My 2008 MacBook Air laptop died over Thanksgiving weekend, and I was pretty sure it was a hard drive failure, so Friday over lunch I took it to the Apple Store that opened in late 2010 at University Park Mall in Mishawaka, Indiana.

Original 2008 Mac Book Air – In for Repair

Bad idea.

You’ll recall that the Friday after Thanksgiving is known as “Black Friday,” one of the biggest shopping days of the year. Somehow that was not on my radar. Then shortly before arriving, it occurred to me that I might need an appointment. Once I got to the mall and got parked, I looked up  the Apple Store web site on my iPhone… and discovered that — sure enough — if you want technical support you need an appointment. The next available appointment slot was for 7:30pm that evening! Oh well. I grabbed that appointment slot, making my reservation right there on the web site.

Well, as long as I was already here at the mall, I figured I’d still pop in to the Apple Store, maybe they could squeeze me in.

The mall was a mob scene. And the Apple Store was packed. But when I made my way to the back of the store and spoke with a Genius Bar scheduler there, I was told I could get an appointment for 2:30pm — it would be a little over an hour wait. That would be fine, I could get a coffee and browse Barnes & Noble while I was waiting.

The Genius Bar

So at 2:30pm I returned to the Apple Store, and was ushered right up to the bar where “Kevin” asked me some questions about the laptop. I said I thought the hard drive might have died, and was hoping it could be replaced while I waited. “No, not a chance,” I was told, “all repairs are done on a 24-48hr turnaround, and sometimes we have to send them out. But let’s see if the replacement is even necessary.”

They asked if I had a good backup of the laptop. I was pretty sure I did. Back at the home office I have an Airport “Time Capsule,” with set-it-and-forget-it “Time Machine” automated backup. All our desktop and laptop computers back up to the Time Capsule over the local wireless network. Not sure when the last backup might have happened (I sometimes turn backup off if I am using the laptop to watch a movie… and then don’t always remember to turn it back on.) But I figured it couldn’t have been too long ago.

Kevin asked, “Well then is it all right with you if we try to reformat the hard drive?”

“Sure,” I said. (I was pretty certain it wouldn’t work.)

Kevin got the reformatting underway, and then reviewed some options with me, if the attempt to reformat didn’t work.

Replacing the hard drive would cost about $350. They would do the replacement there at the store and I could pick up the laptop the next day. Definitely worth doing; the alternative was to buy a new laptop starting at about $1,000. Or for another $25 they could send the laptop out to a local authorized Apple repair shop (Pixel Creek Technologies, in South bend) and they would fix or replace anything else in addition to the hard drive that needed replacing. I asked if the battery could be replaced. (It was down to about 45 minutes to a charge.) “Yes — if it no longer holds an hour-long charge,” Kevin told me. Wow, that would be fantastic — a new battery and a new hard drive for $375 would give this old laptop a whole new lease on life.

Right about then the reformatting reported a failure.

I would have just paid for the drive replacement at that point and left it, but Kevin suggested we try reformatting the hard drive again “a different way.” A low-level format takes up to 40 minutes, checking each sector of the drive as it goes, and locking out any sectors that were no longer reliable for data storage. “Sure,” I said, “let’s give it another go.”

The Buzz

So then I had some waiting time on my hands, and I sat there at the bar while Kevin helped some others during the reformatting process. To my left, a woman had brought in an iPhone with a fractured screen — obviously dropped. To my right, another woman had two MacBook Pro laptops that her corporate-executive boss had dropped on separate occasions; both had cracked screens. Kevin handled these professionally, without blame or criticism. All could be repaired within 24 hours. I scanned the length of the bar. There were about half a dozen Apple Geniuses helping customers, running diagnostics, patiently demonstrating how to do something, or reviewing broken equipment repair options with customers, and negotiating periodic break times with each other. From scheduling their time slots to moving customers two rows deep to stools at the bar, assessing problems, looking up repair costs, and doing triage with multiple customers while some (like me) waited for an operation to complete, the bar was buzzing with activity. And I was impressed with how efficient and calm and knowledgeable everyone was. All-in-all it looked like a very professional team at work, there at the Apple Genius Bar.

It took about 25 minutes for the 2nd-attempt reformatting to complete — successfully this time. Another 15-minutes of wait time for the operating system to be restored onto the disk drive. And then Kevin was done. He gave me some instructions about how to initiate restoring the backup once I got back home. I spent a total of about an hour there at the Genius Bar, and in the end, I had a working laptop again, and absolutely no cost for all this helpful service.

Always Have a Backup

Back at home, I found that my most current backup was from April — over half a year old. But I don’t do much original document creation work on this laptop, and I was pretty sure that old backup would be just fine. And it was. Restoring the backup (including a lot of music and iPhoto files) and then doing a massive Software Update to bring the Mac OS X Lion operating system and all the included Apple creativity suite apps up-to-date took about four hours, but after that my laptop was good to go, and has been working fine ever since.

Here’s the take-away. If you ever have problems with your Apple products, schedule an appointment at the Genius Bar and see what they can do for you.