badly behaved Mac: hardware or software? Help!

  • Posted: 27 July 2010 07:27 PM

    I’m having trouble deciding what the next step is with my Mac. It’s been, well, a little dodgy ever since I bought it (new) a year ago. First, I screwed up some permissions when I transferred stuff to my new Mac (I didn’t migrate everything because I wanted to clean it up). I won’t go into the details, but after about a month, I got all the permissions problems fixed.

    However, I’ve continually had hangs, crashes, kernel panics, spinny beach balls, and generally sluggish behavior (more on that in a bit). It’s not frequent (except the sluggish stuff); maybe once a month. Usually when I wake it from sleep, but not always.

    My setup: MacBook Pro Intel Core 2 Duo 2.66 GHz, 4GB RAM, running 10.6.4. I typically use it with an external Apple Cinema HD, wired Apple keyboard, Magic Mouse, USB hub for an external hard drive for media and to sync my iPhone and iPod, and external speakers through the earphone jack.

    I’ve done all the usual things, most many times over (repaired permissions, verified the hard drive, dumped caches, run the scripts). But because the problems are so rare, I never know if they’ve fixed anything. Certainly, they haven’t fixed the sluggish stuff. (I’ve tried a second user account, but I can’t do any real work there because all my files are on the other account. Thus, I may not have used it long enough to induce the problem.)

    What do I mean by sluggish? When I create a new message in Mail and start to type a name in the To: field, it can take 10-20 seconds to look up the name and fill it in. I sometimes see the spinning beach ball, sometimes the whole computer just becomes non-responsive. There’s no error messages I can see in the logs, but I confess that I don’t really know where to look. Similarly, the auto-lookup function in Tags is also really, really slow. But the kicker is that it doesn’t behave like this every single time. It comes and goes, and I can’t find a single thing that causes it. It can happen immediately after a fresh reboot (I reboot nearly every day), or it can happen later. It can happen with a lot of programs open, or very few (or none). It can happen with lots of free RAM, or very little.

    Also, iTunes has become much less stable in the past several months. It seems if I click to rapidly, I can cause it to become non-responsive for up to a 45 seconds (I timed it). I get the spinny thing, and sometimes I can switch to other programs and continue working (sometimes not). If I can switch to other programs, I often check Activity Monitor. It says iTunes is “not responding”; but usually if I wait long enough, it comes back to life.

    I’ve been hesitant to bring it to the Genius Bar because I can’t reporoduce the problems and I find my local store really unpleasantly loud and crowded. Similarly, I haven’t called AppleCare (though I did purchase it for this Mac) because living with the occasional problem was better than waiting on hold and then being told to do all the things I’ve already tried. Also, this is my only computer, and I can’t do any business without it.

    Over the weekend, however, my Magic Mouse crapped out and totally locked up my system. I had no choice but to call Apple Care, and, when they couldn’t solve it, take everything in to the Genius Bar to get a new mouse. Happily, the new mouse seems to be working, and it’s inspired me to get this sorted out. Also, my business is nearly nonexistent at the moment, so I can afford to be without my computer for a few days (whether I’m installing the OS from scratch or it’s in the shop).

    (Don’t worry about backups; I clone it every few days and use Time Machine once a day.)

    So, what’s the likeliest fix? Should I spend a few days wiping all the data, reinstalling the OS, and reinstalling all my software and setting everything up? Or should I make another appointment with the Genius Bar and hope they can find something wrong? Essentially, is the problem software or hardware?

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    Posted: 30 July 2010 12:43 PM #1

    When you have slowness and beach balls, the first thing I would do is open a Terminal and type “top” (and return). This will list all the processes running on your Mac and give you an idea of CPU and memory usage.

    I use a couple apps which are CPU intensive—Photoshop Elements and REAL Studio—and I find that restarting at least once a week helps quite a bit.

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    Posted: 30 July 2010 12:44 PM #2

    In this kind of a case the next thing I’d try is a Nuke and Pave. Format the drive and do a fresh install of OS-X. Update all the patches. Then install software and restore your files. My guess is this will fix the issue. If for some reason it doesn’t then the Genius Bar will have one more test behind them before they concentrate on hardware


    The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.
    J.D.Salanger/Wilhelm Stekel

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    Posted: 30 July 2010 12:51 PM #3

    Oh geez. Don’t nuke and pave unless you’ve eliminated badly behaving apps, extensions, plugins, etc. first. You’re just going to reinstall the same apps later and have the same problem. Some apps suck a lot of CPU or tie up the disk just by their nature. Some apps are pigs. If you need those apps, make an effort to not have other stuff running at the same time.

