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In a perfect world, you'd be reading something else right now. Of course, in a perfect world, you would not be seeing a Type 2 error message on your monitor as you try to start up your Mac--and frantically worrying whether you and your files will ever meet again. You'd go to the Web to look for the solution, but your computer's on the critical list, so you can't very well use it to get online. And calling tech support means hours of hold time and countless transfers--and maybe a big bill if your computer is no longer under warranty. You need help, and you need it fast.

That's where this guide comes in. Whether you're facing a computer crash or any of an assortment of other ills, I'm here to tell you the probable cure--as well as which common suggestions may just waste your time.

How do you deal with the computer symptom that causes more nightmares than any other--a Mac that fails to start up? In the worst-case scenario, you could lose all the data on your hard drive--a major disaster, especially if you don't have a recent backup. Fortunately, the worst-case scenario is rare. More likely, your files are intact and you just need to figure out how to get to them. Here's your road map.

What's with the Question Mark?   Your Mac shows a persistently flashing question-mark icon at start-up.

Solution   Try to start up from the Mac's Install or Restore CD. If this succeeds, check your System Folder and make sure it still has the Mac OS icon on it. If it doesn't, a critical file may be missing from the folder. For starters, just open and close the folder. If the icon does not return, make sure you have both a System and a Finder file in the folder. If you've removed either from the System Folder, find it and drag it back or install a new copy (using the installers on the aforementioned CDs).

If everything seems in order with your System Folder, check for disk damage. If all of this fails, reformat the drive (typically using Apple's Drive Setup utility). Aren't you glad you backed up your drive last night--you did, didn't you?

"Almost" Doesn't Count   Your Mac shows at least some signs of intelligent life. The Happy Mac icon and the "Welcome to Mac OS" screen both appear. You look like you're making progress--but then you get a crash.

Solution   Make a first pass at checking for an extension conflict by starting up with Extensions off (hold down the shift key during start-up). If this bypasses the crash or freeze, restart again with Extensions on. If this works, the computer gods have smiled upon you--be grateful and hope the crash does not return. Otherwise, you'll need to isolate the problem extension.

Apple recently identified an obscure Mac OS file called SerialShimLib that, if present in the Extensions folder, might cause FireWire PowerBooks to crash on start-up. Updating to Mac OS 9.0.4 or later--which has a revised version of this file--fixes the problem.

If the symptom persists even when you start up with Extensions off, the cause could be a peripheral device connected to your Mac. These days, USB devices are the most common culprits--the workaround is to not connect the device until start-up finishes. Ultimately, look to Apple or the device vendor to offer a better fix.

In general, you can avoid many problems by updating to the latest Mac OS software. For Mac OS 9 users, keeping up-to-date with Apple software couldn't be easier: just click on Update Now in the Software Update control panel and let it do its thing. If Software Update fails (as it sometimes does), you can still download most updates from the Web (for Apple software, check out ).

One caution: software updates can introduce new problems as well as fix old ones. Web sites such as my own MacFixIt ( ) can alert you to any dangers that may lurk in a new update.

The Comatose Mac   Start-up goes fine. The real problem occurs after you put the Mac to sleep. A crash or freeze occurs when it wakes up, leaving your Mac in a state of limbo.

Solution   USB devices cause many of these wake-from-sleep crashes. Once again, the workaround is to disconnect the device before the Mac goes to sleep.

Some intermittent wake-from-sleep crashes stem from specific applications (Microsoft Internet Explorer 5 is one example). The solution here follows similar logic: make sure you've closed the problem program before letting your Mac go to sleep. If you do get one of these freezes, use a force-quit (command-option-escape) to exit the offending software and return your Mac to life (although it's still best to restart as soon thereafter as possible).

Disabling Apple's InputSprocket Extension may also prevent some of these crashes. Since you need this extension only for playing certain games, you can leave this extension permanently disabled if you're not a game player.

Finally, some wake-from-sleep crashes happen only if you have the Preserve Memory Contents On Sleep option enabled in the Energy Saver control panel of iBooks and FireWire PowerBooks. In this case, restart your Mac and press and hold down the escape key until the Happy Mac icon appears. If even this fails, you may be looking at a rare instance where only reformatting the drive can get you back in business. Happily, updating to Mac OS 9.0.4 will prevent this crash from occurring in the first place. Otherwise, make sure you never enable this option (to help out, Apple released a Sleep Memory extension that grays out the option so you cannot select it).

