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

Chapter 5. Troubleshoot Novel Problems

Sooner or later, you’re bound to encounter a problem that you haven’t experienced before—and that the previous chapter doesn’t cover. Although I’ve seen hundreds of different things go wrong with Macs over the years, I still run across novel problems all the time. If the solution to some problem isn’t immediately obvious, I go through a series of steps to narrow down the possible causes and test remedies until I find one that works. That’s what I want to teach you to do here.

First I ask you to try some easy all-purpose solutions. But at a certain point you may need to look further for help, so I also describe how to get more information and troubleshooting advice from a number of different sources.

Try the Standard Quick Fixes

If I get a headache, I generally take a couple of over-the-counter pain relievers. If the headache goes away, I don’t worry about the cause; I just get on with my day. Only if it doesn’t go away, or recurs, or accompanies other symptoms, do I call my doctor. Similarly, for lots of Mac problems you can try any or all of several all-purpose procedures that tend to zap lots of common irritations. If the problem goes away, there’s no need to waste time tracking down its exact cause, but if the quick fixes don’t work or the problem comes back, you can move on to more detailed troubleshooting (see Ask the Right Questions).

Quick Fixes for App Misbehavior

One of the most frequent Mac problems is an app that fails to launch, refuses to open a certain document, has display problems, or otherwise starts behaving erratically.

If this happens to you, try each of these procedures in turn until the problem disappears:

1.    Quit and try again. If an app isn’t cooperating in any way, quit it, reopen it, and then test to see if the problem is still there.

2.    Force-quit the app. If the app won’t quit normally, force-quit it and open it again (see Force-Quit an App). If this procedure doesn’t work the first time, try it a few times in a row.

3.    Restart. As always, restarting is a good way to zap numerous odd problems. Flip back to Restart Your Mac.

4.    Remove the preference file. If the app still misbehaves after restarting, follow the procedure for disabling its preference file (read Check Preference Files) and launch it again.

5.    Clear your caches. Focus on the cache for the app that’s misbehaving. See Clear Caches.

If none of these ideas lead to a solution, skip ahead to Ask the Right Questions.

Quick Fixes for System-Wide Problems

Sometimes it’s not just a single app that’s misbehaving. If your whole system appears to be slow or unresponsive or otherwise behaves in an unexpected way, try these fixes:

1.    Close extra windows, tabs, or apps. Sometimes apps can chew up RAM and CPU cycles even if they’re running in the background and seemingly doing nothing. Having many open tabs or windows (even in the Finder) can also increase your RAM usage. Try quitting apps or closing tabs or windows you’re not actively using.

2.    Restart. You know the drill; if not, read Restart Your Mac.

3.    Check for free space. Be sure your disk isn’t close to being full. Free up at least a few gigabytes. See Check Free Disk Space.

4.    Unplug peripherals. Hardware devices can sometimes cause odd problems, as can the driver software that communicates with them. Unplug any nonessential devices, restart, and see if the problem goes away.

5.    Repair disk permissions. If you’ve recently installed or updated any software on a Mac running 10.10 Yosemite or earlier, it’s possible that the installer munged some essential preference settings. See Repair Permissions. (This doesn’t apply to Macs running 10.11 El Capitan or later.)

6.    Run a disk repair utility. At the very least, use Disk Utility’s First Aid (or Repair Disk) feature, which has been known to solve weird random problems. Read more in Run Disk Repair Utilities.

7.    Clear your caches: Focus on system-wide caches (those found in /Library/Caches). Turn back to Clear Caches for details.

8.    Perform a safe boot. Restart with the Shift key held down (see Start Up in Safe Mode) to disable software that could be causing conflicts. If the problem disappears in safe mode but returns when you restart normally, it’s often a sign that third-party software is at fault.

9.    Disable unneeded doohickeys. System enhancements that run in the background (including menu extras and some preference panes) can sometimes cause problems. Follow the developer’s instructions for disabling or removing them, restart, and see if the condition persists.

10.          Try your backup. If you have a bootable duplicate, start up your Mac from your backup volume (instructions are in Start Up from Another Volume).

