On my 2011 MacBook Air with Mac OS X Lion, I boot into Recovery mode via holding the command-R key during startup, if I go into Terminal and do a diskutil list, I get a list of 12(!) logical disks. disk0 is of course the disk holding the main HD and the Recovery HD partitions (along with the GUID partition and the EFI partition). But there is also a disk1 with partitions including one titled Mac OS X Base System that is approximately 1.39 GB big. There also are 10 other disks of varying but small sizes.

What are these other logical disks (and partitions) and is there any way to reclaim their space?

Update: Here is a copy of the diskutil list output:

[disk list]

  • On occasion people have received macs where the factory imaging process left data not intended to ship. I'd love a peek at the exact listing out of curiosity before you nuke it. – bmike Aug 24 '11 at 1:51

It's rather complicated, and actually a lot of the complexity is to avoid wasting space; I don't think you can "reclaim" anything without breaking it.

Let me start at the beginning: your hard drive (/dev/disk0) has two relevant partitions: Macintosh HD (your regular startup volume), and Recovery HD.

(Update: with newer versions of macOS running from an APFS volume, there'll instead be a single APFS "container" on the disk; the volumes under it will be listed separately under a "synthesized" device, probably /dev/disk2. And in addition to Macintosh HD and Recovery, there'll probably be Preboot and VM volumes, and starting in Catalina there'll be a separate "Macintosh HD - Data" volume holding the user-modifiable parts of the main filesystem. And some other details are different, but actually not that much.)

Recovery HD is marked in the partition table with the type Apple_Boot, but is actually in the normal HFS+ format. It contains minimal booter files and kernel, and at /com.apple.recovery.boot/BaseSystem.dmg, a disk image with a stripped-down and tweaked copy of OS X. The booter mounts this volume (it attaches as /dev/disk1), and transfers to OS X running on it. This is the Mac OS X Base System.

Notice that the Recovery HD is only 650MB, but Mac OS X Base System is 1.4GB? That's because it's a compressed disk image (and I'm pretty sure that compression is the reason they bother with all this disk image trickery). Actually, BaseSystem.dmg is compressed down to only 451MB (at least in OS X v10.7.0).

Also, the volume naming is somewhat inconsistent. You've got /dev/disk1s3 named "Recovery HD", but for some reason it's mounted as "/Volumes/Image Volume" in recovery mode. BaseSystem.dmg has a volume named "Mac OS X Base System".

So that's disk0 and disk1; what about the rest? I'm not certain, but I'm pretty sure they are RAM disks to save temporary data in folders OS X modifies as it runs (remember that in recovery mode, you're running from a read-only disk image). Running the mount command in recovery mode is informative:

$ mount
/dev/disk1s3 on / (hfs, local, read-only)
devfs on /dev (devfs, local, nobrowse)
/dev/disk2 on /Volumes (hfs, local, union, nobrowse)
/dev/disk3 on /private/var/tmp (hfs, local, union, nobrowse)
/dev/disk4 on /private/var/run (hfs, local, union, nobrowse)
/dev/disk5 on /System/Installation (hfs, local, union, nobrowse)
/dev/disk6 on /private/var/db (hfs, local, union, nobrowse)
/dev/disk7 on /private/var/folders (hfs, local, union, nobrowse)
/dev/disk8 on /private/var/root/Library (hfs, local, union, nobrowse)
/dev/disk9 on /Library/ColorSync/Profiles/Displays (hfs, local, union, nobrowse)
/dev/disk10 on /Library/Preferences (hfs, local, union, nobrowse)
/dev/disk11 on /Library/Preferences/SystemConfiguration (hfs, local, union, nobrowse)
/dev/disk12 on /Library/Keychains (hfs, local, union, nobrowse)
/dev/disk0s2 on /Volumes/Macintosh HD (hfs, local, journaled)
/dev/disk0s3 on /Volumes/Image Volume (hfs, local, read-only, journaled)

Those "union" attributes mean that things in the relevant folder in the startup volume will be visible, but anything modified gets stored in what I'm pretty sure is a RAM disk.

If you want to look at this stuff yourself, you can mount the relevant volumes from the regular OS:

# Mount "Recovery HD":
$ diskutil mount /dev/disk0s3
# Mount "Mac OS X Base System":
$ hdiutil mount /Volumes/Recovery\ HD/com.apple.recovery.boot/BaseSystem.dmg -noverify
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    Thanks! I think I got what I needed. So essentially, the whole disk1 is nothing but a mounted realization of the disk image stored in Recovery HD. It only exists if and when Recovery mode is run. Only the Recovery HD disk0 partition is actually taking up physical disk space. I suppose I could merge this partition with my Macintosh HD partition if I really wanted to get the space back, but of course Recovery mode would not be available then. – Jason Waldrop Aug 25 '11 at 17:42
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    Yup, that's about it. – Gordon Davisson Aug 25 '11 at 17:54
  • @GordonDavisson, Why don't I have the folder /com.apple.recovery.boot? – Pacerier Jan 4 '18 at 1:16
  • @GordonDavisson, Why is disk1 shown when running in recovery, yet not shown when running normally? – Pacerier Jan 4 '18 at 1:21
  • @Pacerier The BaseSystem.dmg disk image is mounted (technically, attached) in Recovery mode, but not when running normally. Note that disk1 is just the identifier for the second disk that the system has seen, so in normal mode if you plug in a USB disk or mount a disk image or something like that, it'll show up as disk1 (and if you mount another, it'll be disk2, etc). – Gordon Davisson Jan 4 '18 at 1:58

I am almost positive disk1 partition is the recovery disk burn it and boot from disk drive

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If you have broadband Internet and are ready to totally wipe the drive, you could use the Internet Recovery method of Lion Recovery to free up the disk0 and partition / erase the drive.

Be sure you have verified a backup of any data you want to save as this will wipe the SSD clean and let you install Lion and the normal recovery HD as it should be.

AppleCare will certainly walk you through this for free as you are in the complimentary support window for 90 days after purchase.

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    I have done this but this approach does not erase these other logical disks. In fact, you can see Mac OS X Base System in Disk Utility (under Recovery mode of course) but Disk Utility won't let you erase it. I'm wondering if it forms some sort of "core" of Mac OS X Lion to use during the recovery process since when doing an Internet Recovery it says "downloading additional components". – Jason Waldrop Aug 24 '11 at 2:06
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    If you are not booted from a network image or an external drive, Disk Utility always prevents you from erasing a drive that is in use. Normal recovery might not have enough freedom to undo this if it's core storage or something else tricky from the factory imaging process. – bmike Aug 24 '11 at 2:21

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