Mac OS Leopard can’t format a USB hard disk? Seriously?

Though I spend most of my waking hours working with them, I spend almost no time actually writing about Mac computers. Generally, I love my Macs, and wouldn’t trade them for anything. But ever since Leopard was released, I’ve been having serious multiple-hour-wasting problems doing straightforward things. And when I go to research possible solutions, I see that lots of other people are having the exact same problems. Today’s example: formatting a USB hard disk with Disk Utility.

Mac OS Leopard can’t format a USB hard disk? Seriously? 2

Last week, after trying Time Capsule and realizing that there was no way I could—at least with its current software—rely upon it as a device for streaming iTunes video content around the office or house, the 1TB Capsule went back to the store and was replaced by a brand new 1TB G-Tech G-Drive Q. For the uninitiated, G-Tech makes great drives, and Q is a fast but wire-tethered option. It was a snap to transfer the contents of a smaller 500GB USB 2.0-only G-Drive onto the newer 1TB unit, but when I went to format the 500GB model, I hit a snag. Apple’s Disk Utility couldn’t do it.


Mac OS Leopard can’t format a USB hard disk? Seriously? 3

Specifically, when you use the Erase tab—which anyone would do when trying to erase a drive—Disk Utility gets stuck at the very start of the formatting process, when it’s supposedly creating a partition map. When displaying the “Creating Partition Map” message, the adjacent barber pole-style progress bar grinds and grinds for hours, until it’s terminated.


Mac OS Leopard can’t format a USB hard disk? Seriously? 4

Closer inspection of the application showed that it was hung. Reading numerous support postings online showed me that other users have been experiencing this issue for quite some time. Trying the same format with another Leopard machine produced the same results, and trying a format from the OS X 10.5 installation DVD did, too.


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After contacting G-Tech, which tried its best to be helpful, I was presented with only two known solutions: find an older version of OS X, or use a PC with MacDrive to format the drive. “Ah,” I said, “I have 10.4.10 installed on my Mac mini.” Amazingly, that didn’t work, either. It turns out that when G-Tech said older, it meant “pre-10.4.6.” Apparently, Apple has been aware of this issue since April of 2006, when OS X 10.4.6 was released and Disk Utility started to hang when formatting USB drives (see G-Tech’s FAQ, CURRENT FIREWIRE/SATA/USB PRODUCTS, #10). Nearly two years have passed, and the bug hasn’t been fixed, persisting through the 10.4 point releases and now 10.5, as well.

So there’s good news for those of you who have been having USB hard disk formatting problems: if you can find a Mac OS X 10.4 install disc that’s pre-10.4.6, pop it into your computer, hold down the C key, and run Disk Utility straight from the DVD. Pick the Erase tab, hit Erase, the formatting process will take 30 seconds or less, and you can go back to using your USB drive normally. Can’t find an old Mac OS X disc? Use a PC with MacDrive. Amazing, isn’t it, that something as simple as this—in an application that once worked just fine, and still works just fine from DVD—hasn’t been fixed for so long? And that for recent Apple customers whose only OS discs contain 10.5, the easiest solution might be to use a PC?

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