Macbook Pro won’t boot from an installer DVD? What to do?

Originally posted October 28, 2011.

I’ve had a Macbook Pro since early 2008 and it’s been a very solid machine so far. Unfortunately, it had a bit of a mishap earlier this year during a road trip when I opened a door and it tumbled out of a loose bag and had a bad encounter with the pavement. After the hit, it actually booted up long enough for me to back up some important data, but after shutting it down, it refused to start up and just emitted a series of death clicks, eventually followed by a “question mark disk” icon (a flashing symbol of a disk with a large “?” in the middle).

Cue ahead to a few weeks ago when I finally get around to replacing the hard drive in the thing. I picked up a WD Scorpio Black which, at 7200 rpm and a capacity of 320gb, is a nice improvement over the wrecked stock 5400 rpm / 120gb drive. After removing and reinstalling lots of tiny screws, the new drive went in without any problems.

I picked up a copy of OS X Snow Leopard on DVD, popped it in the drive and started the machine up, expecting to be on my way. Then, uh oh, question-mark-disk icon again! I then spent several hours trying various key combinations that were supposed to make the machine boot from the DVD, or display a list of boot options, or reset the PRAM, or generally make things work, and each and every time, nothing happened. The DVD drive would spin up and make various read-type sounds, only to finally spin down, eject the disc and display the dreaded “?” icon once more.

Looks like my Superdrive is broken or it just doesn’t want to boot from a DVD. What to do? After lots of trial and error and general stress, I found a solution that works:

These instructions assume that you are using a Windows-based PC to create the thumb drive. TransMac is the only Windows-based tool that can do it correctly — other thumb drive writers will mess things up.

If you have access to a .DMG or an .ISO file that already contains an OS X installer, you can skip the first step.