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

Chapter 2. Prepare for an Emergency

You probably carry a spare tire, a jack, and jumper cables in your car (perhaps along with the phone number for roadside service). These sorts of basic problem-solving tools are just common sense. If you don’t have comparable tools for your Mac, you’ll be in a pickle if a problem occurs. Don’t get stranded without the means to get back up and running again.

All the items mentioned in this chapter can come in handy when a problem occurs. You might not use them all, but I’ve used each of them at one time or another, and I’ve found them all to be sound investments.

Acquire a Secondary Startup Volume

You can’t replace your car’s oil filter while the engine is running; it not only would be messy but could potentially ruin the engine. Similarly, some repairs can’t be done when your Mac is running from a disk that’s experiencing problems. In these cases, you must start your Mac from another volume. You may also need to start from another volume if your internal hard drive or SSD dies completely.

Every version of OS X since 10.7 Lion has included a feature called OS X Recovery—an extra, hidden Recovery HD startup volume you can use in an emergency to perform repairs or restore a Time Machine backup. Macs introduced in 2011 or later, as well as some 2010 Macs, also support OS X Internet Recovery (see Start in OS X Recovery), which does basically the same thing but works even if your startup drive is missing or damaged. In addition, the El Capitan version of Disk Utility can, for the first time, repair most disk errors even when you run it on the volume you booted from—a neat trick! With those three options, the majority of Mac users already have a suitable secondary startup volume, perhaps without realizing it.

Note: If your Mac was released between mid-2010 and mid-2011, it might need a firmware update to support Internet Recovery. For details, see Apple’s support page “Computers that can be upgraded to use OS X Internet Recovery” at alt.cc/4j.

Tip: You can also install a Recovery HD volume on an external drive using Apple’s OS X Recovery Disk Assistant, which you can download at alt.cc/au.

Despite these alternatives for starting your Mac, however, I suggest having another startup volume available. I say this for several reasons:

·        Although El Capitan’s in-place Disk Repair feature is handy, it can’t fix every type of disk error—and, of course, it won’t help you at all if you’re running Yosemite or Mavericks.

·        Some Macs that can run recent versions of OS X don’t support OS X Recovery or OS X Internet Recovery, and even on a supported Mac these features might not always be available (for example, if the part of your startup volume that contains the hidden Recovery HD volume is damaged, or if you’re without Internet access).

·        If you manually changed your Mac’s partition structure or restored the entire startup volume from a backup, OS X Recovery might not work.

·        Even in the best cases, OS X’s built-in solutions don’t let you run third-party disk repair or backup software (which is sometimes essential to solving problems), and in the case of OS X Internet Recovery, booting can be extremely slow.

A secondary startup volume can take numerous forms. I prefer an external hard drive with a Thunderbolt or USB 3 interface, because it’s fast and flexible and can be used for things other than starting up in an emergency (backups, for example). But that’s just one of several options. Be sure you have at least one of these handy:

·        The USB Software Reinstall Drive included with certain Macs

Note: I no longer recommend using startup CDs or DVDs for Macs with optical drives, except as a last resort, because they’re so much slower than every other option listed here.

·        A USB flash drive, or even an SD card (for Macs with built-in SD card readers), on which you’ve installed a bootable copy of OS X

·        A bootable flash drive supplied with third-party disk repair software, such as DiskWarrior (alt.cc/sa, $99.95)

·        An external Thunderbolt, USB, or FireWire hard drive or flash drive on which you’ve installed a bootable copy of OS X

·        Another Mac that can boot into Thunderbolt target disk mode or FireWire target disk mode—assuming both Macs have Thunderbolt ports or both have FireWire ports, and the second Mac is running a version of OS X that’s compatible with the first Mac

(To make this work, first shut down the Mac whose disk you want to boot from. Then connect the Macs with a Thunderbolt or FireWire cable, start the Mac whose disk you want to boot from, and hold down the T key on that Mac’s keyboard until you see the Thunderbolt or FireWire icon. For more about target disk mode, read Apple’s support article “Transfer files between two computers using target disk mode” at alt.cc/ar.)

