Troubleshooting Your Mac: A Joe On Tech Guide (2015)

Chapter 1. Prevent Problems

Although this book is mainly about solving problems, not preventing them, I’m sure you don’t want any issues you’ve fixed to recur. And a few preventive steps can make solving problems much, much easier if and when they do occur.

At the risk of sounding overly promotional, I would like to note that some of my other books—chiefly Backing Up Your Mac: A Joe On Tech Guide (alt.cc/buym) and Maintaining Your Mac: A Joe On Tech Guide (alt.cc/mym)—offer a great deal of advice that will help with preventing problems, and I certainly recommend those titles if you need additional help. In this chapter, though, I cover three particularly important preventive maintenance tasks from Maintaining Your Mac.

Use a Surge Protector or UPS

Surge protectors are to a computer what airbags are to a passenger in a car. No matter how carefully you drive, another driver could cause a collision—and that airbag could save your life. Likewise, no matter how clean or reliable the power in your building normally is, a lightning strike or power surge could damage components or even wipe out your Mac. It’s unlikely, but it can and does happen.

Considering how inexpensively you can buy a surge protector, using one is common sense. If you haven’t already done so, spend a few dollars to prevent hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of damage. Still, don’t buy the cheapest surge protector you can find, which may not offer enough protection. Get one that includes a UL (Underwriters Laboratories) label with the words “Transient Voltage Surge Suppressor” (or the designation “UL 1449”), a joule rating of at least 1,000, and a warranty covering damage to your Mac in the event of a power surge. For example, the APC SurgeArrest 3020 (alt.cc/60) meets those criteria and sells for less than $20.

Warning! Remember that lightning can travel through any cable attached to your Mac—Ethernet, USB, FireWire, phone line, or whatever. Make sure everything physically connected to your Mac is also plugged into a surge protector. Some surge protectors, UPS units, and other voltage management products include ports for Ethernet, coaxial, and telephone cables.

Better yet is an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), which includes not only protection from power surges but also a battery that can keep your Mac running for minutes or hours during a power interruption and protect it against brownouts. Some models also include USB ports and, when connected to your Mac, work with OS X’s Energy Saver preference pane to shut the Mac down automatically in case of power failure. Reputable manufacturers include APC (apc.com), CyberPower (cyberpowersystems.com), Panamax (alt.cc/2z), and Tripp Lite (alt.cc/30).

Back Up Your Mac Regularly

Statistically speaking, your odds of having some sort of problem with your Mac that results in a loss of data are high. It may not happen for years, but if and when it does, the consequences can be devastating. Crucially for our purposes in this book, some of the troubleshooting and repair techniques I cover here assume that you have a backup from which you can restore your data in the event of a serious problem. So, if you’ve never set up a backup plan, don’t delay. Start today!

Backups come in all shapes and sizes. I advocate an approach that includes using a couple of different backup types and keeping at least one copy of your data stored offsite. But if I had to choose just one sort of backup for troubleshooting purposes, it would be a bootable duplicate—an exact copy of your startup volume, stored on another hard disk, and configured in such a way that you can boot from that backup drive in the event of an emergency. Ideally, you should update this bootable duplicate at least once a week so that it reflects the files that have been added or changed since the last run.

Lots of software tools provide easy ways to make bootable duplicates. My favorites are:

·        Bombich Software’s Carbon Copy Cloner (bombich.com, $39.95)

·        Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper! (alt.cc/s0, $27.95)

Keep Your Software Up to Date

Bugs—either in OS X itself or in some app you have installed—are perhaps the biggest causes of Mac problems. Each new software release fixes bugs, so keeping your software up to date is an excellent way of reducing the number of problems you have.

At the same time, new software versions often introduce new bugs! The release after that fixes those bugs and adds more new ones, and so on. That’s just how it is, I’m afraid: there’s no such thing as bug-free software.

In my experience, newer software is almost always better than older software. A couple of times, I’ve applied an update and immediately regretted it enough to revert to the previous version (which sometimes means reinstalling software from scratch and then applying every update except the most recent one). But these times have been exceptionally rare. The vast majority of the time, I’m happier after applying an update than I was before.

So in general, my advice is to keep up with new software releases—including OS X itself and third-party apps. In particular, if you start experiencing crashes, hangs, and other sorts of misbehavior, I recommend updating your software right away. To check for updates in Apple software and in third-party apps downloaded from the App Store, choose Apple  → App Store and, if it’s not already selected, click Updates. Most apps that aren’t from the App Store have their own Check for Updates (or similar) command—likely locations include the application menu (the one showing the app’s name) and the Help menu.

I understand and respect the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of thought. I’ve heard of people who were computing quite happily until some software update came along and messed things up for them, causing them hours or days of grief. Yes, that can happen, but the odds favor improvements with each update. So, when you encounter problems, at the very least think about installing software updates you may have skipped. But if you’re willing to undertake a small amount of risk for a potentially large reward, do what I do and keep up with every new update. (After all, remember: if you have a great backup, as discussed above, you can always return to the previous version of your software if necessary.)