Mac OS X: Using Console to Troubleshoot Problems

If you’re not aware of the Console program (which lives in your Applications > Utilities folder), you’re missing out on a hugely useful way to troubleshoot your machine. Your Mac is constantly logging things—what time your backup started, say, or whether a program you’re using has outdated components. The events that most of these messages are about won’t have any effect on you at all, so they can be safely ignored. However, if you’re having an issue that you can’t figure out, Console is invaluable in knowing what’s causing the hold-up. What the program does is present your log files all wrapped up in a nice interface, with easy ways to search the entire database. Some of the messages read like the world’s worst technical manual, but you don’t really have to know much to be able to decipher them. Let’s look at it together, shall we?

So after you’ve got Console open, note whether you can see a sidebar of logs showing on the left side of the window. If you can’t, click on the Show Log List button to rectify that.

Once you do so, you’ll see a list of logs, quite unsurprisingly. 

For the purposes of this tip, we’re only going to be using the “All Messages” query. Be aware, though, that some programs’ logs are organized separately. If you’re troubleshooting one of those, you may need to look through the rest of your log list to see if your problematic application’s name appears (like 1Password and Cocktail do in my screenshot above).

So if you click on “All Messages,” you can look at most everything your machine’s been reporting, sorted by time. The information is organized into three columns—date and time, the sender of the information (which can be a program, for example), and the message itself.

Some of the messages are fairly obvious—“starting standard backup” or “shutdown: reboot by Melissa.” But what do you do with the ones you don’t understand? The best, easiest thing to do is to find something related to the problem by browsing through the list or by using the search bar in the upper-right of Console’s window, and then you can Google-search the error message exactly as it appears. Often, you’ll find discussion forums where folks are having the same trouble you are, along with whatever solutions they’ve come up with. Sometimes, you’ll even run across Apple Knowledge Base articles with fixes right in them. Neat!

You can do a couple of things to help figure things out more easily, too. If your problem is reproducible, go to View > Insert Marker (or View > Clear Display, if you prefer), walk through the steps to cause the trouble, and go look at what’s been logged after that point so that your friend Google can help. 


Here I’ve put a marker in my log so that I know exactly where to start looking for new error messages.


Also, if you open Console > Preferences, you can ask the program to notify you when a log you’re looking at is updated, either by bouncing the icon in the Dock or by bringing the application window to the front. This is another way that you can attempt to reproduce an issue that you’re having and see what relevant information you can dredge out of the logs.

In deciphering messages, it’s also good to know the names of a few behind-the-scenes programs Mac OS X may report on. For example, “mds” and “mdworker” are Spotlight processes, so if a lot of errors are occurring with those mentioned, you might want to reindex your drive and see if that fixes things. Another example is “backupd,” which is pretty obviously a Time Machine process. You can search for that name within Console to see what’s been going on with your backups if you like.

One of the other really useful features of Console is that you can create canned searches, just as you can in the Finder. To start one, hit Option-Command-N or choose File > New System Log Query

When the query box opens, you can edit it any way you want. Looking for a specific program reporting an error around a certain time? Piece o’ cake. After you hit OK, Console will save your search and place it in the sidebar for easy access.

See, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Console really does provide an easy way for mere mortals like us to see what messages our computers are reporting. And learning a bit about stuff that’s going on under the hood can give you a better idea of how things work and what you can do when problems occur. I only wish bettering myself didn’t take so much time—there are video games to be played, people.