·        A second internal drive or a second partition of your main startup disk with a bootable copy of OS X

Note: A second partition is less useful for troubleshooting, because it doesn’t enable you to solve problems that affect the entire disk.

If your secondary startup volume already contains a bootable copy of OS X, you’re all set. But if you’re using another disk or partition, you must first install OS X on it. You can do this in any of the following ways:

·        Clone your internal drive. Using backup software designed for this task, make an exact copy of your main startup disk on the secondary disk. Tools that work well for this purpose include Carbon Copy Cloner (bombich.com) and SuperDuper! (alt.cc/s0).

·        Install OS X directly. In many cases you can run the OS X installer, selecting your secondary disk as the destination.

After setting up your secondary startup volume, be sure to test it to verify that it is bootable; you don’t want to find out that it’s not working after your main drive dies. Read Start Up from Another Volume for more details.

A Little Something Extra

If you want a truly complete troubleshooting toolkit, consider adding a few optional items to help with certain specific problems:

·        A spare keyboard and mouse: If your input devices aren’t working, it’s hard to do anything with your Mac—including troubleshooting. Even old, cheap, or used input devices are good enough for emergency use. Wired USB input devices are best, in case the problem you’re having involves Bluetooth.

·        Extra cables: When you’re troubleshooting network problems, a spare Ethernet cable is handy. When peripherals malfunction, an extra USB or FireWire cable can help you rule out a bad cable as the cause. As a bonus, a Thunderbolt or FireWire cable can be used to network two Macs together if they both have Thunderbolt or FireWire ports.

·        Batteries: If you use Bluetooth devices or other wireless accessories, have a spare set of batteries available. Batteries have a way of dying at the most inopportune times!

Get a Disk Repair Utility

Over time, almost all disks (including SSDs) develop minor errors that can cause your Mac to behave badly. The specific causes and symptoms are numerous, but when disk errors occur, your only option is to use a utility that’s specially designed to examine the disk at a low level and repair the problem. (In some cases, you must run the disk utility from your secondary startup volume. See Run Disk Repair Utilities for further instructions.)

Apple includes a basic disk utility called (you guessed it) Disk Utility with OS X. It’s found in /Applications/Utilities as well as on the hidden Recovery HD volume. If you’ve cloned your startup volume or installed OS X directly onto another disk, you already have one disk repair utility ready to go.

I use Disk Utility frequently, because it’s a quick and easy way to solve a number of problems and is considered to be extremely safe. But some disk errors are too complex for Disk Utility to repair and, unfortunately, such errors are not uncommon. So I recommend, if at all possible, having a second disk repair utility available—one that can pick up where Disk Utility leaves off. In my opinion, only three are worth any serious consideration:

·        DiskWarrior: This $119.95 utility from Alsoft is my favorite because it can solve some problems that no other utility can (alt.cc/sa). It’s been around for over 20 years and has only gotten better over time. If you can buy only one disk utility, get this one. DiskWarrior ships on a flash drive that you can use to boot your Mac (although you may need to run an included app to update it, depending on your Mac model).

·        Techtool Pro: Micromat’s $99.99 flagship repair utility not only repairs disks but also checks your RAM, video card, and other hardware components (alt.cc/27). Techtool Pro includes a feature called eDrive that’s somewhat like OS X Recovery, in that it lets you boot your Mac from a hidden volume to repair it.

·        Drive Genius: Prosoft Engineering’s $99 Drive Genius doesn’t have the same long history as the other two candidates, but it has a solid feature set and can repartition hard disks without erasing their data (alt.cc/24). Drive Genius’s BootWell feature enables you to create a startup volume to be used for repairs.

Any of these apps can also be installed on most types of secondary startup volume, such as a bootable duplicate or a flash drive on which you’ve installed OS X.

Set Up Another User Account

Your home folder (/Users/your username) contains all the files that are specific to your account, including not only your documents, pictures, and music but also preference files, caches, and certain kinds of application support files and system add-ons. If you’re the only person who uses your Mac, you may have only one login account and therefore just one home folder.