  • Posted: 30 July 2010 01:08 PM #4

    I’ve seen this recommended and actually tried it once. Rebuild your Spotlight Index. It solved many slow down and crashy type problems for me on my Mac Pro tower.

    Also, one thing to check…if you use Entourage (the hog that it is), try disconnecting from your network/ISP connection. Quit Entourage, and then see if your maneuvering around improves. I’ve seen network issues with Entourage on two computer here this year. The “handshake” is anything but….

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    Posted: 30 July 2010 01:17 PM #5

    The reason I’m going directly to a Nuke & Pave is because the permissions were damaged from the outset. I’m suspecting that more than permissions got damaged.  A N&P will start fresh. With the current version of OS-X you can do a full N&P and reset the system up in less than a day.

    I just have the feeling this is a problem with the OS. It might be a Application problem, orSpotlight, but I just have a suspicion it’s more basic than that.


    The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.
    J.D.Salanger/Wilhelm Stekel

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    Posted: 30 July 2010 01:18 PM #6

    Check the USB hub and devices attached. I found that they can be problematical. Is the hub an older one?


    “Works of art, in my opinion, are the only objects in the material universe to possess internal order, and that is why, though I don’t believe that only art matters, I do believe in Art for Art’s sake.” E. M. Forster

  • Posted: 30 July 2010 01:38 PM #7

    A troubleshooting thing I always try is to create a fresh user account, log-out of the old account, and then login to the new account (or log into the new account after restarting). If the problems have disappeared you’ve shown that the problem exists with the old user account and not the system, applications, or hardware. If the problems still occur then it could be an app, a system problem, or hardware, but not a user account issue. Weird behavior like this is sometimes caused by bad ram. Check your system profile (click About this Mac in the Apple menu, and then More Info). Sometimes bad ram won’t show up as being installed (I had this happen at work once in a MacPro).
    I think Nuke and Pave should be the last resort. Unplugging USB devices as suggested above is a good idea when doing any troubleshooting.


    Less is More (more or less).

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    Posted: 30 July 2010 01:46 PM #8

    OK, to reach some common ground… How about take it to the Genius Bar before you reinstall? If you can afford $60 for an hour of someone’s time, I’d wholeheartedly recommend this guy:

    He can use remote screen sharing with you on the phone to find and fix the problem. He’ll use my software to do it grin.

  • Posted: 30 July 2010 02:08 PM #9

    Or, instead of running top from the command line, I would have Activity Monitor and Console running during your daily routines. When you notice a slowdown, check Activity Monitor to see what is going on at that moment. Sort by CPU usage. Also check the console for “All Messages and see if anything is being reported.

    If you do use top, note that just entering “q” will quit it.

    Certainly, running as another user for a period of time will tell you if it’s a machine thing or a problem with your profile.

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    Posted: 30 July 2010 02:11 PM #10

    Checking the RAM idea is a good one. Make sure that’s seated properly. Keeping Activity Monitor running and watching to see if something’s grabbing a bunch of CPU is a good idea too.


    The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.
    J.D.Salanger/Wilhelm Stekel

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    Posted: 30 July 2010 09:49 PM #11

    FlipFriddle - 30 July 2010 04:38 PM

    A troubleshooting thing I always try is to create a fresh user account, log-out of the old account, and then login to the new account (or log into the new account after restarting).

    If I remember correctly, I believe this is a step that Dave Hamilton stresses emphatically for troubleshooting in the Geek Gab. So if the problems are that severe, that would be the route I’d go.

    GeoDuck - 30 July 2010 04:38 PM

    Checking the RAM idea is a good one. Make sure that?s seated properly. Keeping Activity Monitor running and watching to see if something?s grabbing a bunch of CPU is a good idea too.

    Before you crack open the box, I would check System Profiler and make sure the OS is recognizing all 4 gigs of RAM. If it’s not, that’s most likely your issue (if not the only one, then a major one). On the other other hand, I agree about Activity Monitor, which is something I’m mildly obsessive about; it’s an invaluable resource for what’s going one hardware and software-wise with your Mac. Like GeoDuck said, you can pick up some pretty good clues about what’s happening if you see software hogging too many system resources, or you see something choke when, say, you connect a Bluetooth device.

