Troubleshooting Is My Middle Name
April 9th, 2004
Episode #16

I have more problems with my Macs than most people I know and, believe it or not, I like it that way.

The way I see it, trouble is part of my job, so I install beta software with joyful abandon; alpha software with outright glee; and even a kext or two every now and then, just for kicks. Heck, I even install most Mac OS X updates the very day they're released.

With all that crud on my system, not to mention five hard disks on three FireWire busses, and USB and FireWire hubs with a variety of devices hanging off them, my Mac is pretty much an accident waiting to happen.

Lately I've been having more issues than usual (which may be an oxymoron), mostly because in addition to all the crap I install anyway, I've also been loading up tons of things I need to try for my upcoming book, GarageBand For Dummies. I'd say I've installed more Audio Units plug-ins and device drivers for audio devices and peripherals in the past couple of months than most users will install in two lifetimes. And I rarely uninstall software unless it proves to be at the root of a problem I'm having.

The corollary is that I have more experience than most with getting a recalcitrant Mac up and running quickly. So today I'll provide a handful of quick tricks and techniques I generally try first when something goes wrong. All are simple and none will cost you so much as a nickel.

1. If at first something doesn't work or causes an application to freeze, restart the offending app and try it again.

Some problems only occur when you do a specific thing in a specific application. If you're having that type of problem, quit the application, restart it, and try that specific thing again.

If the problem caused the application to freeze, you may have to force it to quit before you can try it again. And if the problem occurred in the Finder, you'll definitely have to force it to quit, since the Finder doesn't offer a Quit command.

Fortunately, OS X makes forcing applications including the Finder easy as pie. (And yes, the Finder is an application… It's a unique one that can't be launched or quit in the usual way, but it's an application just the same.)

If you've never done it before, here's how to force a program to quit:

1. Choose Force Quit from the Apple menu or use the keyboard shortcut, Command-Option-Esc. The Force Quit Applications window will appear

2. Choose the offending application's name in the list and click the Force Quit button.

If you're trying to quit the Finder, the button says Relaunch, no Force Quit. That's because the Finder will always relaunch itself after it quits, whether you force the quit or it quits for reasons of its own.

The Force Quit window with an application selected (left) and with the Finder selected (right).
(Click the image for a larger view)

A sheet appears to confirm that you really do want to force the app or Finder to quit. Click the Force Quit or Relaunch button on the sheet.

The Force Quit sheet with an application selected (left) and with the Finder selected (right).
(Click the thumbnail for a larger (and VERY WIDE) view)

Sometimes you need to do it more than once to actually convince the application to quit, so if the app or Finder didn't quit just now, try the whole thing again.

As often as not this will fix things right up and that specific thing will work fine ever after.

If you find yourself relaunching the Finder as often as I do, you may want to check out Marcel Bresink's superb freeware application, TinkerTool, which can, among many other cool things, add a Quit command to the Finder's Finder menu (try saying that three times real fast).

2. Reboot

If forcing the recalcitrant app to quit doesn't fix the issue, the next thing to try is restarting your Mac. Over the years, I figure about half of the problems I've seen have disappeared after I restart my Mac. I've occasionally forgotten this trick in the heat of the moment and torn my hair out trying to rectify a problem, only to discover that it was temporary and disappeared when I remembered to try a restart.

The moral of the story is that a restart is easy and painless and should always be tried before doing any other troubleshooting; if it works, you won't need to do other troubleshooting, which is a good thing.

3. Log in as a different user (preferably a virgin account).

If Force Quit and Reboot don't fix the issue, this trick helps me establish whether the issue lies in my Home folder (BobL) or elsewhere (usually /Library or /System/Library).

If your Mac has only one user account (yours, of course), create a second account for troubleshooting and nothing else. (If you've never done it, just open System Preferences, choose the Accounts pane, and then click the little plus button to add a new account.)

My strategy is to create an account exclusively for troubleshooting whenever I install a fresh version of Mac OS X on any of my Macs. I never use this account for anything but troubleshooting and I don't change even a single System Preference. That way I know nothing I did to the account is responsible for any problem I have while logged in as that user.

So whenever I'm having difficulties and Force Quit and Restart haven't fixed it, I log out of my personal account (BobL) or restart. Then I log in to my troubleshooting account (Tester) and see if the problem still occurs. If it does, I assume that it's not something within my BobL Home folder, and, since the Tester account has never been modified, I assume the problem isn't in the Tester Home folder either.

Which leaves OS X itself as the likely culprit — which is to say the problem usually stems from something in either the /Library or /System/Library folder.