Regardless of how many users your Mac has, I suggest setting up an account to use solely for troubleshooting. That way, when a problem arises, you can easily switch to the other account—which will have default settings for everything—and see whether the problem still occurs. If it doesn’t, you know the cause is to be found somewhere in your home folder, and you can begin narrowing it down from there.

To set up a troubleshooting account, follow these steps:

1.    Go to System Preferences → Users & Groups.

2.    Click the lock  icon, and enter your username and password.

3.    Click the plus  button just below the list of accounts.

4.    Enter the requested information: Full Name, Account Name (a short version of your name, such as your initials or first name only), and password. (For increased security, I recommend selecting “Use separate password” rather than going with the default, “Use iCloud password.” After doing so, enter and verify a password, and enter an optional password hint.)

Picking a Password

Your troubleshooting account won’t do you much good if you can’t remember its username or password. So pick things you’ll remember. Something as simple as “Test User” for the long name and “test” for the short name is fine.

Because this new user has administrative privileges, the password should be as secure as the one for your own account—an easy password (like “test”) puts your Mac at risk. My advice: set the same password that you use for your normal administrator account to make it memorable yet secure.

1.    Choose Administrator from the New Account pop-up menu.

2.    Click Create User.

Consider Purchasing AppleCare

The AppleCare Protection Plan is essentially an extended warranty you can buy for a new Mac. Normally, Apple offers a one-year limited warranty on its computers, including 90 days of telephone support. AppleCare extends the warranty (and the telephone support) to a full three years.

Depending on which equipment you purchase, AppleCare can cover certain peripherals (such as displays and AirPort base stations; some restrictions apply), and for desktop Macs it even includes onsite service in most areas. The cost for AppleCare depends on your hardware; it ranges from $99 (for a Mac mini) to $349 (for a MacBook Pro).

I can’t emphasize strongly enough what a great idea AppleCare is. In the course of one year, my mother, my wife, and I all had faulty iMac logic boards replaced—at no additional cost—thanks to AppleCare; without it, the machines would have been out of warranty and we each would have spent many hundreds of dollars for the repairs. If you don’t live close to an Apple Store or an authorized repair center, Apple will send you a prepaid shipping container in which to return your laptop for repair.

You can purchase AppleCare when you buy your Mac, or any time before your initial one-year warranty expires. You don’t have to buy it from Apple; some resellers, such as Amazon.com (alt.cc/5n) and Expercom (alt.cc/61) often sell it for less. Because it provides not only hardware repairs but also (usually) competent telephone tech support, I heartily recommend AppleCare to everyone buying a new Mac.

Think About an Insurance Policy

There are some serious computer problems—such as theft or accidental breakage—that no amount of troubleshooting can fix. To protect your investment in cases like these, consider buying a special insurance policy just for your computers.

You may already have homeowner’s or renter’s insurance that covers your Mac in the event of fire, flood, or burglary. But read your policy carefully, since you may be surprised to learn that many common types of loss are usually not covered—things like accidental damage or theft from a car. (And, in cases like these, your Apple warranty or AppleCare plan is of no use either.) Policies geared specifically for computers can fill that gap.

True story: A number of years ago, I was carrying a Mac laptop in a padded laptop bag. The bag slipped off my shoulder and hit a rock, and the Mac’s display cracked. Because I had a computer insurance policy, though, I saved hundreds of dollars on the costly repair—even after factoring in the deductible and the cost of the policy itself.

Safeware (safeware.com) is the best-known source for computer insurance in the United States. The company offers a range of policies that cover desktops, laptops, mobile devices, and peripherals. Although Safeware now focuses on business and education customers, you can still apply for individual coverage if you know where to look (alt.cc/5o) and are willing to pay rather high prices. Another option is SquareTrade (squaretrade.com), which covers hardware failures and can optionally be extended to cover “accidental damage from handling”—but does not cover theft, fires, or other types of damage. In the UK, computer insurance policies are available from companies such as CompuCover (compucover.co.uk).

