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The hard drive in macbook (13 inch, white) failed a few days ago. I lost all my data, but will replace this with a new drive. The CD/DVD drive on this machine doesn't work as well due to some other mechanical problem.

I'd like to recover this machine and install either newer Mac OS or Ubuntu. Since the CD/DVD drive failed, I see that the only way I can install the OS is through USB.

I'd like to solicit your advice regarding my options. Is it possible to recover and install a working OS just through USB? Where would I get such software?

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3 Answers

The Macbook can boot from USB. You will have to find a working Mac, and use your OS X disk to install onto the USB drive, Once you have done that, you will be able to boot from the USB disk (I have Snow Leopard and some disk repair utilities on a USB drive in case my hard drive fails).

When you boot, hold down the Option key, and it will allow you to select booting from the USB drive.

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+1 - It also has to be a GUID-partitioned stick. support.apple.com/kb/ht1948 –  Thomas Aug 7 '12 at 18:39
    
Doesn't seem to work if the USB key doesn't contain a OSX installation. I'm trying with Linux. Even rEFit doesn't let me :( –  Steven Roose Aug 11 '12 at 19:49
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I have never tried it but I think a Macbook can boot from most USB DVD drives.

Just connect the USB drive with the OS X DVD in it, start the computer, and press the "alt" key when you hear the chime. Computer should find the bootable DVD and allow you to select it as a boot device.

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On a Mac, we call that key the "Option" key –  Josh Mar 9 '10 at 13:24
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Says "alt" on my keyboard. I also call the "Apple" key meta key. –  Andrew J. Brehm Mar 9 '10 at 14:24
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You could create a Live USB stick to boot Ubuntu: simply grab a Fat32 formatted memory stick and extract the contents of the Ubuntu ISO on it. No need for a USB optical drive.

If you can't extract ISOs, there's this nifty little application that automates the whole process.

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It has to be FAT32? I've been trying this for long but I've always used Ext4 (with a GUID table which seems required as well) –  Steven Roose Aug 11 '12 at 19:50
    
I don't know if other file systems work; I've only used Fat32 in the past. If Ext4 works, great! –  Paul Lammertsma Aug 12 '12 at 12:50
    
This option does not work AT ALL. I've tried every possible way –  cyphunk Feb 6 '13 at 15:09
    
Note that you have to hold the alt/option key while booting. –  Paul Lammertsma Feb 6 '13 at 15:19
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