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Intermittent Blinking Question Mark at Start-Up

Update:11-30Source: network consolidation
I've read a number of postings about the blinking question mark problem during start-up, but this one is different -- its intermittent. By that I mean that sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't. Here is the chronology:
- Student comes home for Spring Break and requests me to connect her to our wireless network.
- I enter network name and PW. It gets connected, but the spinning rainbow wheel won't stop spinning. So eventually I re-start --> first time I've ever seen the blinking question mark. System won't start on multiple tries. Student says 'yeah, that's been happening for a while. Just wait a while and it will be OK.' I've never seen an intermittent problem like this.
- Took iBook to the Genius Bar at local Apple Store
- Genius gets it to start up on first try, amazing me. He didn't do any trick, just pushed the power button. But he did plug the AC adapter in as he was trying to boot it. (more on this later) How can this be??
- Genius does some kind of test on the Hard Drive and pronounces it OK. Says problem must be software-related.
- I mention that Student didn't bring home her 10.3.X Disk Utilities/Restore disk.
- I mention I've got 10.4 Family Pack, but haven't had time to load it on any of our Macs. Genius recommends doing Archive Install, then use 10.4 disk to run Disk Utilities to check Permissions etc.
- I load 10.4 and then run Disk Utilities. The start-up disk is already properly identified, no need to re-select the internal HD Sys X. But sure enough, some of the Permissions needed repair and were fixed. Problem seems solved, system runs fine for 3 days.
- Student goes back to college. Today she reports that the blinking question mark is back, but now she can't run Disk Utilities because I still have the 10.4 disk at home, and her 10.3 disk won't work anymore.
I should also mention: Student has been having short battery re-charge life. Checked the Apple Website and realized that her battery S/N is covered under the free replacement program. Today she received the new battery and installed it, and then when she re-started, that's when the blinking question mark showed up again. Could there be a connection between the power supply and the blinking question mark?
What to do? Any ideas welcomed. Student wants new computer, I say not so fast.....
iBook G4   Mac OS X (10.4.5)  

The Best Answer

Assuming that you get the flashing question mark for extended periods of time (i.e. not just one or two flashes and then it boots), and repeatedly (i.e. it takes several power cycles to boot the system), I'd recommend a couple of steps:
1) Run the Disk Utility -> Repair Disk option while booted off CD. This will check and repair common disk problems that can cause this kind of issue
2) Reset the parameter RAM (PRAM) to reset the system settings (Command-Option-P-R as you power on)
3) When this happens, hold down the option key as you power up the system. this will offer a list of available boot drives. Check that your boot drive is available.
4) If all else fails, backup - soon, and be prepared to replace the hard drive. This might sound drastic but I'd had a number of laptops die through failed drives. This option is especially true if you're experiencing other unexplained problems such as hangs and crashes while running the machine.