If the problem goes away, you know something has changed since that backup occurred. One easy solution at this point is to reverse the backup: duplicate your backup volume back onto your regular startup volume. But in so doing, unless you’re very careful, you’ll lose any changes made to your startup volume since your last backup. If possible, therefore, make a second duplicate of your startup volume—or at the very least make a backup of your home folder, which contains the files most likely to have changed—so you can recover them after reversing your duplicate.

11.          Reinstall OS X. Although it sounds unpleasant, it’s not that bad—with recent versions of OS X, doing so simply replaces the current copy of the operating system with a new one, leaving your documents and other data untouched—and it can solve a lot of difficult problems that nothing else can. For instructions, flip back to the sidebar A Clean Start.

Ask the Right Questions

If pain relievers didn’t cure my headache, I’d call my doctor, and she’d probably ask me a series of predictable questions, such as: Have you hit your head recently? Have you had headaches like this before? Do you have any history of brain injuries or disease? Do you have any other symptoms, like blurry vision or dizziness? The point of such questions is to identify the most likely (or most serious) causes first.

When your Mac has a problem that doesn’t respond to the easy cures, begin by asking yourself these questions:

·        Has anything changed recently? For example, if the problem started shortly after updating OS X or installing new software, that suggests a possible culprit.

·        What did you do last? If an app crashed immediately after you performed some action, what was that action? Recurring patterns are especially important. If a problem occurs every time you do something, that something becomes suspicious.

Update Got You Down?

If you experience problems after installing an update to OS X, you may be able to reinstall the update another way. Updates to OS X are available not only through the App Store but also—at least for most updates—on Apple’s website (alt.cc/aa), so you can download them manually if you wish.

Among other things, this enables users to decide whether to use a standard (or “delta”) updater, which requires the most recent previous release of OS X (say, 10.10.4) to get the latest version (in this example, 10.10.5), or a larger “combo” updater, which updates any previous version of the major system release (for example, 10.10.0 or 10.10.1) to the new version (say, 10.10.5).

The App Store always uses the delta updater. Occasionally, however, using delta updaters results in problems that don’t occur with combo installers. So when in doubt, download the combo updater manually from alt.cc/aa and run it again. (You won’t harm anything by running an updater again.)

·        Did you see any error messages? I can’t tell you how many times someone has complained to me about a Mac problem and then mentioned casually, “Oh yeah, there was some sort of error message, but I didn’t pay attention to it.” An error message is one of the best possible clues to a problem’s cause and solution, so you should make a note of it.

The easiest way to do this is to take a screenshot. Press ⌘-Shift-3 and OS X takes a picture of your whole screen, saving it to a file on your desktop. (If your Mac is frozen and the screenshot procedure doesn’t work, at least write down the error message.) You can then refer to that picture or note, email it to a tech support person, or print it out if needed.

By the way, even if no error messages appeared on screen, one might have been written to a log file. Be sure to take a look (see Check Log Files).

·        What does the Help say? Amazing but true: apps’ online help (or other included documentation) sometimes actually provides useful information. Yet users overlook this valuable resource shockingly often. Check out the commands in the app’s Help menu or read the help files that came with the app.

·        Is anything else wrong with your Mac? If your Mac is crashing frequently, and it’s also making a buzzing sound and spewing smoke, chances are those three symptoms are connected to each other. Even less serious symptoms, such as unexpected slowdowns, can be significant.

·        Is the problem reproducible? Follow the suggestions in Test for Reproducibility. See if you can find a series of steps that always causes the problem you’re seeing, or a series of steps that always avoids the problem. If you can, you’re halfway to a solution.

All right, you’ve asked the right questions and have some answers—but what do you do with that information? In some cases the answers may be obvious. For example, you realize that a problem occurred right after installing some software, so you uninstall the software, and the problem goes away.

But in most cases it’s time to dig deeper. Look for, and test, procedures suggested by the vendor or troubleshooting websites. Repeat until the problem goes away—or until you’ve exhausted all your ideas and it’s time to call a consultant or repairperson.

