When Safe Mode Doesn’t Work – How To Save Your Mac


I’ll be one of the first to admit that I’m a huge Mac geek. In fact, I was actually a member of the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group when I was 12 years old so my geekdom goes back for quite a while. My first Mac was the original Mac Classic and then moved onto the Quadra 605 and since then have been a big Powerbook/Macbook fan.

Once you use a Mac it’s hard to use a PC again and I find that Apple keeps putting out better and better computers. We currently have five Macs in our place with two laptops as our main computers. Daina uses one of the new MacBook Air’s and I have a 13″ Pro with 16 GB of RAM, and yes I recommend maxing out the RAM on every Mac you get.

Okay enough time talking about my Mac fanaticism, let’s get into saving your poor Mac that can’t startup in Safe Mode. While Apple does make some of the most reliable computers on the planet, like any computer they can crash or even worse have trouble booting up.

When this happens the first thing you’ll want to do is try to boot up in Safe Mode. To do this hold the Shift key on your Mac after you hear the chime. This is where most troubleshooting articles end, they always defer to fixing things in Safe Mode. But what do you do if you can’t boot into Safe Mode?

Yes, this can happen and when it does, some UNIX chops can save your life, or you can learn all you need to get the job done from this post. So Safe Mode isn’t working, read on and I’ll teach you how to go a step further.

When booting hold the Option key on your Mac as you are powering up. You will now see two options, your regular Hard Drive and a Recovery Hard Drive. That’s right, Apple has a Recovery Hard Drive sitting there waiting for you, however when you see the next screen you might think your opportunity to backup is gone. Incorrect! You can still recover your data.

To do this go to the Utilities Menu on the following screen and select Terminal. You now have full access to your hard disk using the terminal. With a few UNIX commands you can backup whatever you want onto an external hard drive.

First you’ll want to find your data, the first UNIX command you need to know is:

cd – change directory

Type this command and the directory name and you will change directories. You can use this to hop around from directory to directory. However, you might not remember all the names of your directories. To see a list you’ll need this handy UNIX command:

ls – list directory contents

This will show you the contents of the directory you are in, or any other directories if you want to type the full path. With “ls” and “cd” you can now traverse your old drive and find what you want to backup.

You’ll find your external drive in /Volumes/. All you need to do is make a new folder on your external drive, you do this with the UNIX command:

mkdir – make directory

Make a directory and then use the last command I’m going to teach you to copy files to that directory and off of your poor broken Mac. The command you need is:

cp – copy

All you need to do is type something like:

cd /Volumes/Macintosh\ HD/Users/YourName/ /Volumes/YourExternalDrive/Backup

Once you’ve backed-up everything you need you can leave the Terminal and do a nice fresh install of Mac OS X. Good as new and if you used Time Machine then in a few minutes everything will be back up and running as per usual! If not, then you followed my steps above and have saved everything you wanted from your computer.

So just because Safe Mode isn’t working, doesn’t mean there’s no hope!

Morgan Linton

Morgan Linton