But if the problem goes away when I'm logged in as Tester, I assume the problem stems from something in my BobL Home folder. That something is, as often as not, a corrupted preference file. So the next thing I do is…

4. Dance the Preference dance.

If I've determined that the problem seems to stem from my BobL Home folder, the first thing I suspect is that one of the files in BobL/Library/Preferences has become damaged or corrupted. Since Retrospect backs up my Home folder every 6 hours, I can usually restore my entire Preferences folder from a backup faster than I can do the Preference dance to identify the culprit. So there's a tip for you: Even if you don't back up anything else, it wouldn't hurt to make a copy of your Home/Library/Preferences folder when everything is working well, and save it for a rainy day.

If you don't have a backup of your Preferences folder, however, don't lose hope. You can do the Preference dance, and, with a bit of recursive testing, usually determine which file or files cause the problem. To do this, open your Home/Library/Preferences folder and choose List view (Command-2). Sort by Modification Date and move all of the preference files that have been modified since the problem began to your desktop. (If there are a lot of them you might want to create a folder on the desktop to hold them, just to keep things from getting messy.)

Now, try whatever causes the problem again. If the problem is gone, which is likely, one of the preference files on your desktop (or in the folder on your desktop) is to blame. At this point you can either try to figure out precisely which one it is, or throw all the ones on the desktop (or in the folder on the desktop) in the Trash and be done with it.

The nice thing about preference files is that most apps, system software components, preference panes, and other entities that create preference files will recreate them automatically if they discover the old one is missing from Home/Library/Preferences. You may have to reset the preferences for each of the items you trashed, but that's usually faster than trying to determine exactly which one is to blame.

But for me, since I'm always screwing things up, even that takes too much time. Restoring the whole Preferences folder from a Retrospect backup takes all of two minutes, tops, and saves me the hassle and possible heartache. I mean, who can even remember every preference they set in programs like Word or Photoshop, which have literally dozens of them.

So backup your Preferences folder right now; it may save you hours of troubleshooting someday.

As I said, I don't need it so I haven't used it but once or twice. Still, it's a great idea and seems to work as promised. It may be just the thing for you if you're not backing up your Preferences folder some other way.
For more info, visit:

5. Boot from an OS X Install CD and run Disk Utility's First Aid and Repair Permissions on your startup disk.

Every hard disk has several strangely named components such as B-trees, extent files, catalog files, and other creatively named invisible files. They are all involved in managing the data on your drives. Disk Utility s First Aid feature checks all those files and attempts to repair damaged ones.

Here s how to do it:

  1. Boot from your Mac OS X Install CD by inserting the CD and restarting your Mac while holding down the C key. The OS X Installer appears on your screen.
  2. Choose Open Disk Utility from the Installer menu to launch the Disk Utility application on the CD.
  3. When the Disk Utility window appears, click the First Aid tab to select that function of Disk Utility.
  4. Click the icon for your boot hard drive at the left of the Disk Utility window (Booty II in the picture on the right). Your boot drive is the one with OS X and your Home folder on it. I call mine Booty II.
  5. Click the Repair Disk button. Your Mac whirs and hums for a few minutes, and the results window tells you what s going on. Ultimately, First Aid tells you (you hope) that the drive has been repaired and is now okay; if so, you can probably get back to work.
  6. Click the Repair Disk Permissions button. Your Mac whirs and hums for a few minutes, and the results window tells you which permissions are being repaired (though it's not important to most people). At the end it will tell you that your permissions have been successfully repaired.
  7. Quit Disk Utility.
  8. Restart your Mac (without holding down the C key).

If First Aid finds damage that it can't fix it will tell you. If that happens, a commercial disk-recovery tool, such as AlSoft's most-excellent DiskWarrior (US$69 from Amazon) may be able to repair the damage.

Even if First Aid gave you a clean bill of health, you may want to run DiskWarrior anyway just to have a second opinion.

6. Try a Safe Boot

If steps 1–5 didn't fix the issue, try booting your Mac in Safe Mode by holding down the Shift key during startup

Booting in Safe Mode does three things to help you with troubleshooting:

  • It forces a directory check of the startup (boot) volume.
  • It loads only required kernel extensions (some of the items in /System/Library/Extensions).
  • It runs only Apple-installed startup items (some of the items in /Library/Startup Items and /System/Library/Startup items). Note that startup items are different from login items.

Taken together, these changes can work around issues caused by software or directory damage on the startup volume.

Some features do not work in Safe Mode. Among them are DVD Player, capturing video (in iMovie or other video-editing software), using an AirPort card, using some audio input or output devices, or using an internal or external USB modem. Use Safe Mode only if you need to troubleshoot a startup issue.

