Editor’s Note: The following article is an excerpt from Total Leopard, part of Macworld’s Superguide series. This 90-page book offers the information you need to set up Mac OS X 10.5 smoothly and get started with its new features. The book as available as a downloadable PDF for $13, on CD for $15, or as a full-color book for $25. To see more of what the book has to offer, view a 16-page sample.
Most of the time, your Mac is the picture of health—it crunches numbers, plays music, and tackles the most difficult tasks without so much as a hiccup. But hundreds, maybe thousands, of things can go wrong with such a complicated a system. When trouble strikes, figuring out what exactly the problem is and where it’s coming from is half the challenge. There are often several possible explanations for a single problem. With that in mind, we’ll take a look at some of the most common Mac problems—including freezes, crashes, and startup woes—and walk you through the steps you should take to solve them.
A program freezes
It happens to all Mac users sooner or later. You’re about to select a menu command when suddenly your cursor turns into a beach ball that just spins and spins. You try everything from pounding on the keyboard to offering a sacrifice to the computer gods, all to no avail. Your program has frozen.
First some good news: usually, only one program freezes at a time. This means if you move your cursor away from the program’s window, the beach ball should disappear and your Mac’s behavior should return to normal. But you’re still stuck with a program on ice.
When you can’t access a program’s Quit command, how do you get it to quit? Don’t fret: OS X offers several alternative ways to force a program to quit. You only need to use one, as they all do the same thing; however, you may find one method more convenient than another. Sometimes, one may work when another doesn’t. Cycle through to find the best method for you.
Force Quit: Go to the Apple menu and select Force Quit (or press its keyboard equivalent: Command-option-escape). This brings up the Force Quit Applications window. You’ll see a list of all your currently open programs. Typically, the name of the frozen one will be followed by the phrase “application not responding.” Select the program’s name and click on Force Quit.
In Leopard, if you force quit a program that the Mac claims is “not responding,” a dialog box appears informing you that the program quit “while unresponsive.” This may be redundant feedback, but the dialog box does offer the chance to send Apple a report of the problem.
Use the Dock Menu: You can also force a program to quit from the Dock. Click and hold over the frozen program’s Dock icon. When the contextual menu pops up, the item that normally reads Quit should say Force Quit. If it still just says Quit, release the mouse and start over, this time holding down the option key. This makes the Force Quit command appear.
Use Activity Monitor: On rare occasions you may need to quit a program—such as the Dock—that doesn’t have a Dock icon or appear in the Force Quit window. In that case, launch Activity Monitor (it’s in /Applications/Utilities). From the list in the main window, select the frozen program. Then click on the Quit Process button in the toolbar. In the dialog box that appears, click on Force Quit.
Bouncing back from crashes
Just as unwelcome as the program freeze is the program crash. In this case, you’re not trying to force a program to quit; you’re trying to prevent it from quitting on its own. When a program crashes, you typically see a dialog box informing you that the program has “unexpectedly quit.” As with program freezes, the good news is that these crashes rarely bring down an entire Mac—they usually just affect the one program. But you still want to end this ailment. Try these methods, one by one, until the problem disappears:
Step 1: Relaunch The “unexpectedly quit” dialog box includes a Relaunch button. Click on it to launch the program again. With any luck, the crash will not recur.
Step 2: Safe Relaunch If the crash happens again, curse your luck and wait for the dialog box to reappear. You’ll notice a slight difference now—the message text says that the program unexpectedly quit after it was relaunched. You have the same Relaunch button here. If you click the button this time, however, the program should not immediately relaunch. Instead, another dialog box will appear offering two relaunch options: Reset And Relaunch or just Relaunch.
If you click on the Reset And Relaunch button, this should initiate a safe relaunch of the program. In other words, OS X disables the program’s current preferences file and replaces it with a new default file. Programs use preferences files to store the changes you make to the program’s settings—using the Preferences dialog box, for example. But if preferences files become damaged they can precipitate a crash. (Preferences files are stored in your user folder/Library/Preferences and typically are named after their matching program.)
If the safe relaunch eliminates the crash, quit the program (File -> Quit). At this point, another dialog box will appear and ask whether you want to keep the new settings. Click on Yes to keep the new settings and reset any custom preferences. This is a price worth paying if it puts an end to the crashes. If you instead prefer risking a return to your prior custom settings, click on No.
