented Recovery HD from being created

  • AMDeeb90

    My Mac is MacBook White Mid 2010

  • Svetloslav Petkov

    Ok, thank you for the idea. I was looking in the internet how to create a recovery thumb drive for my new mac mini. While messing around I came to the same problem you’ve got. The Recovery did not want to boot anymore. Well after your advise I figured  out a way for us the early adopters of hardware to have what is our right – a recovery thumb. Here you go:
    1. Get an external hard drive or thumb big enough ( I suggest at least 16GB).
    2. Start the computer in recovery and begin reinstallation. When asked where to install select the external drive you attached. The program starts downloading the specific image for your hardware. As far as I can see it is same as the normal release, but it has added the drivers related to new hardware. Mine is 11A2061 build (for mini)
    3. When finished computer restarts and at that moment you disconnect the external drive.
    4. Your computer will boot normally from its own partition
    5. Restart and reset PRAM
    6. Restart again and after that attach the external drive. In it you will find the the boot image that you can burn to DVD or restore to an external thumb drive.
    7. Done what’s ours is ours we paid for it damn it!

  • mjacob111

    I was experiencing almost the same problem.  I could get into Lion recovery drive, but could not restore any backups and got the same “loop message”.  I eventually deleted my hard drive, and was able to restore a backup using my Snow Leopard install disk. 

    I tried the above tip this morning, and it worked.  I was able to access all the hard drive recovery disk functions, and downloaded a new copy of Lion onto Carbon Copy Cloner.  This gave me a cloned copy of my drive with a new copy of Lion, just in case there are any other problems.  Thanks for passing your suggestion along

  • 080211

    I have bought my first MBP little over a year ago.  Product quality, operating system stability, applications, etc., are just awesome…
    My backup laptop, a PC, running BSD, is getting little old, and I was thinking about buying another MBP w/Lion, however, I cannot see myself buying a computer without any system restoration media, may it be a dvd or a USB stick, relaying strictly on Internet download.  This is not silly, no, this is outright idiotic; what is Apple thinking?  

  • Frank Smith

    I can feel with you. I went through all the same troubles. After several hours I got a fresh install of Lion an my MBA.

    After the first reboot after reinstall – when the setup assistent appears – I switched off the MBA by power off button before making any choices. After that I booted into the recovery mode and made a full backup of the SSD with Disk Utility into a dmg-image.

    Now, I can avoid the long lasting downloading of Lion, but have to wait until recovery mode has loaded. If the partition is intact, it should be instantly done. If not “only” 45 minutes for recovery from internet, but I can avoid the many hours of downloading Lion again.

    Hope this helps.

  • mrbell1984

    Anyone with a macbook air 2011 model with lion that was pre-installed there is now an offline method thanks to me.  Visit Youtube/Google search ‘ ‘
    OS X Lion Restore Macbook Air 11A2063