OS X First Aid

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Utility software

Resuscitate an unconscious Mac

What strikes the most fear into the hearts of Mac users? When the computer fails to start up at all. It’s hard not to wonder whether you’ll ever see the contents of your hard drive again—especially if you’ve failed to back up your drive!

For this article, I’m skipping hardware-related symptoms, such as a complete loss of power or a display that doesn’t light up. Instead, I’ll focus on the more common situations, where your Mac begins to start up normally but stalls at some point before the desktop appears. Here’s a set of guidelines for reuniting with your data. Try each step in turn, until one succeeds:

1. Try Patience Sometimes the Mac will take an unusually long time to start up. Wait a while, and the Mac may right itself.

2. Restart OK, you got a cup of coffee and read the newspaper’s front page, but your Mac still hasn’t started. Try starting one more time. Things often work better the second time around.

3. Do a Safe Boot Restart and immediately press the shift key, to initiate a Safe Boot. Hold the shift key down until a blue screen appears. This triggers a shotgun collection of potential fixes. OS X runs a disk-repair command, deletes potentially corrupted font cache files, disables files called extensions (located in the System folder), and prevents items in your Login Items list (located in your Accounts preference pane) from loading. (If you’re using Panther, the list will be called Startup Items.)

If you succeed in getting your Mac to start up in this minimalist mode, restart immediately (this time without activating Safe Boot). The disk repairs and cache cleaning alone may have fixed the problem.

4. Investigate Your Login Items If you’re still in trouble at this point, it’s going to take a bit of detective work to figure out what’s going on. For example, if the startup failure occurs after you’ve logged in to your account (and the desktop has appeared), the most probable cause is a Login Items conflict.

Go to the Accounts preference pane and click on the Login Items tab. Write down the names and locations of all the items listed there. Then select each one and click on the minus-sign (-) button at the bottom of the Startup Items window. Next, log out (Apple menu: Log Out user name ) and then back in. Replace the items one by one, logging out and back in each time, until you’re unable to start up. When this happens, the last item you added is the likely culprit. If your Login Items list is long, you can shorten this process by targeting only items added to your Mac just before the onset of your problems.

5. Repair the Disk Mac still not starting up properly? When you do a Safe Boot, OS X attempts to repair your disk, but it offers no feedback as to what happened. You don’t know if it found and fixed problems or if it ran into problems it couldn’t fix. If the Safe Boot fails to fix the problem and your Login Items have been ruled out as a cause, it pays to try using Disk Utility’s First Aid to repair the disk (see Seeking First Aid for instructions).

6. Disconnect Peripherals Now try disconnecting all USB and FireWire devices (except your Apple-supplied keyboard and mouse). Restart the Mac yet again. If you can start up, you may have had a conflict between OS X and one of the disconnected devices.

You may be able to reconnect all the devices and use them, but if you leave them connected, your Mac may fail to start up the next time you try. The only way to cure this problem is by updat-ing the devices’ driver software or firmware. ( Firmware is the set of programming instructions stored on the hardware itself; it remains unchanged unless it’s specifically modified by a firmware updater utility.) Check the company Web site for details.

7. Reset PRAM Restart the Mac yet again. This time immediately press Command-option-P-R and hold the keys down until the Mac chimes a second time. This resets the information in the Mac’s parameter RAM (PRAM) to its default values. The PRAM is a special area of RAM where data is retained even after you shut down the Mac. The PRAM stores an assortment of systemwide parameters, such as your time-zone setting and speaker volume. Resetting the PRAM can solve certain startup problems.

8. Reinstall OS X If all else has failed, it’s time to break out your OS X discs and do a fresh installation of the operating system itself. Although this is a time-consuming treatment, you’ll probably find it to be the only cure if your symptom is a persisting blinking question-mark icon at startup; this indicates that your Mac doesn’t believe there’s a valid version of OS X installed on your drive.

Mac medicine cabinet

Your Mac medicine cabinet is already stocked with one useful, all-purpose remedy—Apple’s Disk Utility. This built-in tool has essential repair features and is always updated for the latest version of OS X. But what else should you keep around in case of emergency?

For directory problems Disk Utility can’t fix, DiskWarrior is my choice, although TechTool Pro and Drive Genius offer other helpful features. (Intel Mac owners need to wait for Universal versions of all of these utilities.) For recovering text and images from damaged files, File Juicer is tops. When you can’t even start up from the drive, and if you don’t have backups, Data Rescue can save your bacon. XRay and FileXaminer are great choices for editing Unix permissions without taking a trip to Terminal. The all-around utility TinkerTool contains my favorite mix of Finder tweaks, performance enhancements, and maintenance features. OnyX and Tiger Cache Cleaner do some of the same things, but each also offers unique features.

Mac Medicine Cabinet

COMPANY PRODUCT RATING PRICE OS X COMPATIBILITY PROCESSOR COMPATIBILITY COMMENTS
Alsoft DiskWarrior 3.0.3 4.5 mice (A) $80 10.2, 10.3, 10.4 PowerPC Rebuilds directories and can recover data from damaged disks.
Apple Disk Utility not rated free (B) 10.2, 10.3, 10.4 Universal Repairs disk directories, repairs disk permissions, creates disk-image files, and erases and formats disks.
Echo One File Juicer 4.0.2 4.0 mice $9 10.3, 10.4 Universal Extracts text and images from damaged files.
Gideon Softworks FileXaminer 2.5.2 5.0 mice (C) $10 10.2, 10.3, 10.4 PowerPC Modifies Unix permissions and edits related file attributes for any file on your drive, and has a great batch mode.
Jonathan Nathan Preferential Treatment 1.1.6 4.0 mice (D) free 10.2, 10.3, 10.4 PowerPC Checks for corrupt preferences (.plist) files.
Marcel Bresink TinkerTool 3.61 4.0 mice (E) free 10.2, 10.3, 10.4 PowerPC Multifaceted utility can make invisible files visible, deactivate the Dashboard, modify font-smoothing settings, and much more.
Micromat TechTool Pro 4.0.4 3.5 mice (F) $98 10.3, 10.4 PowerPC Repairs disk directories and comes with an extensive assortment of hardware diagnostics.
Northern Softworks Tiger Cache Cleaner 3.5 mice (E) $9 10.2, 10.3, 10.4 PowerPC Removes cache and log files, provides Login Items management, and much more.
Prosoft Engineering Data Rescue II 4.0 mice (G) $100 10.2, 10.3, 10.4 PowerPC Recovers data from damaged and otherwise inaccessible drives.
Prosoft Engineering Drive Genius 1.0.1 4.0 mice (H) $99 10.2, 10.3, 10.4 PowerPC Can repair, defragment, or repartition a drive--the only utility of its kind to include sector editing.
Rainer Brockerhoff XRay 1.1 5.0 mice (I) $10 10.2, 10.3, 10.4 PowerPC Modifies Unix permissions and edits related file attributes for any file on your drive, and makes aliases and symbolic links.
Titanium OnyX 1.6.7 4.0 mice (E) free 10.4 Universal Can enable OS X "hidden" features, clear caches, run maintenance scripts, and display log files and Unix man pages.

(A) See review . (B) Part of OS X, in /Applications/Utilities. (C) See review . (D) See review . (E) See review . (F) See review . (G) See review . (H) See review . (I) See review .

[ Contributing Editor Ted Landau continues to search for new ways to get into and out of trouble. For more troubleshooting tips, see his book Ted Landau’s Mac OS X Help Line: Tiger Edition (Peachpit Press, 2006). ]

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