Who ya gonna call? The remainder of this chapter lists resources you can consult to help you solve your problem, but don’t forget about your friendly neighborhood Mac geek (see Phone a Friend and Ask at a User Group). If you happen to have a Mac expert in your quick-dial list, now is the time to call.

Ask the Vendor for Help

When it’s clear that a particular piece of hardware or software is malfunctioning and none of the easy troubleshooting steps helped, your next step should be to contact that product’s developer. Although I use the term “vendor” as a generic way to denote a software developer or a hardware manufacturer, I want to clarify that I’m not talking about the store where you purchased something. Go right to the company or individual who made it.

Apple Products

If Apple made the product, begin by visiting alt.cc/as. From there you can click a link corresponding to your Mac model or an app name to find technical articles, discussion forums, and links to download software updates.

Searching

If you’re unsure where to look for help, start by clicking the magnifying glass icon at the top of the page to display the search field and entering your Mac model along with a few words describing the problem (such as MacBook Pro fan noise or iMac Retina shuts down). If that yields too few results, broaden your search—for example, by omitting the model name. If you get too many matches, narrow your search—for example, by including your OS X version number (MacBook Pro fan noise 10.10.5).

To narrow your search further, click the Filter link near the top of the search results page. Then click a product, document type, or both.

Apple Support Communities

Apple provides discussion forums called Apple Support Communities where users can help each other with their Macintosh problems. You can find the forums at alt.cc/ad. On this site, click a category (Apple calls them “communities,” but each one is essentially a discussion forum that revolves around a particular product) to browse a subject area, or use the search field to search all discussions.

I’ve found lots of useful information on the Apple Support Communities site, but I want to emphasize a few things:

·        Apple monitors the discussions but does not directly reply to any posts, so don’t assume that you’ll get help from Apple.

·        To tell Apple about a misbehaving product, you must use a different site. The Apple Bug Reporter site is at bugreport.apple.com; to use it, you merely have to sign in with an Apple ID (you need not be a registered developer). Apple will see all bug reports, but they’ll respond only if additional information is needed.

·        Some really knowledgeable people participate in the Apple Support Communities, but so do a lot of uninformed people and, worse, uninformed people who think they know a lot. The advice you get here could be fantastic, but it could also be terrible.

Downloads

Your problem might be solved by updating your Apple software, although the App Store is usually a better way of finding and installing the updates appropriate to your system. To look for updates, go to alt.cc/aa. If the software you’re looking for isn’t on the first page, click Browse by Product and then use the search field.

Live Help

If online help doesn’t supply the answer, you have a few more options:

·        Try Apple’s support site at alt.cc/4h. This site walks you through a brief series of questions to identify possible solutions. If none of them do the trick, you can fill out a form with more details and request that Apple contact you immediately, or at a scheduled time, by phone, chat, or email. (Note that for most issues, Apple requires you to enter your Mac’s serial number.)

·        Take your Mac to a Genius Bar at an Apple Store (see Go to the Source).

·        Contact Apple Support. In the United States, you can call them toll-free at 800-275-2273; in Canada, the number is 800-263-3394. For other countries, or for online support options, see alt.cc/4i.

These services are free if your Apple product is still under warranty (or if you have an active AppleCare policy), but if your Apple product is no longer covered, you can pay for a tech support “incident” ($29); ask for details when you contact Apple.

Other Products

For third-party products, start by visiting the vendor’s website. To read FAQs, download software updates, ask questions of other users on discussion forums, and find out how to contact their support staff by phone or email, look for a link or button that says “Support” or “Technical Support.” Be aware that some vendors charge a fee for tech support or offer complimentary support only for a limited time. If you’re unable to find contact information, check the packaging the product came in or its printed documentation.

When you contact the vendor, be prepared to explain in detail the nature of your problem, what steps you’ve taken to solve it, and any background information (as covered in Ask the Right Questions) that might provide clues. Also be sure you know the exact Mac model you’re using, including processor type and amount of RAM, as well as which version of OS X (and of the vendor’s software, if any) you’re running. If you’re unsure, see Get System Information.

