Save your Mac's hard drive with DiskWarrior 5

Of all the tools you can keep in a Mac utility toolbox, one of the most important involves whatever you'll use to recover data from a failing or messed up hard drive. And the tool I always go to first when I'm having drive troubles is Alsoft's DiskWarrior. DiskWarrior 5 is now available, so let's take a look at what's new.

I'll admit that for a while, I'd given up hope that Alsoft was ever going to upgrade DiskWarrior with a new version — after all, version 4 debuted in 2006, when Intel Macs were still a novelty, and had only been incrementally updated over the years. Fortunately that changed in December, when Alsoft began shipping DiskWarrior 5.

What took so long?

Apple has made a lot of changes to OS X and to the Mac over the years. For a long time, DiskWarrior was able to roll with the punches, but those changes caught up with the software over time. Basically, it ain't easy to do software like this right, and the folks at Alsoft had to go back to square one. DiskWarrior 5 is pretty much completely different code than any version of DiskWarrior 4.

Anyway, enough about that: Bottom line is that DiskWarrior 5 is out in the world. Let's take a look at how it works.

Right off the bat, something's different about DiskWarrior 5 than its forebears: It ships on a USB thumbdrive. The last version shipped on an optical disk. The change only makes sense; after all, Macs don't ship with optical drives anymore, but they all have USB ports.

Acknowledging the death of optical drives on the Mac is only scratching the surface, though. DiskWarrior's been rebuilt with 64-bit support, so it can now handle the huge hard drives (and big Time Capsule drives) that gave its forebear fits.

And while DiskWarrior 5 is backward-compatible with older Macs (even supporting PowerPC-era Macs), it's been completely rewritten to support the latest Apple technology. It's also been thoroughly optimized, so it runs appreciably faster than it used to.

DiskWarrior 5 interface

When you launch DiskWarrior 5, you're presented with three basic features: Directory, Files and Hardware. Directory is what you use to rebuild a Mac's hard disk drive directory — the main meat of what makes DiskWarrior so incredibly important. Files let you repair permissions and check files for damage. And Hardware calls on your hard disk's built-in diagnostics to determine whether or not it's working okay (it can also report problems to you via a few different methods, including popups and e-mails).

DiskWarrior works differently from many other Mac disk recovery utilities by rebuilding the directory completely rather than trying to fix it. It locates all salvageable files and folders, then creates a new error-free directory for you to use.

DiskWarrior preview interface

DiskWarrior goes through a process of creating, verifying and comparing a new directory to what's on the drive, then presents you with a "preview" that lets you examine the directory structure yourself, so you can see if anything's out of place. Once you're satisfied that DiskWarrior has done its, you click on "Replace" and it does the rest. The amount of time it takes from start to finish depends entirely on what you're trying to restore and what the speed and working condition of the drive is, but it's much faster than it was before.

If you've already tried another disk utility that's failed to recover your drive contents, holding down the option key when you rebuild will pop up an advanced menu; a "Scavenge" checkbox will enable DiskWarrior to attempt to undo any damage from other software before continuing.

If you ever run into a complete show-stopper with DiskWarrior, don't forget to give Alsoft a call. They stand behind their product 100 percent, and can often help when the software hits stuff it can't handle.

DiskWarrior's Hardware feature comes in handy if you're trying to troubleshoot a problem with a drive that supports S.M.A.R.T. (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology), which is common feature on many hard drives.

By the time you actually start paying attention to the drive's operation, it's probably too late to do much with S.M.A.R.T. information, but it has some uses, especially for system administrators and other support personnel who need to keep systems up and running around the clock. Those folks can set up DiskWarrior to monitor the drive's status and ping you if there's a problem - either through an alert, an e-mail, by executing an AppleScript or by sending a text message from an email account.

To get the most out of it, DiskWarrior needs to be running from a drive other than the one you're trying to save. So it's a good utility to have on a backup hard drive that you use only for recovery, or even on a separate computer. That's how I used it: I have it installed on multiple computers, which I connect using a Thunderbolt cable. I reboot the affected computer in Target mode (holding down the T key on boot) to try to connect its hard drive to the machine I want to run DiskWarrior from.

The good

  • Recovers stuff I can't get using any other utility
  • Remade for modern Macs and ready for big storage
  • Faster and easier to use than ever
  • Superlative customer service

The bad

  • Nothing appreciable

The bottom line

A recent backup should always be your first line of defense against a failing or corrupted hard drive. But as far as tools to repair Mac hard disks go, DiskWarrior is once again at the top of the list, thanks to a complete revamp with version 5.

Peter Cohen