Find Extra Help

Last but not least, figure out whom you can call or email for advice when you can’t solve a problem on your own (even with this book).

Phone a Friend

You may have someone in your existing circle of contacts who knows a thing or two about solving Mac problems. But if your go-to person is a friend or family member (in other words, someone who doesn’t charge for their services), I have three additional pieces of advice:

·        Don’t start with a problem. Ahead of time—when your Mac is working—ask your friend if he or she is willing to field occasional tech support questions. You might even invite the person over to dinner to get acquainted with your setup in advance.

·        Don’t abuse free help. Even the most knowledgeable and generous friends can get annoyed when requests for help are too frequent or too time-consuming.

·        Return the favor. As someone who has provided more than his fair share of free tech support to friends and family, I can’t tell you how much it improves my attitude when someone returns the favor in even a small way. I’ve had people invite me out to lunch; offer accommodations when I’m traveling in their area; lend me their car for a day; and send me coffee, chocolate, CDs, and other thank-you gifts. Small gestures like these are good for relationships as well as your Mac’s health!

You’re my friend, aren’t you, Joe?

I always include my contact information in my books, and countless people have written to make comments, ask questions, or suggest new topics to cover. That’s wonderful—I enjoy hearing from readers, and I do my best to reply as quickly as I can. However…

Occasionally a simple inquiry, especially when it has to do with a troubleshooting issue, turns into a lengthy series of messages. I’ve even had strangers email or phone me—at all hours of the day and night—begging me to help solve a problem that appears to be related in some way to a book or article I’ve written. I don’t mind answering brief questions, but I don’t have the time to provide technical support to everyone who asks. So I hope you’ll understand that I must decline to offer personalized troubleshooting assistance.

Ask at a User Group

At Mac user groups all over the world, ordinary folks meet to learn about the latest products, find better ways of working, and help each other solve problems. I’ve been an active member of several user groups over the years, and I frequently give presentations at user group meetings (usually covering topics I’ve written about in one of my books). Most user group meetings are open to the public, and some offer additional benefits for paid members. To find a user group in your area, see alt.cc/48. (That page also lists groups that meet only online.)

Find a Consultant

If you don’t know anyone who’s a Macintosh expert and don’t have a local Mac user group, never fear. Thousands of independent consultants make their living solving Mac problems. These folks may not be able to perform certain kinds of hardware repairs (see Go to the Source, below, if that’s what you need), but they can fix most Mac problems you encounter.

To find an Apple-certified consultant in your area, search the Apple Consultants Network site at alt.cc/av. Of course, lots of highly competent professionals offer Mac consulting services without having gone through Apple’s certification program. You can often find such folks in the Yellow Pages (remember those?) or by searching the web.

Go to the Source

Some problems (particularly hardware defects) require special equipment, software, or training that only a certified Mac repairperson can provide. When that’s what you need, choose one of the following:

·        An Apple Genius: If you live near an Apple Store, you can talk your problems over with an Apple-trained expert at its Genius Bar. The advice is free, but if your Mac needs repairs and is not covered by a warranty or AppleCare, you’ll have to pay for parts and labor. You may need to make an appointment to speak to a Genius; call first or visit the store’s webpage if in doubt.

·        An Apple Authorized Service Provider: If there’s no Apple Store nearby, seek out a computer shop that’s authorized to provide warranty (or AppleCare) service on your Mac; they’re also the best (that is, most dependable) choice for out-of-warranty service. You can search a directory of AASPs in the United States at locate.apple.com; for AASPs in other countries, visit alt.cc/aw.

Have an Accessible Copy of This Book

One last little detail: When it comes time to solve problems, you may not be able to use your Mac at all, so if you’re reading this ebook on your Mac, you won’t be able to refer to it. For this reason, if you have a second Mac, an iOS device, a Kindle, or some other gadget that can display ebooks, be sure to keep a copy of this book there. If not, consider printing the remainder of this book.

Note: For advice on moving a Joe On Tech ebook to an iOS device or Kindle, consult alt.cc/4a.