macOS Recovery

Your Mac has a built-in repair service that makes it possible for you to recover your Mac's operating system if something should go wrong. It's called macOS Recovery and it makes it possible for you to:

  • Install the most recent operating system that was installed on your Mac
  • Upgrade macOS to the most current, compatible version
  • Install the operating system that came with your Mac (or the version closest to it that's still available).

It also lets you repair or erase a disk if something is wrong with your built-in hard drive and makes it possible for you to get online Apple support, even if the rest of the computer is borked.

Here's what you need to know about macOS Recovery and how to use it.

What's the difference between 'Internet Recovery' and 'macOS Recovery'?

Some "old-schoolers" will reference Internet Recovery, which is how Apple used to help you with home troubleshooting and repairs. It refers to the fact that Macs would start macOS Recovery in Internet mode where it would download the original operating system from Apple's servers instead of the latest version from the built-in recovery system.

Newer Macs don't work that way anymore. You have options now. There are three different ways to boot macOS Recovery (as I noted above). It all depends on which keys you're holding down when you boot it.

  • Command+R: Installs the most recent operating system that was installed on your Mac
  • Option+Command+R: Upgrades macOS to the most current, compatible version
  • Shift+Option+Command+R: Installs the operating system that came with your Mac (or the version closest to it that's still available).

Why would you want to use macOS Recovery vs. Internet Recovery?

If you're Mac is older or if the recovery disk has been damaged, it might be trying to boot macOS Recovery when you hold down Command+R and just not work (you might see a spinning globe instead of the Apple logo during startup). In this case, you'd want to use "Internet Recovery" (ie., Option+Command+R or Shift+Option+Command+R) to boot up macOS Recovery instead.

You might also want to revert back to the operating system that your Mac came with (if it's still available). If you tried downloading a newer operating system and it crashed or froze while you were trying to install it, or your trackpad or keyboard stopped working, or your Mac just went all wonky, it might be because you tried to install an operating system that's not compatible with your Mac and you'll need to revert. Both Internet Recovery options allow you to "go back in time" and download an older, or even the oldest, operating system available.

How to restore a backup from Time Machine in macOS Recovery

If you just want to restore your Mac from a backup you already have in Time Machine, you can do so from the standard macOS Recovery.

You'll need to be connected to the internet either via wi-fi or ethernet. Make sure you can connect your Mac to the internet before continuing.

Note: Because you have to enter Recovery mode on your Mac, I suggest printing out these instructions or switching to another device to read them.

  1. Restart your Mac.
  2. While the startup disc is waking up, hold down the Command+R keys simultaneously. You're Mac will boot into macOS Recovery.
  3. Select Restore from Time Machine Backup from the list of available options.
  4. Click Continue.
  5. Click Continue on the Restore Your System page.
  6. Select your Time Machine Backup.
  7. Click Continue.
  8. Select the most recent backup of your Mac's hard drive.
  9. Click Continue.

Your mac will restore the Time Machine backup and then restart once it is finished.

How to repair or erase a disk using macOS Recovery

If you get a message saying your disk needs to be repaired, or if you want to erase your hard drive before selling it, you can repair or erase a disk using macOS Recovery.

You'll need to be connected to the internet either via wi-fi or ethernet. Make sure you can connect your Mac to the internet before continuing.

Note: Because you have to enter Recovery mode on your Mac, I suggest printing out these instructions or switching to another device to read them.

  1. Restart your Mac.
  2. While the startup disc is waking up, hold down the Command+R keys simultaneously. You're Mac will boot into macOS Recovery.
  3. Click on Disk Utility from the list of available options.
  4. Click Continue.
  5. Select the drive you want to repair or erase from the list on the side of the Disk Utilities window.
  6. Click on First Aid to run disk repair.

    If you're running disk repair, the program will identify any problems and try to repair them. You'll get a report after the process is complete with information on what was repaired or what could not be repaired.

If you're erasing your disk, follow the steps below.

  1. Click on the Erase button with the drive you want to erase selected.
  2. Enter a name for the file to be destroyed (Like Macintosh HD or something).
  3. Select Mac OS Extended (Journaled) or APFS from the format list.
  4. If Scheme is available, select GUID Partition Map
  5. Click Erase.

When the process is complete, close the Disk Utility window to return to macOS Recovery.

How to get help online using macOS Recovery

When you're up a creek without a paddle, you're going to be very unhappy if the only way you can get help fixing your computer is online and you don't have any other way to go online but the computer you're trying to fix. That's why Apple has a handy little help feature built into macOS Recovery. It gets you online with links directly to Apple's support website where you can look for helpful documents and even make arrangements to talk to a technician.

All of this is done while your Mac is in Recovery mode, so your online access is very limited. All of your Safari plug-ins and extensions will be disabled in this mode.

You'll need to be connected to the internet either via wi-fi or ethernet. Make sure you can connect your Mac to the internet before continuing.

Note: Because you have to enter Recovery mode on your Mac, I suggest printing out these instructions or switching to another device to read them.

  1. Restart your Mac.
  2. While the startup disc is waking up, hold down the Command+R keys simultaneously. You're Mac will boot into macOS Recover.
  3. Click on Get Help Online from the list of available options.
  4. Click Continue.

How to reinstall your Mac's operating system using macOS Recovery

Recall that there are three different ways to boot into macOS Recovery. It's important to remember which key commands you want to use so you don't accidentally boot up into a version of Recovery mode that won't let you download the version of Mac operating system you're trying to get. As a refresher:

  • Command+R: Installs the most recent operating system that was installed on your Mac
  • Option+Command+R: Upgrades macOS to the most current, compatible version
  • Shift+Option+Command+R: Installs the operating system that came with your Mac (or the version closest to it that's still available).

You'll need to be connected to the internet either via wi-fi or ethernet. Make sure you can connect your Mac to the internet before continuing.

Note: Because you have to enter Recovery mode on your Mac, I suggest printing out these instructions or switching to another device to read them.

  1. Restart your Mac.
  2. While the startup disc is waking up, hold down the key command combination you want to boot macOS Recovery in. You're Mac will boot into macOS Recovery.
  3. Click on Reinstall macOS (or Reinstall OS X where applicable) to reinstall the operating system you want (current macOS on your Mac, the latest compatible macOS, or the macOS that came with your Mac).
  4. Click on Continue.
  5. Select your hard drive ("Macintosh HD" or something similar), when asked to select your disk.
  6. Click on Install to install the operating system that came with your Mac.

Your Mac will restart after the installation is complete.

Any questions?

Do you have any questions about macOS Recovery and how to use it? Let me know in the comments. It might make a good how-to guide for others!

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