Let’s Solve Apple’s “Folder with a Question Mark” Mystery!

By August 3, 2015Helpful Guide
if you boot your macbook or imac and see this error, we can help

We’ve heard this scenario time and again, from students, nurses, and lawyers alike: “I woke up, powered on my Macbook (or whatever), left to grab a cup of coffee, and came back to this. What even is this? I rebooted and rebooted, and nothing changed. Just this. This folder with a question mark”.

If you’re a long-time Apple Macbook user and never suffered this frustrating and confusing boot error, consider yourself lucky. Apple minimalism run amok, this error can occur shortly after you power on a Macbook or iMac computer, and says so very little about what the problem could be.

This doozy of any error generically means that your operating system, OSX – the software responsible for making your computer do all the computer things – can’t be found by the firmware. Firmware is like a mini-operating system, responsible for super basic things, like accepting electrical power, finding the hard drive, then figuring out where OSX is installed and getting that booted up. If the firmware can’t find OSX, it panics and produces this tortuously imprecise mystery screen.

Don’t panic. It’s fixable.

At its most basic, this error means the computer can’t find your operating system, OSX. This could be a few things:

  • There’s a mechanical problem with the hard drive and it needs to be replaced.
  • There’s a software problem with the hard drive and it needs to be repaired.
  • There’s a software problem with OSX and it needs to be repaired.

Is the hard drive okay?

OSX Yosemite Disc UtilityTo understand out what kind of problem we’ve got, let’s see if the computer can tell us if there’s a hard drive installed. If the computer can see that there is a hard drive, we’re in better shape. This step requires that we access the Macbook’s special recovery area.

This is the OSX recovery screen, necessary for trouble shooting the question mark mystery folder.

When you first power on the computer, but after you hear that happy chime sound, press and hold Command and the R-key. Keep holding both until you see either a world globe or the Apple logo. Eventually, you’ll arrive at the Recovery screen, with Utilities menu listed along the top most edge. Click that, then select Disk Utility.

Disk Utility will open up and show a list of available hard drives on the left side. Or, rather, we hope it does. If you don’t see your Startup disk (probably called Macintosh HD), there’s some kind of mechanical issue with your hard drive. It might have malfunctioned and needs to be replaced. Or, it slipped out of its cozy slot and needs to be reseated. It might also be a malfunctioning drive cable, which is pretty common and inexpensive to fix. Unfortunately, all of these problems require opening up the insides of your Macbook or iMac. If this sounds like too much, give Poindexter a call right away (908-991-NERD).

If you see a hard drive listed, you’re in luck. This usually means that the issue is software related. There could still be something funny going on under the hood, however, so don’t celebrate just yet. We need to repair the disk first.

Go ahead and select the disk from the left, then click on the First Aid tab towards the top. Near the bottom right, you’ll see two buttons: Verify Disk and Repair Disk. Click on Repair Disk and let your Apple computer crunch away for awhile. Depending on the severity of your problem, this can take a few hours. Sometimes, it’s done in less. And so we wait.

If Disk Utility finished successfully, restart you computer. With some luck, you’ll arrive at your login screen and everything will be normal. If it failed, well, it could still be a hardware problem or an even murkier software fault.

At this point, we recommend consulting with a pro about your Macbook or iMac, in case you need to backup your data and reinstall your operating system from scratch. It’s possible, too, that the hard drive will need to be replaced. Poindexter’s first priority is to backup your data to avoid any catastrophe.

Don’t risk your data. Call Poindexter for help.

If your device is outside of Apple’s warranty, Apple’s Genius Bar services will all be paid out of pocket, resulting in hundreds of dollars lost. Repairing out of warranty Apple products is crazy expensive, unless you bring it to Poindexter. We can fix your hard drive problem without breaking the bank. Promise.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Sean says:

    What if I hold command R and the file folder with question mark still appears? HELP

    • Poindexter says:

      Hi Sean,

      Depending on your model Mac, the recovery partition might be on the HDD and the HDD or its connecting cable might be failing. When you hold down CMD-R, the firmware tries to find Recovery. If it’s on the hard drive and that drive can’t be read, you’ll get the same error.

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