What happens to a user who got their hands on a Mac with just a blank startup disk and no operating system? A rookie might call Apple Support, but an advanced user will perform a macOS install without any bootable pen drive or DVD by just pressing the right key combination and letting the machine do the rest.
Meet Internet Recovery
Since the release of OS X 10.7 Lion in 2011, every Mac's startup disk has two partitions. Alongside the bootable copy of the operating system, the storage disk also contains a hidden recovery partition that can be turned to when installing the OS, repairing disk drives and performing other actions.
But what if the startup disk gets damaged or you need to replace the hard drive? Fortunately, there is one more ace up your sleeve: Internet Recovery. Available on all new Macs and some older models released after 2010, Internet Recovery kicks in when the Mac is unable to start from the built-in recovery system.
How Internet Recovery Works
This special feature of macOS is used in less common situations such as hard drive failure or when you know the startup disk has no recovery partition. By pressing the Command + Option + Shift + R or Option + Command + R keys immediately after the chime or startup, Internet Recovery will open and give users access to the same recovery features online through Apple's servers.
If at this point you see a spinning globe instead of an Apple logo, you are on the right path to using Internet Recovery.
Before installing a limited user interface onto the machine, macOS Internet Recovery first runs a quick test of the Mac's memory and storage disk. If it finds that everything is okay then it will ask you to select the preferred wireless network.
After successfully connecting to the internet the recovery partition image is downloaded from Apple's servers and the Mac then boots into it, presenting you with the same utilities and functions as a built-in recovery partition. This allows you to download a copy of the macOS from Apple's servers and begin the installation process.
Macs Compatible With Internet Recovery
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, not all Mac models carry this special feature. Macs from 2011 and later have it built in but some older models, such as the ones that came with OS X Snow Leopard, can use Internet Recovery only after installing OS X Lion or later, and applying a firmware update.
If your Mac is one of the models listed below, check the operating system that you are running and the EFI firmware version. If the firmware is older than the ones listed on Apple's dedicated support page, download and install the latest available version. This is necessary if you have one of the following Mac models:
- MacBook Pro (13-inch, early 2011)
- MacBook Pro (15-inch, early 2011)
- MacBook Pro (17-inch, early 2011)
- (21.5-inch, mid-2011)
- iMac (27-inch, mid-2011)
- MacBook (13-inch, mid-2010)
- MacBook Pro (13-inch, mid-2010)
- Mac Mini (mid-2010)
- MacBook Pro (15-inch and 17-inch, mid-2010)
- iMac (21.5-inch and 27-inch, mid-2010)
- MacBook Air (11-inch and 13-inch, late 2010)
Using Internet Recovery
Since this feature relies on an internet connection to install the operating system on the machine, the most obvious requirement is a connection to Wi-Fi or Ethernet network. Do not use public networks for this purpose; always rely on private ones.
How Long Does Internet Recovery Take?
If you have managed to connect to the internet and the Mac has connected to Apple's servers to download the recovery partition image, then the time it takes all depends on the connection speed. It could take just a few minutes, but we've read user reports of it taking up to an hour and sometimes more. The most important thing is to make sure the Mac doesn't run out of juice by connecting it to a power source.
What to Do If Internet Recovery Is Taking Forever
If the connection was established but it's taking too much time then you can always stop the process and create an external Mac startup disk and boot from that drive instead. This, however, requires another Mac to install the macOS onto a USB drive, at which point it can then be connected to the targeted Mac and the Startup Manager can be used (hold down the Option key immediately after booting) to select a startup disk.
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