Check Mac Troubleshooting Sites

If haven’t found the solutions you need in this book, at a vendor’s website, or on Apple’s website, you can avail yourself of numerous other sites that contain a vast store of information about solving Mac problems. These sites often include discussion forums where other people with similar issues can share what they tried and what worked for them. Among the many Mac troubleshooting sites out there, these are the ones I’ve typically found most useful (listed alphabetically):

·        MacInTouch (macintouch.com): This site provides Apple-related news and, of interest to people looking for troubleshooting help, an ongoing series of reader reports on many Mac hardware and software products. If you’re having trouble with a system update, a new Mac, or a peripheral, scanning these reports can give you valuable clues. But remember: the fact that someone reports a problem doesn’t mean you or anyone else will encounter it, and not every proposed solution will work for you.

·        MacIssues (macissues.com): This site, run by Topher Kessler (who was formerly in charge of MacFixIt), contains hundreds of troubleshooting tips, with more being added all the time.

·        MacOSX.com (macosx.com): This free Mac tech support site provides personalized help from a team of volunteers. You can also post questions on a public forum and search the results of past troubleshooting queries.

·        Macworld (macworld.com): Although Macworld isn’t what it once was (and no longer publishes a printed magazine), the site has many troubleshooting articles—some of them written by me!

·        Multilingual Mac (m10lmac.blogspot.ca): If your problem involves foreign languages in any way, you may find the solution in this helpful blog by the estimable Tom Gewecke, who has contributed many useful bits of information about OS X’s language handling to various Take Control titles.

·        TidBITS (tidbits.com): This site, for which I’m a contributing editor, has been a valuable resource for Apple news and opinion since 1990. Its main focus isn’t troubleshooting, but troubleshooting articles do appear from time to time, especially when an issue arises that affects a large percentage of Mac users.

Use Your Favorite Search Engine

If you haven’t found what you’re looking for on any of the top Mac troubleshooting sites, you may still have success elsewhere on the web. Try some searches in Google (or the search engine of your choice). When you do, keep in mind these tips:

·        To narrow searches, be as specific as possible. For example, searching for GarageBand crash will produce fewer and far more relevant results than app quits.

·        Try including the word Mac or the phrase "OS X" (in quotation marks) in your search to exclude some matches that are specific to Windows or Unix software.

·        Include the version number in your search. For example, searching for kernel panic Mac 10.10.5 might show you more recent and useful results than kernel panic Mac.

·        If you saw an error message onscreen or in a log, try searching for the text of that message (in quotation marks).

Contact a Professional

I’ve mentioned this several times already, but it bears repeating: lots of smart, experienced people make their livings solving Mac problems, and you can contact one if you get stuck. Yes, you’ll have to pay some money, but if your problem is more than trivial you’ll probably find that the savings in time (not to mention stress) is worth it.

Assuming you’ve gone through the steps in this chapter, you should think about visiting a consultant (flip back to Find a Consultant) or an Apple repair facility (described in Go to the Source), keeping in mind that only the latter can offer low-level hardware repairs on your Mac or provide service under warranty or AppleCare.

Replacing Components on Your Own

If your Mac is no longer covered by warranty or AppleCare, repairs can get expensive. Plus, every day your Mac spends in a repair shop is a day you can’t be using it. For these reasons, if you’re somewhat technically proficient, you may consider making some hardware repairs on your own. You’ll likely save both money and time; the risk is that if you accidentally break anything, you’ll have a worse problem on your hands—and you’ll end up taking your Mac to a pro anyway.

That disclaimer aside, I’ve done a lot of repairs on my own Macs. I’ve replaced components such as hard drives, RAM, fans, batteries, and laptop keyboards—all without incident. If you’re sure which component has failed, you can often find replacement parts with a quick web search, and detailed, step-by-step disassembly guides at sites such as iFixit (alt.cc/5w) and PowerbookMedic (alt.cc/5x). You’ll almost certainly need special tools, which these sites will also sell you.

If you’re contemplating a DIY repair, I suggest reading the disassembly instructions carefully (or watching the video, if any) before ordering any parts, just to make sure the procedure isn’t too scary, given your personal level of expertise.