TMO’s Ultimate Guide to Creating a Mac Triage Drive

With the increasing popularity of the MacBook Air, which lacks an optical drive, the introduction of an optical drive-less Mac Mini, and the likely impending death of the optical drive in other Macs, it is becoming more difficult for Mac users who have relied on optical storage to perform many tasks on their Macs. While Apple has attempted to alleviate some of this difficulty by implementing the Mac App Store for software installations and the Lion Recovery Partition for system maintenance and troubleshooting, there are still many tasks that are either easier or can’t be performed at all without an optical drive. 

One could, of course, purchase an external SuperDrive from Apple for US$79 (or a third-party external optical drive), but there’s a more convenient and useful way, a method that Apple Store Genii have known and used for years: a triage drive. We’ll show you how to plan and build your very own.

A triage drive is an external hard drive (usually a 2.5” hard drive for enhanced portability, although any form factor will work as long as the capacity is sufficient) that contains one or more emergency bootable partitions and a storage partition for software installation images.

The benefits of a triage drive are that you can use it on any Mac to perform system diagnostics and troubleshooting in the event of a system or drive failure, have access to all your software installers in a single place, and it will be much faster to access than an optical disc.


Part I: Configuring the Drive

LaCie Rugged HD

The first step is to obtain an external drive. Sites like Newegg and Amazon are great places to start. The Apple Store has historically used LaCie Rugged Drives (you may have seen them behind the Genius Bar) but any drive will do. The only recommendation is that you purchase a drive with both FireWire and USB connections, to ensure that it will be compatible with any Mac you may need to connect it to.

Now that you have your drive, the next step is to plan. For most users, the minimum recommendation is one bootable partition for a clean installation of the latest version of OS X, another bootable partition for a drive diagnostic utility like DiskWarrior or Drive Genius, and a storage partition to hold your software installers. If you need to support a variety of Macs, it may also be useful to add an additional bootable partition for older versions of OS X, such as Leopard for PowerPC-based Macs.

Once you’ve obtained your drive, connect it to your Mac and launch Disk Utility. Select the external drive from the sidebar on the left.

Select the Drive in Disk Utility

Next, choose the “Partition” tab at the top of the section to the right. Now you’ll need to create and properly size the number of partitions you need. For our example here, we’ll create three partitions: one for OS X, one for DiskWarrior, and one for storage.

Click the Partition Tab

To create these partitions, select the drop-down menu under “Partition Layout” and choose your desired partition number. Here, we’ve selected three partitions, which creates three equally-sized segments. We don’t want our partitions to be equal in size, however, so we’ll change that next.

Configure Partition 1

Select the first partition from the list and give it a name. In our case, the first partition will be OS X, so we’ll give it the name “OS X Lion.” Make sure the format is set to Mac OS Extended (Journaled), and set the size to 30 GB (we don’t need very much space, just enough to install some system diagnostic utilities).

Configure Partition 2

Select the second partition, which will be our bootable DiskWarrior utility, and fill in the corresponding fields as we did for OS X. In this case, the DiskWarrior DVD that we’ll be imaging is only 200 MB, but DiskUtility has a minimum partition size of 1.07 GB, so we’ll set it at that.

Configure Partition 3

Finally, select the last partition, which will be our storage area for all of our software. This partition will be the largest and will use up all the remaining space on the drive.

Check the Partition Table

As a last step, click “Options” below the partition map, and ensure that “GUID Partition Table” is selected. This is necessary to make the drive bootable on Intel-based Macs.

Apple the Partitions

Now that your partitions are all set up properly, click “Apply” in the lower right corner of the window. Disk Utility will go to work for a few moments and, when complete, you’ll see your new partitions in the Disk Utility sidebar and in the Finder.


Part II: Adding Content to the Drive

With the partitions in place and the drive ready to go, it’s time to start adding content. We’ll begin with the OS.

For Lion, the easiest way to install it to your triage drive is to use the App Store installer. If you already have Lion installed, you’ll need to perform a little trick to enable the App Store to download the installer again. 

To do this, launch the App Store, navigate to “Purchased,” and find Lion listed in among your purchased Apps. Hold the Option key on your keyboard and click on the Lion icon to take you to Lion’s App Store page. Here, while continuing to hold Option, click “Installed” and the App Store will re-download the installer.

Lion Installer

Once the installer is downloaded, launch it and proceed until it asks you where to install the OS. By default it will select your primary internal hard drive. Select “Show All Disks” and scroll down the list until you find the external drive partition we set up for the OS. Select the partition and press “Install.”

Select the External Drive

The installer will ask you for your admin password and then begin the installation process. The system will reboot; let it run until it’s complete. Once the installation is finished, proceed to set up OS X as normal. You now have a bootable copy of OS X on your external drive.

From here, you may wish to add certain diagnostic and troubleshooting utilities to your new installation of OS X. Some good ones to consider are Carbon Copy ClonerSuperDuper, Data Rescue, AJA System Test, and Onyx.

Next, we’ll create a bootable image of DiskWarrior. This process is a bit different from the OS installation, as we don’t need to run an installer; we’re simply going to clone the DVD onto our DiskWarrior partition.

Select the Disc from the Sidebar

To start, insert your DiskWarrior (or other drive diagnostic utility)’s DVD or mount the image if you have that instead. Then, open up Disk Utility. You’ll see your external drive partitions and the DiskWarrior DVD listed in the sidebar to the left.

Select the Restore Tab

Select the DiskWarrior DVD from the sidebar and click the “Restore” tab on the right. The DVD will already be selected as the Source, we now need to tell Disk Utility where to copy the source to. Drag the DiskWarrior Partition on your triage drive and drop it on the “Destination” field. Finally, click “Restore” on the bottom left and let the process run until completion.

Optical disc has been copied

Once that process is complete, you’ll see that you now have two “DiskWarriorDVD” images: the original and the copy that is now on your triage drive. You can now boot to this partition and run the utility without having to use the DVD. 

The final step is storage. There’s nothing special required for this step, simply organize and copy your software installers to the partition.

Select the software DVD

If your software is downloadable, copy the installer file to the drive. If you have optical discs that you need to converted, this can be done easily in Disk Utility.  

Insert the disc and launch Disk Utility. You’ll see the disc listed in the sidebar to the left. Select the disc (not the drive) and then click “New Image” at the top menu.

Create a disc image

The name of the disc will automatically fill in the “Save As” field, but you can change it if you wish. Next, choose where to save the image. You can save to your internal drive and then copy it to your storage partition or save it directly there. Finally, make sure to choose “compressed” as your Image Format and Encryption to “none.” Press Save and the system will go to work copying the disc’s contents into a .dmg file on your drive. This may take a while depending on the size of the disc.

Now that you have both your downloadable software and converted discs, it’s time to organize them. While there’s no right or wrong way to store your files, I’ve found that creating folders for categories (i.e., Utilities, Productivity, Games), and then subfolders for each software title helps to keep things organized and easy to find.

Feel free to experiment and create variations of partitions and utilities. Just remember to always have at least one bootable OS and a good drive diagnostic and recovery utility. I hope you never need to use it, but you’ll be glad to know it’s there if a system or drive failure comes your way. You’ll also be well-equipped to handle the oncoming wave of optical drive-less Macs, and you’ll never find yourself stuck on a Sunday night needing an optical drive to install a crucial piece of software.