Create a visual catalog of settings and error messages

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Today’s hint is a fairly basic one, but one that you may find quite useful when you have a system issue, need to set up a new machine, or otherwise need to remember something that happened on your current machine. For instance, maybe you need to replace the router that sits between your high-speed Internet connection and your home network. Or perhaps you’re debugging an issue with one of your e-mail accounts, and you’d like to delete it and start over. In both of these cases—and many other situations—the process is made much simpler if you have a record of the current settings for the program or device that you’re working with. In the case of the router replacement, for instance, there are probably pages of settings you’ve tweaked, all of which will need to be set again once you install the new router. In the case of the e-mail account, there are similar details for account name, passwords, SMTP server settings, and much more.

You could, of course, write all of this information down using an old-fashioned paper and pencil. Or you could type it all into your favorite text editor. But both methods are tedious compared to what I find to be the simplest solution: screenshots. As you’re probably aware, the Mac has a number of built-in screenshot options—Shift-Command-3 will capture the entire screen, Shift-Command-4 will capture a dragged region, and pressing the Space Bar after pressing Shift-Command-4 turns the region capture icon into a camera, which will capture the window behind the mouse pointer when you click the mouse button. Using these tools, it’s easy to capture screen after screen of settings—just bring up the page that displays the details you’re interested in, then capture that information using the screenshot tools. I usually use either the region-capture or window-capture methods, as I rarely need to see the entire screen.

What do you do with these screenshots after you’ve captured them, though? Sure, you could just toss them in a Finder folder, but why not take advantage of another Mac program to help with the storage of all these images? Instead of using the Finder, drop them into iPhoto, and create a special album just for such screenshots. This will keep all your setup-related screenshots together in one spot, and you can use iPhoto’s keywords to further organize them—add Finder to Finder-related screenshots, e-mail for e-mail related shots, etc.


Beyond using screenshots for recording settings, there’s another use that strikes near and dear to my heart: recording error messages. As someone who routinely serves as the tech support lead for my extended family, nothing frustrates me more than the following (simulated) exchange:

Me: So you had a problem with iMovie?
Relative: Yea, it said there was an error.
Me: What kind of error?
Relative: I’m not sure, something about the disk.
Me: Do you remember anything else about the error?
Relative: Not really. What do you think the problem might be?

Nothing like a little bit of information—literally—with which to solve a problem. So I’m slowly but surely training my relatives to use the screenshot tool whenever they see an error message. This greatly eases my tech support role, as my relatives now include a screenshot of the actual error message they received—so then I can say something like, “Ah yes, that’s iMovie telling you your hard drive is full. Time to move some of the 35,000 pictures of the grandkids to your backup drive!”

You can catalog these troubleshooting screenshots in iPhoto, too—perhaps in another album, and again, you can use keywords to further classify them. You can also use the Description field on each picture in iPhoto to store notes about the message—when it came up, and how you solved the problem (if you did). That way, over time, you’ll build up a library of error messages with notes on how to solve the problem you ran into, making it easy to solve the problem again in the future if it occurs again.

This technique can be extended for anything you’d like to remember and catalog, of course—if you can take a screenshot of it, you can catalog it using your Mac and iPhoto.

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