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Six steps to fast Mac troubleshooting

When something goes wrong with your Mac, all you care about is getting it fixed fast. Maybe you’re on the road with your PowerBook and you need to give a presentation in an hour—you don’t care why something went wrong, or even what the best long-term solution may be. You just want to get your Mac working well enough to see you through the meeting; you’ll worry about the rest later.

For such stress-filled times, here are the quick-and-dirty troubleshooting steps you need to follow.

1. Restart
If your Mac’s performance has slowed to a crawl, or if your applications are freezing, restarting is often all you need to do to get back on track.

2. Log In with Startup Items Disabled
Log out of your account and log back in—but hold down the shift key when clicking on the Log In button. Continue to hold it until the desktop background appears. You’ve now disabled your Startup Items, the applications that load automatically when you log in. If one of these items was causing a conflict with the software you were trying to use, you should now be good to go.

A clean break : If restarting your Mac doesn’t help, try logging into a “clean” account—but first turn on Fast User Switching.

3. Switch to a Clean Account
Log in to a separate account, ideally a test account set up in advance for just such occasions. To make this go as quickly as possible, use Fast User Switching (enabled from the Accounts preference pane). If the problem does not occur in the test account, it’s likely due to a file that affects only your Home account. You can diagnose that later. If you’ll need access to a specific document (such as a Keynote file) while in the test account, copy the file to your Public folder before switching accounts.

4. Do Disk Repairs via Single-User Mode
To fix a corrupt directory, the common recommendation is to use Disk Utility’s Repair Disk option. The only problem is that you can’t repair the current startup volume with Disk Utility. Instead, you need to start up from a Mac OS X Install CD and run Disk Utility from there. But what if you don’t have an Install CD handy, or what if you don’t have time to use one? The quicker alternative is to boot up in single-user mode by holding down Command-S at startup. When the text prompt appears, type

fsck -fy
. This is almost identical to using Disk Utility. When you’re finished, type
reboot
to restart the Mac.

Neat type : Font Finagler can speed up your system by cleaning up your system’s font cache files. (Click image to open full screenshot)

5. Repair Disk Permissions
If you’re seeing error messages that say you don’t have permission to do whatever you’re attempting, select Repair Disk Permissions from Disk Utility. You can (and, in fact, should) do this when you boot from the startup volume that is giving you trouble.

6 .Clean Up Caches
A variety of third-party software can help speed up your recovery time. Having printing problems? Use Printer Setup Repair ($20); start with its Temp & Preference File Management options. Problems with fonts? Use Font Finagler ($10) to delete potentially corrupt font caches. Other mysterious symptoms? Use TinkerTool System ($9) to perform tasks such as rebuilding the launch-services database and deleting all system cache files. To be on the safe side, download the software right now so you’ll have it when trouble strikes.

[ Contributing Editor Ted Landau is the author of Mac OS X Help Line , Panther Edition (Peachpit Press, 2004). ]

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