If your Mac boots in Safe Mode, you may be able to determine what is causing it -- usually a damaged Preference file (in Home/Library/Preferences) or one of your Startup Items (in the Accounts System Preference pane).

If your Mac continues to have problems, it's time to call in the big guns and reinstall OS X.

7. Reinstall OS X

This is the last item on the list because it takes the longest and is kind of a hassle. On the other hand, it cures ailments none of the other methods can touch. Unfortunately there's no way to know if an easy one is going to work until you try it, which is why it's listed last.

If you've backed up your entire hard drive, you might prefer to reinstall from your back-up disk or tape rather than reinstalling OS X from the Install Mac OS X CD. That way, you'll be certain that everything is just the way you left it, which is something you can't be sure of when you reinstall from the Install Mac OS X CD.

If you can't do that, here's how to install a fresh copy of OS X:

1. Boot from your Install Mac OS X CD Disc 1 by inserting the CD into your machine's CD-ROM or DVD drive and then restarting your Mac while holding down the C key.

When Mac OS X has finished booting your Mac, the Install program launches automatically. Here is where you actually begin the process of installing or reinstalling Mac OS X.

2. Unless you want to use a language other than English for the main language of Mac OS X, click the Continue button in the first screen you see; if you do want to use another language, select the language by clicking its name, and then click the Continue button.

3. Read the Welcome, Important Information, and Software License Agreement screens, clicking the Continue button after each.

At this point a sheet drops down querying whether you agree to the terms of the license agreement. If you don't, you can't go any further, so click the Agree button if you want to proceed.

Note: If you're currently using any version of Mac OS except version 9.2.2, you might see a dialog box with the warning that you can't run Classic applications unless you have Mac OS 9.2.2 or a later version installed. You can't install Mac OS 9.2.2 right now (you're installing OS X!), but you can click OK and install it later. (Mac OS X, version 10.3 Panther does not come with a Mac OS 9.2.2 Install CD, so you're on your own here.) If you have Mac OS 9.2.2 installed, you won't see this dialog.

4. Choose the disk that you want to install or reinstall Mac OS X on by clicking its icon once in the Select a Destination screen.

At the bottom of the Select a Destination screen is the Options button, which offers three mutually exclusive choices:

  1. Upgrade Mac OS X: Choose this option to upgrade an earlier version of OS X installed on the disk that you choose in Step 5 above. Your Home and other files are left undisturbed; after the upgrade, things will be (more or less) as they were before, except that you'll be running a factory-fresh installation of OS X.
  2. Archive and Install: Choose this option to move all the System components from your existing OS X installation into a folder named Previous System and then install a fresh new copy of OS X. The Previous System folder cannot be used to boot but it does contain any and all files that were in any of the OS X folders before you upgraded.

    If you select option 2, a check box for a sub-option -- Preserve Users and Network Settings -- becomes available. Mark it if you want to import all the existing users of this Mac, their Home folders, and their network settings -- but still archive all the old System stuff into the Previous System folder. If you choose this option, you get to skip the Setup Assistant at the end and go right to work.
  3. Erase and Install: Choose this option if you want to completely erase the disk that you selected in Step Four, starting completely from scratch.

If you choose the Erase and Install option, the disk that you selected in Step Four will be erased, and all your files will be deleted immediately! You should only choose this option if you've backed up all your documents and applications. In most cases, erasing the start-up disk is not necessary.

If you select this option, the Format Disk As pop-up menu becomes available. Your choices are Mac OS Extended (Journaled), which is the one you want, or Unix File System, which is the one you don't want.

NOTE: Unix File System is not a good choice for most OS X users. Suffice it to say that 99.9 percent of you should absolutely and positively avoid Unix File System like the plague (and the other tenth of one percent know who they are and why they need a UFS disk.) 'Nuff said.

After you make your selection in this window, click OK to return to the Select a Destination screen and then click Continue.

Now you have the choice to perform an easy install or a customized install. The Easy Install copies all of Mac OS X onto your chosen hard drive (as you choose in Step Four); the Custom Install (click the Customize button at the bottom of the screen) enables you choose to install only the items that you want to install.

5. Click the Install button.

The process takes 10 to 30 minutes; your Mac may ask for OS X Install Disk 2 and possibly even Disk 3. When it's all over, your Mac will restart itself and you can begin using Mac OS X . . . Hopefully, trouble-free.

So there you have them -- seven (mostly) quick and no-cost techniques that may get your Mac back up and running when it doesn't behave itself. Of course there are other things you can try -- like zapping the PRAM -- but the ones listed above, at least in my humble opinion, provide the greatest chance of success.

I'll be back in two weeks with something completely different; until then, I hope you find these techniques as useful as I do for getting back to work quickly and painlessly after a problem rears its ugly head.