Unfortunately, in Leopard, the safe relaunch process doesn’t always work. It’s possible that the Reset and Relaunch button, or the dialog box asking if you want to save the new settings, might not appear. And even if it does, clicking on Safe Relaunch may only give you a regular relaunch.
Dealing with recurring problems
If your crashes persist, or if your programs begin misbehaving in other ways, it’s time to move on to a time-tested set of potential fixes. Try the steps in order until one works.
Step 1: Restart Your Mac Select the Restart command from the Apple menu. It’s amazing how often this simple act resolves a problem. If the crash is so bad that you can’t get Restart to work, press and hold your Mac’s power button until the machine shuts off. As a last resort, pull the power cord.
Step 2: Check for Conflicts and Bugs Make sure the program doesn’t have a conflict with the version of OS X you’re using. For example, if you just updated to Leopard, you may also need to update the problem program. Check the company’s Web site for details. While you’re there, check to see if the site has a support section. You may find that your problem is common enough that the company has already posted a solution.
Step 3: Log In as a Different User You’ve installed new programs and you’ve tweaked preferences—is it one of the millions of changes you’ve made to your system that’s giving your Mac a stomachache? You can find out by logging in as a different user. If you’ve never created a second account, now is the time to do so.
Launch the Accounts preference pane, click on the lock icon, and enter your administrator’s password to unlock Accounts. Click on the plus-sign (+) button at the bottom of the list of accounts and create a new Standard account (one that doesn’t have administrator permissions, so it doesn’t let you install programs or alter certain system settings). Give it an intuitive name such as Troubleshooting. If your Mac misbehaves, switch to this account and see if the problem stops.
If the crash doesn’t occur when you’re logged in as the other account, it means the cause is a file in your user folder, rather than a more general issue with OS X. Accept this as good news, as it usually means the problem can be fixed without something as drastic as reinstalling all of OS X or erasing your entire drive.
The cause is most likely a corrupt or conflicting file somewhere in your user folder’s Library folder—either a preferences (.plist) file, a font, a cache file, a plug-in, or some other support file (often found in the Application Support folder).
You can use utilities to isolate the specific cause. For instance, check for corrupt fonts with Font Book’s Validate Font command, identify corrupt .plist files using Jonathan Nathan Software’s free Preferential Treatment, and delete corrupt cache files with Northern Softworks’ $12 Leopard Cache Cleaner. Ultimately, it might take some good old trial-and-error to ferret out the culprit.
Step 4: Use Disk Utility If the problem program was installed as part of OS X, go to /Applications/Utilities and launch Disk Utility. From here, select your startup volume and click on the First Aid tab. Finally, click on Repair Disk Permissions (see Seeking First Aid for instructions).
Step 5: Uninstall and Reinstall the Program Still stuck? Uninstall the program by going to the Applications folder and dragging the program’s folder to the Trash. If you had to double-click on an installer to install a program, rerun the installer. In most cases, after you launch it you’ll see that there’s an uninstall option. Run this. Now reinstall the program. If an Installer utility came with the program, use it—otherwise, you may not properly install key components of the software, and that in itself could be the cause of a crash.
Step 6: Check Console Logs Launch OS X’s Console utility (/Applications/Utilities). If you don’t see a list of logs in the left column, click the Show Log List button in the toolbar. From the list on the left side, locate the CrashReporter folders (in your user folder/Library/Logs and /Library/Logs). In here you’ll find a .crash.log file for every program on your Mac that has ever crashed.
In the log file with the name of your problem program, you might find a clue to the cause of the crash—for example, a reference to a plug-in that may be the ultimate cause of the conflict. Look carefully at any section with a header including the word “Crashed” (such as “Thread 0 Crashed”). The output in the All Messages item under Log Database Queries may also provide a clue as to the cause of a crash.
Leopard’s new version of Console lets you save log queries, enabling you to build a filter and look at only those log entries that match your filter. To create a new query, choose File -> New Log Database Query, and then enter the criteria you want. When you save the query, it will appear in the Console sidebar, right above the list of log files. For more advice on using Console, see Tracking Down Trouble with the Console).
Step 7: Reinstall OS X If your sleuth work has not paid off, it may be time to bring out your OS X Installation DVD and start from scratch. Select the Archive And Install option. If this installs an older version of OS X than you are currently using (such as 10.5.0, when you are now running 10.5.1), use the Software Update system preference to immediately update to the latest versions of all Apple software.