Summary: This write-up highlights effective workarounds for a scenario where the macOS Recovery mode is not functioning. The article sheds light on this problem from two angles. One is to address the root cause for this predicament, such as an out-of-date operating system version, corruption of the recovery files, or Mac malware interference. The other is to apply alternative methods to accomplish what you were planning to do in Recovery mode.
What is the macOS Recovery mode intended for?
The logic of macOS Recovery comes down to loading a combo of specially crafted maintenance tools from a separate disk partition that contains a system recovery image as well as a copy of the macOS installer.
This mode provides the following options:
- Leverage the “Restore From Time Machine Backup” instrument to revert to an earlier system condition or to reinstate valuable data that is missing for whatever reason.
- Launch the “Reinstall macOS” utility to reinstall the operating system from scratch if you are experiencing serious malfunctions such as dramatic performance deterioration or recurrent crashes.
- Run the Terminal to trigger commands that fix critical errors or check your system for bugs that might affect its stability.
- Open the Disk Utility First Aid to pinpoint and repair storage media issues.
Telltale signs of macOS Recovery tool failure
There are several symptoms indicating that the macOS Recovery mode is out of order. When you press and hold the Command + R key combination at boot time, you may come across one of the following mishaps:
- Your machine boots into regular mode instead of displaying the macOS Utilities screen.
- The macOS Recovery mode appears to be launched, but all the on-screen options are inactive.
- Instead of showing the Recovery mode controls, your Mac displays a black screen.
The whys and wherefores of fixing macOS Recovery mode bugs
Now that you have figured out that the macOS Recovery mode is not workinglet us take a dive into the most common reasons for this condition and the corresponding fixes.
- Your keyboard is not functioning right. If you are using an external keyboard connected to your Mac wirelessly (via Bluetooth), some or all keystrokes may fail to get through if the connection is buggy. In this case, try reconnecting the keyboard to your machine. If this does not help, replace the peripheral device and check if it works.
- Your Mac is equipped with a T2 or M1 chip. If so, the methods of entering the macOS Recovery mode are different than in older Macs. In other words, pressing the Command + R buttons on your keyboard may not do the trick. For Apple computers with a T2 co-processor onboard, try the following combo when your Mac is booting up: Option/Alt + Command + R. If you own one of the latest Mac models with an M1 System on a Chip (SoC), press and hold the power button until the startup options screen appears. Click the gear icon (“Options”) and select “Continue.”
- Your Mac with Apple silicon (M1) is not running the latest macOS version. The first M1 machines came with macOS 11 Big Sur, which is still a work in progress at this point. Although this version had gone through extensive beta testing before the official release, it has bugs that might prevent you from taking advantage of all the built-in features, including the Recovery mode. That said, make sure you update your copy of macOS Big Sur to the latest version.
- Recovery files are missing or corrupted. These hugely important items typically reside on the startup disk. If they are modified or accidentally erased, the macOS Recovery tool may not operate the way it should. The only effective way to take care of this issue is to reinstall the operating system or restore your Mac from a Time Machine backup if any.
- Recovery mode has discrepancies across different macOS versions. The macOS Recovery mode employs a series of recovery instruments managed by the Terminal. The caveat is that Terminal commands and specific maintenance tools may vary in different Recovery mode implementations that depend on your current macOS version. Therefore, consider upgrading your macOS to get around this roadblock.
Ways to restore your Mac beyond the Recovery mode approach
Even if all of your attempts to access the Recovery mode end up futile, there are several more techniques you can use to reinstall the system or restore your Mac. Be advised that these mechanisms depend on the macOS or OS X version your machine is running. Now, let us go over these different scenarios.
You are using Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard or older
Unfortunately, your Mac has no built-in Recovery utility, so you will need to reinstall the operating system using the disk your machine came with.
You are using Mac OS X 10.7 Lion or newer
You can benefit from the Internet Recovery feature to restore your Mac. Keep in mind that it will not work unless you have an active Internet connection. Here is what you need to do:
- Press and hold the Command + Option/Alt + R keys when your computer is booting up
- Release the keys once a screen saying “Starting Internet Recovery” shows up.
- Wait until the macOS Utilities window appears on the screen.
- Select “Restore From Time Machine Backup” (if you have previously backed up your system) or the “Reinstall macOS” feature. Follow further prompts to complete the procedure.
A one-size-fits-all method: install macOS from bootable media
In case neither the macOS Recovery nor the Internet Recovery mode is working, and if there is no disk with Mac OS X pre-installed, your last resort is to create a bootable installer and use it to install the operating system. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to do it:
- You need a USB memory stick formatted with the Mac OS Extended journaling file system. Make sure it has at least 12 GB of free space.
- Use a properly functioning Mac to download installation files for the newest macOS version your machine supports. For instance, you can download macOS 10.15 Catalina from the official App Store. By default, installation files are saved to the Applications folder.
Create a bootable installer
- Plug the USB drive into the smoothly performing Mac.
- Expand the Go menu in the Finder bar and select Utilities>Terminal.
- Type the following string in the Terminal and hit Enter:
sudo /Applications/Install\ macOS\ Catalina.app/Contents/Resources/createinstallmedia –volume /Volumes/MyDrive
In this command, the “Applications” part denotes that the installation files are in the Mac’s Applications folder. The “MyDrive” component is the name of the USB drive to which the files will be saved. The “/Install\ macOS\ Catalina.app/” part can be replaced with whatever macOS version you are up to installing (the one you have previously downloaded installation files for). As an illustration, it can be “/Install\ macOS\ Sierra.app/”.
- If the system displays a prompt asking for your administrator password, type it, and hit Enter.
- When an alert pops up telling you that the USB drive will be erased, press the “Y” key, and hit Enter.
- Wait until the installation files are copied from the Mac to the USB drive.
- When a “Copy complete. Done” message appears in the Terminal, it means the bootable installer has been created and you can eject the USB drive.
Install the operating system from the bootable media
Before you proceed, make sure there is an active Internet connection and double-check if your machine supports the macOS build you are about to install. Also, be advised that the procedure is different for M1 Macs compared to Macs with other processors.
If you own an M1 (Apple silicon) Mac
- Plug the bootable media into your malfunctioning Mac.
- Press and hold the power button until you see a window listing the startup options.
- Pick the storage with the bootable installer.
- Use on-screen prompts to complete the installation of macOS.
For a Mac with an Intel processor
- Plug the USB drive into your Mac.
- When the Mac is booting up, press and hold the Option/Alt key and release it once the “Startup Disk” screen appears.
- Select the drive with the bootable installer on it.
- Follow on-screen instructions to complete the installation process.
Having reinstalled the operating system, you can get down to macOS data recovery using a backup or a program if you have one or another.
The Recovery utility is a significant element of your digital well-being as it allows you to get your Mac back on track after a system failure. But a predicament where macOS Recovery is not working as intended is more common than you might have thought it was. Hopefully, the tips and tricks above will help you fix the issue for good.