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.
CPR for startup problems
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 if you’ll ever see the contents of your hard drive again—especially if you also failed to back up your drive.
If your Mac seems to start up normally but stalls at some point before the desktop appears—indication that the problem isn’t with your monitor or your power—use these guidelines for reuniting with your data. Try each step in turn until one succeeds:
Step 1: Patience Sometimes the Mac will take an unusually long time to start up. Take a deep breath, head to the kitchen, and wait awhile to see if the Mac rights itself.
Step 2: Restart Again OK, you got a cup of coffee and read the newspaper’s front page, but your Mac still hasn’t started. Try restarting one more time. Things often work better the second time around.
Step 3: Do a Safe Boot Restart and immediately hold down the shift key until the sundial icon shows up at the gray screen to initiate a safe boot. Eventually, the login screen appears with the words “Safe Boot” below the words “Mac OS X.” This means you have initiated 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 (in your Accounts system preferences pane) from loading.
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.
Step 4: Investigate Your Login Items If you’re still in trouble after a post-safe boot restart, it’s going to take some detective work to figure out what’s going on. For example, if the crash occurs after you’ve logged in to your account (and the desktop background has appeared), the most likely cause is a Login Items conflict.
To check for this, go to the Preferences folder inside the Library folder of your user folder. Locate the file named “loginwindow.plist” (not “com.apple.loginwindow.plist”). Now, make a copy of the file and store it in another location (such as your desktop).
Next, go to the Accounts system preference pane, select your account name, and click on the Login Items tab. Select the top item in the list and click the minus-sign (-) at the bottom of the Login Items window. Next, log out (Apple menu: Log Out user name) and then back in. Continue removing items one by one until the crash stops occurring. When it does, it’s a good bet that the login Item you last deleted is the culprit.
At this point, replace the active loginwindow.plist file with the copy you made. Return to the Login Items window in Accounts. Your complete list of login items should be back. Delete just the likely culprit item, log out, and log back in.
Step 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 login items have been ruled out as a cause, try using Disk Utility’s First Aid to repair the disk (see Seeking First Aid for instructions).
Step 6: Disconnect Peripherals If you’re still having problems, 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 updating the device’s driver software or firmware. (Firmware is the set of programming instructions stored on the hardware itself; it remains unchanged unless specifically modified by a firmware updater utility.) Check the company Web site for details.
Step 7: Reset PRAM Restart the Mac yet again. This time immediately hold down the Command-option-P-R keys until the Mac chimes a second time. This resets the information in the Mac’s Parameter RAM (PRAM) to its default values, which can solve certain startup problems. PRAM is a special area of RAM where data is retained even after shutting down the Mac. PRAM stores an assortment of systemwide parameters, such as time zone setting and speaker volume.
Step 8: Reinstall OS X If all else has failed, start over with a fresh installation of OS X. This is often the only cure if your symptom is a persisting blinking question mark icon at startup, which indicates that your Mac doesn’t believe there’s a valid version of OS X is installed on your drive.
Treat panic attacks
It’s an ominous sign indeed: your screen just turned a shade darker and a message appeared—in several languages—informing you that you must restart your Mac. Your Mac is suffering from kernel panic. Despite the name, there’s no need to panic if you experience it. Just follow these five steps:
Step 1: Restart First, restart your Mac as requested. Near the end of the startup, a “this application has unexpectedly quit” message will appear. Don’t worry: your Mac is merely informing you that OS X itself quit unexpectedly prior to your restart.
Step 2: Check for Updates Like program crashes, kernel panic problems often vanish after a restart. If not—and if the onset of the panic is linked to a specific program—there’s almost certainly a fatal bug in that software. Contact the maker for an updated version or for technical support.
Step 3: Ax New Hardware Have you recently added RAM or a PCI card to your Mac? Regard such additions with suspicion, especially ones that add a kernel extension with the word Driver in its name to your Mac’s /System/Library/Extensions folder. These can be potential sources of kernel panics. If you recently added a card or peripheral to your Mac, try removing it to see if that eliminates the panic.
Step 4: Try a Safe Boot If the kernel panic occurs at apparently random moments or during startup, try a safe boot. Restart and immediately hold down the shift key until the sundial icon shows up at the gray screen.
Step 5: Reinstall OS X If the safe boot succeeds but kernel panic strikes again when you boot normally, a file in the /System/Library/Extensions folder is generally the cause. The file was probably installed by a third-party program. The simplest approach here is to reinstall OS X via an Archive And Install, and then reinstall your third-party software only as needed until you find one that triggers the panic.
Find more help
This guide to OS X first aid should help you through most common crises. But if your Mac is still sickly, your next step is to check out Apple’s Support page or a general troubleshooting site, such as MacFixIt. It also never hurts to Google some relevant search terms and see what you get—sometimes you’ll find creative cures this way.
If home remedies don’t work, it’s time to call the doctor. New Macs come with 90 days of telephone support and one year of service coverage. Apple’s extended warranty— AppleCare Protection Plan—costs $149 to $349, depending on your Mac model and gives you three years of telephone support and service. Call 800-275-2273 or visit your local Apple store for help.
[Senior Contributor Ted Landau is the founder of MacFixIt and the author of Take Control of Troubleshooting Your iPhone ( TidBits Publishing, 2007).]