Apple's most recent Macs feature a host of options not found on older models. These include DVD drives, USB ports, and FireWire ports. Using these options can lead to never-before-seen error messages. Checking Apple's Tech Info Library ( ) is a good way to keep up with the latest trends in Apple error messages or troubleshooting tips in general. For now, here's a starter kit.

USB's Powerful Needs   You get a "Not enough power" message when trying to use a specific USB device.

Solution   Unlike some error messages that say one thing but mean another, you can usually believe this one. While the Mac's USB ports can give juice to USB devices that do not supply their own power, there is a limit to how much these ports can do. Surpass that limit, and you get the "Not enough power" error message. The solution is to add a self-powered USB hub, or you can remove nonessential devices, swapping them in and out with the remaining devices as needed.

USB Drivers MIA   At the end of start-up, an error message indicates that the Mac couldn't find a needed driver for a connected USB device.

Solution   USB devices require software drivers (usually installed in the Extensions folder of the System Folder) to work. If you connect a device without installing its driver, you may get an error message. The solution is to install the missing driver (it should be on a CD-ROM packaged with the device or on the company's Web site). In Mac OS 9, your computer will offer to search online for the needed driver and download and install it. Very convenient--when it works.

Luckily, Apple has improved your odds of avoiding this error. Mac OS 9 includes a generic set of built-in USB drivers. For this reason, many USB devices will work without the addition of any further soft- ware--although you may sacrifice access to some specialized features of the device, such as scrolling on a third-party mouse.

Surprisingly, in a few cases, getting rid of the device-specific driver is the key to success. For example, the Gravis GamePad comes with a driver called InputSprocket Gravis USB. But don't use this file if you want to use the GamePad with Star Wars Episode I Racer. The game will only recognize the GamePad if you don't have the extension installed.

Alessandro Levi Montalcini's $20 shareware program USB Overdrive ( ) offers another set of generic drivers. This software can often get a USB device to work even when the device's own driver fails. It has proven particularly effective in solving problems with non-Apple mice.

If none of this works, try some of the more generic solutions for an assortment of odd USB problems: unplug the device from its USB port and plug it immediately back in, or unplug the device from its USB port and plug it back into another port (for example, switch from port 1 to port 2).

DVD Hardware Errors   A message about a hardware error appears when Apple DVD Player launches.

Solution   Updating to a newer version of DVD Player should eradicate this error. For example, if you are running Mac OS 9.0.4, you should use Apple DVD Player 2.2 or later. Just remember that the Apple DVD Player application requires four extensions (DVDRuntimeLib, DVD Region Manager, DVD Navigation Manager, and DVD AutoLauncher). If you copy the application without the extensions, you'll get an error message when you try to open DVD Player. It's best to let DVD Player Installer do the updating.

Also make sure you've installed the Apple CD/DVD Driver, Foreign File Access, ISO 9660 File Access, and UDF Volume Access extensions. These belong to Mac OS, and you should already have them on your Mac unless you disabled them (for example, by installing a third-party CD driver).

The first Macs to include DVD drives (some blue-and-white Power Mac G3 models) came equipped with a hardware-based DVD decoder. These Macs should use Apple DVD Player 1.3. DVD Player 2.X is for Macs that use software-assisted decoding (these include the slot-loading iMac, the Power Mac G4, and the FireWire PowerBooks).

DVD Out-of-Sync Errors   When your Mac is playing DVD movies, the audio and video can fall out of sync, with the audio typically lag-ging behind what you are seeing on the screen.

Solution   Once again, fixing this requires that you use the latest software. In particular, update to Mac OS 9.0.4 or later, DVD Player 2.2 or later, and QuickTime 4.1.1 or later. If problems persist, turn off virtual memory before playing a movie.

DVD "Dirty" Movies   When trying to mount a DVD disc, you get this error message: "Disc may be dirty or scratched."

