Folder with question mark and other drive symptoms on Macs

I have been working with Macs for decades, and after recovering literally thousands of drives, I can say that the standard drive in your Mac is just as likely to malfunction and need recovery as the drives that are in most Windows-based machines.

Up until the last couple years, Apple used standard drives in most of their computers. And those standard drives they used were all from standard manufacturers. They have used Seagate, Western Digital, Hitachi, Toshiba, and more… they didn’t start using proprietary storage until they switched to the solid state drives in their laptops. Now on a lot of their computers they actually have the data chips built into the logic board.

Symptoms that more often than not point to the Hard Drive as being the issue

There are certain symptoms that, when present, point to the hard drive failing on a Mac.

Flashing Folder With Question Mark

When a Mac computer can not find an operating system to start from, it shows a flashing folder with a question mark on the screen. There are some cases where this could be an issue like the drive was erased on purpose and just needs a new operating system installed, the drive has been removed completely, or the cable from the drive to the logic board is damaged so the computer can’t see the drive. But the basic idea is that the operating system can not be found. More often than not that is due to an issue with the drive itself.

If a drive is in the early stages of failure, it will usually respond enough that the computer will recognize the drive and the operating system on it, and at least start the boot process. So if you get the flashing folder with a question mark on your computer randomly, it is very likely that the drive is having an issue, and it is also likely that the issue is bad enough that the computer doesn’t even recognize any data on the drive.

There is a particular model (the 2012 13” MacBook Pro with DVD slot), that has a very common issue with the hard drive cable. This cable connects the computer’s hard drive to the computer’s logic board. When the cable goes bad (which it very often does), it can cause a few different symptoms, one of which is the flashing folder with the question mark at boot. While this cable fails frequently on the 13” 2012 model, no other models seem to have this issue very commonly.

Blank White Screen At Boot

When you first turn your Mac on, it searches for the drive that it has started from and looks for the operating system on that drive. If the computer finds the drive, but the drive is responding slowly, the computer can get stuck on just a plain white screen.

This plain white screen is the very first screen that comes up, before the Apple logo appears. If the computer gets stuck on this screen, there is a good chance that the hard drive is the culprit. The white screen at boot issue can also be related to a graphics card failure or other failure, but in my experience the most common issue causing the white screen is the hard drive itself.

Prohibited Symbol

Sometimes when you boot your Mac you will see the Apple logo, then immediately after that screen a prohibited symbol will show up on the screen and the computer will not boot any further. This prohibitory symbol means that the computer has found an operating system to start from, but the operating system is corrupted in some way so the computer is not able to boot fully. This corruption could be caused by a failing hard drive.

There are other reasons for this symbol to appear other than a failing drive. Sometimes you will get this symbol if you have installed software that is causing a problem, or if you have tried to install an operating system onto the computer that it is not compatible with. But in the majority of cases, if this issue pops up out of nowhere, it is usually an issue with the hard drive.

Spinning Beach Ball

The spinning beach ball or wheel of death is a symbol that means the computer is working on a task and can temporarily not handle any additional tasks until it completes the one it is working on. There are a lot of reasons you can see the spinning wheel of death, but one of them is a drive that is starting to fail.

You see this symptom a lot with a drive that has a lot of bad sectors. Basically, the computer will try to read or write data from the drive and will hit a bad section. This causes the computer to wait for the data to be read or written for a while before moving onto another section of the drive that isn’t going bad. That pause while it waits for the failing drive causes the spinning wheel to appear and you have to wait for the work to complete before you can continue with your work.

Stalled Startup With Progress Bar

During boot sometimes a Mac can stall or the process bar can move so slowly that it takes 10+ minutes just to boot the computer. This can be caused by a few things, but a very common one is some kind of corruption on the drive.

During the boot process, Mac OS runs a quick file system check on the drive (what is known as the FSCK command). If this check during boot finds anything amiss with the data on the drive, it will attempt to repair the issues, then recheck if the repair completed successfully. This checking, fixing, and rechecking can take quite a while (especially if your drive is slow or starting to fail).

Spinning Cog During Startup

This one is a little more unusual, but sometimes you get a spinning cog during startup that just never stops. Usually this is either some kind of corruption on the drive, or a drive that is failing. Basically, the computer is not able to complete a task that it is trying to complete during the boot process, so it just keeps trying over and over again.

Computer Turns Off During The Startup Process

This is a pretty classic hard drive issue symptom, although sometimes it can be caused just by corruption on a drive rather than the drive itself. Basically, it is very similar to the stalled progress bar scenario; the computer tries to repair an issue it found during the boot process. If the computer is unable to complete the required repair, it shuts off without any further information being displayed.

When you turn the computer back on again, it will do the exact same thing; start to go through the boot process, the progress bar will slow or stall, then the entire computer will shut off suddenly.

Again, the most common cause of this issue is a drive that is starting to fail in some way that is keeping the computer from fixing the data corruption that is present on the drive.

Unusual or louder sounds coming from hard drive in computer

A computer can make quite a bit of sound. The older models with the louder fans and spinning disk drives can be pretty loud when being used for something more resource hungry. But if you notice sounds that you don’t consider normal coming from your computer, this could be an indication that your hard drive is starting to have issues.

The hard drive noises we are talking about won’t be the same as the fan inside your computer just getting louder as it spins faster to cool the computer. Rather, it will be a usually repetitive clicking or spurts of buzzing, especially when you do something that accesses data on the drive, like opening a file or folder.

Need your data recovered from a Mac?

As I mentioned before, I have over a decade of experience working with Mac drives, so I am very confident in my abilities to recover from a Mac computer. If you would like to get a free quote, just visit our quote page. You can also contact me by phone at (620) 615-6836.