    If no troubleshooting steps show what the issue is and you’re still having problems, there is always the Nuke & Pave option. Just make sure that if you go this route, you don’t back up your software (reinstall these manually)... many keep certain resources and preferences with their package contents.

    [ Edited: 30 July 2010 09:53 PM by xmattingly ]      
  • Posted: 01 August 2010 06:26 AM #12

    Inclined to agree with Tiger on this, that the level at which you are seeing ‘sluggishness’ suggests Spotlight. Rebuilding the index might improve responsiveness on Spotlight-intensive tasks, such as address retrieval, etc.

    Also agree with next going to a new user account, and seeing if the problem persists. Would be curious to know how long you are running your system before you notice the problem; be sure to replicate that in the new user account.

    What you have described does not sound like hardware per se to me, unless you are running simultaneous RAM-intensive applications. Activity monitor can tell you how much free RAM you have, as well as how many page-outs are occurring. You might want to run this when you notice the slow down. Not certain that the mouse issue is related. Apart from RAM, if this was hardware-related, I would expect it to be more consistent, whereas your experience is infrequent.

    Third, talk to a Mac Genius or third party (authorised Apple service centre) specialist. If they are not able to resolve it, the latter may even do the nuke ‘n’ pave for you, if that becomes the only option.



  • Posted: 01 August 2010 06:01 PM #13

    Thanks for the replies. It seems like there’s no obvious way forward, but I’ve got at least one new thing to try.

    I have checked Activity Monitor religiously; when the slowdowns occur, not much changes. That is, mail doesn’t massively increase its %CPU (often it stays below 5%), and nothing else shoots up to the top of the list. The sluggish behavior often happens when the total CPU is under 20%. I can’t keep it open all the time, however, so I’ve never been able to catch one of those once-a-month crashes. (Activity Monitor distracts me too much.)

    As I said before, the slowdowns can happen when I’ve just rebooted and Mail is the only program (barring ones that launch automatically) open, and they can happen after the system’s been up for hours. It’s not other programs hogging the CPU. I use Adobe apps extensively in my work; I know what hogs they are, and they aren’t the problem in this case.

    Entourage is banned from my machine, so that’s not it.

    The USB hub is a possible problem. It is not old (less than a year), but I do know that some hubs cause problems. But I really need more USB ports than the 2 on my MacBook Pro. Since my iTunes library is on an external drive, I can’t sync my iPhone without disconnecting the keyboard, which makes controlling the Mac very difficult (the MacBook Pro is behind a large monitor and can’t easily be reached). But I could try it for a week.

    As I explained, a fresh user account isn’t really possible. The problems don’t occur every day, so to really test it, I’d have to move everything I need to a new account. Including email (I don’t have IMAP available on all my email accounts), MobileMe syncing, and all my documents. This is not trivial, as there’s no simple way to move files from one account to another. If I’m going to all of this trouble, I might as well reinstall the operating system and be done with it. Or am I missing something?

    The sluggishness can happen immediately after a reboot, or later. I reboot nearly every day (hoping to fend off any worse problems). The only time I was getting a serious number of page outs was when I was working on a book and had to have Photoshop and InDesign open simultaneously, along with my usual suite of programs. That’s when I realized that I needed more RAM, but I’m reluctant to muck about with hardware until I get a more stable system.

    I’ve spent lots of time poring through Console messages, including the most recent crash this week. I can’t find anything that I can track down.

    I ran the hardware tests on Friday (from the Mac’s original DVD and the latest one from Apple), and everything was reported as OK. All the ram (4 GB) is reported.

    I will try rebuilding Spotlight before I try anything else.

    If that doesn’t help, then I’ll have to decide if half a day for the Genius Bar is a better idea than 2 days of re-installing software. Thanks for the reminder to do fresh installs of programs.

    Let me know if you all have any other ideas or tests I could try. Thanks!

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    Posted: 01 August 2010 06:41 PM #14

    What type of printer do you use and is it connected to the machine?

  • Posted: 01 August 2010 10:44 PM #15

    Two printers, neither connected directly to my Mac. Both use Ethernet to connect to my Airport Extreme. One is an HP Deskjet 5850, the other is an HP LaserJet CP2025.