Solution   While the disc may indeed be dirty or scratched, it's more likely that you need to get your Mac to mount it as an ISO 9660-formatted disc (rather than DVD's UDF format). To do this, hold down command-option-I when inserting the disc. If the disc mounts but still does not play, control-click on the disc icon and select Mount As ISO 9660 from the contextual menu. Most DVDs will not need this fix. In any case, upgrading to Mac OS 9 should eliminate the problem altogether.

Some common troubleshooting techniques are equivalent to taking aspirin--no matter what is wrong with your Mac, someone will tell you to "take one of these" and hope for the best. But rather than just talk about how to do them, let's consider whether these cure-alls really live up to their billing.

Speed Things Up   Through everyday use, your hard drive can become a mess, slowing you down and creating problems. A program such as Speed Disk, part of Norton Utilities, can help put things back in order.

Check for Extension Conflicts   Does RealPlayer 7 crash every time you quit? You might need to update your copy of Kaleidoscope to version 2.3.3 or later. Does Norton AntiVirus send you alert messages for no particular reason? If so, updating to FinderPop 1.8.9 may be the answer.

Welcome to the world of extension conflicts. Those icons that scroll across the bottom of your screen at start-up represent your extensions. Too often, an extension will tell your Mac to do something that doesn't sit well with other software on your disk, resulting in a system crash, a nonfunctioning menu command, or something equally unpleasant. There are at least as many potential symptoms as extensions--and there are thousands of extensions. Given this diversity, how can you know if a problem is due to an extension, and, if it is, how do you figure out which one?

For starters, you can easily check for a potential extension conflict by starting up with Extensions off (just hold down the shift key at start-up). If the problem goes away, you have a conflict. Your job now is to figure out which extension is giving you grief. Apple's Extension Manager does not really cut it here. You'll want Casady & Greene's $80 Conflict Catcher (800/359-4920, ). Once this program has isolated the problem extension, you'll usually need to disable it. However, if two extensions conflict with each other, reversing the order in which they load at start-up may fix the problem. In any case, report the conflict to the vendor and hope for a bug-fix update (as the authors of Kaleidoscope and FinderPop have provided).

Bottom Line   This one is a keeper. Don't leave home without it.

Check for Disk Damage   One day, a file appears to have vanished from your drive. Or maybe it's there but refuses to open, citing some odd error. Eventually, you start getting frequent system crashes, culminating in your hard drive finally refusing to start up at all. Often the ultimate cause is corrupted data in a disk's directory, an invisible area of every disk containing critical information about the organization of software on your drive.

Recognizing the potential dangers here, Apple includes Disk First Aid, a Directory repair utility, as part of the system software. If Disk First Aid discovers a problem it can't fix, don't despair. Other utilities, such as Symantec's $100 Norton Utilities

(800/ 497-6180, ), Micromat's $98 TechTool Pro (800/ 829-6227, ), and Alsoft's $70 DiskWarrior (800/257-6381, ), may help.

Bottom Line   This is another keeper. In fact, you should regularly run at least one of these utilities as a preventive measure, even if no sign of trouble appears on the horizon. The only dilemma is choosing a utility to use. Disk First Aid comes free with your Mac, so start with that. For those times when it fails to work, you should have at least one alternative ready to go. Get all three if you don't mind spending the cash--there's always a chance you'll get a problem that only one of these utilities can fix.

Rebuild the Desktop   If you've ever had files lose their custom Finder icons, or if you've encountered documents that can't locate the application needed to open them, it's time to rebuild the desktop. To do so, hold down the command-option keys at start-up (until the message asking whether you want to rebuild the desktop appears), or use a utility such as Conflict Catcher or Micromat's free TechTool.

Bottom Line   You'll probably need to rebuild the desktop from time to time--especially after installing new software. But doing so is far from a cure-all. Many users survive without ever doing this at all (I've had to rebuild only once in the last year, even though I regularly work with three different Macs).

Zap the PRAM   A PRAM zap can potentially fix otherwise unexplained start-up or shutdown crashes. The PRAM is a semipermanent area of memory that holds information about the date and time, as well as customized settings for various control panels. If the PRAM data gets corrupted (which can happen after a system crash or for more-obscure reasons), start-up failures may result. A PRAM zap can fix this by restoring the PRAM to its default values, thereby trashing the corrupted data. To do a zap, hold down the command-option-P-R keys at start-up (see the Apple TIL article at for more details), or use TechTool. After a zap, you'll probably need to redo the settings in several Mac OS control panels (such as AppleTalk, Memory, and Startup Disk).

