Macs can boot into a “Target Disk Mode” that causes them to function like an external hard drive. Connect one Mac to another Mac and you can access its files in the Finder.

This is a lot like opening up your Mac, removing the internal drive, placing it in an enclosure, and then connecting it to another Mac. But it does all of that without any disassembly — just reboot and plug it in.

Aside from simply accessing the files over an external drive, you can use Migration Assistant to easily move your files to another Mac or even boot one Mac from another Mac’s internal drive.

Before Entering Target Disk Mode

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Before entering Target Disk Mode, you’ll need a few things:

  • Two Macs: Target Disk Mode works with Macs, so you’ll need two Macs for this. Each Mac needs either a Thunderbolt port or a Firewire port.
  • A Firewire or Thunderbolt Cable: You’ll need either a Firewire cable or a Thunderbolt cable for this. You can’t do this via a USB cable. If one Mac has a Thunderbolt port and the other Mac has a Firewire port, you’ll need a Thunderbolt-to-Firewire adapter cable.
  • FileVault Disabled: Macs now enable FileVault encryption by default, which will prevent you from accessing FileVault-encrypted home directories over Target Disk Mode. Before using Target Disk Mode, you can boot the Mac normally, open the System Preferences window, select Security & Privacy, select FileVault, and temporarily turn it off. You can turn it on again after using Target Disk Mode.
  • No Firmware Password: If you’ve set a firmware password in the recovery environment, you’ll need to disable that first.

How to Enter Target Disk Mode

To enter Target Disk Mode, click the Apple menu and select System Preferences. Click the “Startup Disk” icon and click the Target Disk Mode button to restart your Mac in Target Disk Mode. You can also enter Target Disk Mode by rebooting your Mac and holding down the T key as it boots. Connect your Macs via a Firewire or Thunderbolt cable.

Access Files, Use Migration Assistant, and Boot From Another Mac

While in Target Disk Mode, your Mac will act as an external drive and appear in the Finder on your other Mac. All its internal partitions will appear if it has multiple partitions. Look for an external drive named “Macintosh HD.” You can click the drive and copy files back and forth like you would with a normal external drive.

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You can also launch the Migration Assistant and point it at the connected Mac’s drive. Migration Assistant will import the files and data from the Mac in Target Disk Mode to your current Mac, making this a quick and effective way to move from one Mac to a new one without the hassle of transfering those files to an external drive first or the slowness of transfering those files over the network.

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With Target Disk Mode, you can treat a Mac’s internal drive as an external drive and boot from it, just as you’d boot from a typical external drive. This actually lets you boot the OS X system from one Mac on another Mac.

To do this, put one Mac into Target Disk Mode and connect it to a second Mac. Reboot the second Mac and hold down the Option key as it boots. You’ll see the first Mac’s drive as a boot device option on the second Mac. Select it and the OS X operating system from the first Mac will boot on the second Mac.

There are some potential problems you’ll run into while doing this. FileVault encryption will cause you trouble, preventing you from accessing a user account and its home directory. You’ll likely experience problems unless both Macs are the exact same model of Mac with the same hardware. This is the same reason why you can’t just restore a system image from one model of Mac to a different model of Mac via Time Machine — OS X isn’t designed to be moved between different Macs with different hardware devices.

When you’re done, Control-click or right-click the Mac’s hard drive on your other Mac and then select Eject. You can then leave Target Disk Mode on a Mac by pressing the Power button to reboot it.

Image Credit: Alan Levine on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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