Bottom Line   A PRAM zap is worth a try when nothing else seems to be working and reformatting your disk looks like the probable next step. Don't expect miracles, though.

Defragment a Disk   Does your Mac seem atypically slow when opening applications? Are you having trouble getting digital video to play smoothly on your Mac? If so, defragmenting your drive may be the cure. Defragmenting (or optimizing) reorganizes the storage of files on your disk, ideally leading to increased performance by reducing the need for time-wasting jumps to different locations on the drive. To do so, use utilities such as the SpeedDisk component of Norton Utilities or Alsoft's $30 PlusOptimizer.

Bottom Line   If you regularly use your drive for multimedia tasks, such as recording video streams, or if you're constantly on the edge of completely filling your hard drive, defragmenting can help. Apple has even identified a rare case where a heavily fragmented disk can cause a start-up failure (see ). However, for most users, defragmenting is a waste of time. Read a good book instead.

Check for Viruses   I use my Mac upward of 10 hours a day. I have a cable connection that keeps me online 24 hours a day. Yet I have not had a virus even attempt to attack my Mac in more than seven years. I expect most Mac users can make similar claims. The Mac is also immune to most of the viruses that have been making headlines (such as Melissa and Love Bug). Still, some viruses out there can attack your Mac (such as Autostart, SevenDust, and a variety of Word and Excel macro viruses). To protect yourself, get an antivirus utility, such as Symantec's $70 Norton AntiVirus or Network Associates' $50 Virex (800/ 338-8754, ), install it, and keep it up-to-date.

Bottom Line  This is one case where the maxim "Better safe than sorry" clearly applies. You can think of antivirus utilities as an umbrella on a cloudy day. It may not even rain, and you may not need protection--but do you really want to take that risk?

If there's a silver lining in this cloud of troubleshooting, it's this: you can fix most Mac problems without having to open up your Mac or haul it in for repair. Usually, all it takes is a few minutes at your keyboard, and your Mac will be humming smoothly again. Try that with a PC.

Contributing Editor TED LANDAU is the author of the recently released fourth edition of Sad Macs, Bombs, & Other Disasters (Peachpit Press, 2000), which picks up where this article leaves off.

To solve 95 percent of the problems you will likely face, you need just 5 percent of the utilities out there. Besides the utilities covered in the main text, here are a few others that make my 5 percent list--all are Mac OS software, shareware, or freeware.

Seeing Invisible Files   Sometimes a troubleshooting technique requires that you locate and delete an invisible file. Many utilities, including Apple's Sherlock, can do this. The main difference is in the level of convenience they offer. My personal choice is SkyTag Software's $40 File Buddy ( ). It allows you to search quickly for just the file you want and then make it visible, delete it, or do whatever else you need to.

Changing Type and Creator Codes   Every file on your desktop has a file type and creator code. These help the OS determine whether a file is an application, a document, an extension, or another element, and (especially important for documents) what application created the file. To solve certain troubleshooting problems, you'll want to make changes to these codes. For my money, the easiest way to do this is with Nifty Neato Software's $20 Snitch ( ). It appears in the Finder's Get Info windows. I especially like to use it to change the code of a read-only SimpleText document to one I can copy and paste. Otherwise, Apple's free ResEdit ( ) can handle this (and can do many more things, including check for damaged files).

Checking Hardware Specs   Do you need to know what processor is in your Mac or the BootROM version of your Mac's firmware? If so, the Apple System Profiler (part of Mac OS 9) is likely all you need. If you find that it fails to provide the answer you seek, try Decision Maker's $15 TattleTech ( ) or Newer Technology's free Gauge Pro ( ).

Checking Open Processes   Solving memory-related problems often requires knowing exactly what programs you have open, how much memory they are using, where in the memory space they are located, and then quitting certain open programs. This can get tricky because often "faceless" programs (or processes) run without appearing in the Application menu. Here is where a utility such as Clarkwood Software's $20 Peek-a-Boo ( ) can help. It lists all open processes and allows you to quit any one you want.

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