Troubleshooting your Apple products: The last word

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Writer Chris Breen is looking at a big change and has something to say. He writes:

After decades of offering advice to Apple users in the pages of MacUser and then Macworld, I‘m making a career change and heading off to a fruit-flavored tech company sandwiched between Santa Clara and Sunnyvale. As this will be my last word from Mac 911, is there anything I can say to put this whole “Ack, my tech isn‘t working!” thing into perspective?

I’ve found these three broad principles to be the most helpful.

Don’t panic.

Puzzle it out.

Have faith.

Don’t panic

One of the dumbest brilliances I ever heard was this gem from a woman who‘d had one highball too many:

”Your odds of winning the lottery are actually 50/50. You either win, or you don’t.”

Those who’ve endured the first 15 pages of Statistics for the Inebriated might suggest that there’s a bit more to it than that, but you can‘t escape the core loveliness of the premise: It’s this or it’s that and nothing in between.

It’s a sentiment that I like so much, in fact, that I carry it with me whenever I’m faced with a hunk of misbehaving technology. I prefer to think of it this way:

It’s either broken or it isn’t. And it probably isn’t, so why not see if you can fix it?

When you accept that there’s either nothing or something you can do about the problem, it makes tackling it less stressful. If it’s busted you’re going to take it to the shop or replace it anyway. And unless you perform an entirely boneheaded operation in an attempt to correct it (and I’d suggest that introducing a Dremel into your solution counts in that regard), you can tackle the problem without making it worse.

Of course no one should work without a safety net. You’ll be far calmer if you know that you have a complete (and verified) backup of your most precious data. If a gadget has met its maker, you can always get another one (though the cost may be dear). But if something has vaporized the pictures of your daughter’s third birthday and you have no backup, you’re going to have to work up a pretty good excuse when, years later, she turns on the Margaret Keane eyes and asks “Daddy, why are there no pictures of me when I was a child? Didn’t you love me?”

verify time machine

With a verified backup in hand you have the safety net you need to troubleshoot your problems.

Puzzle it out

Each of us can be allotted several minutes of spicy language when a favorite gadget becomes unresponsive. But once you’ve thoroughly vented, it’s time to hitch up the overalls and have a good think about what might have gone wrong.

And the key here is to avoid looking into the abyss where anything could have gone wrong and you’re therefore helpless to troubleshoot and fix your problem. The truth is, it’s not anything. It’s something (or maybe a couple of somethings). And the only job you have is figuring out what that something is.

You can arrive at this answer by having a sense of how this bit of tech works, from the moment you started it to the point where The Bad Thing happened.

For instance, if your Mac or iPhone won’t start up, it’s likely you have a power issue. The Mac’s not plugged into a working outlet or an iPhone’s battery is wholly drained, for example. Investigating for minute signs of life (a quietly whirring fan, for instance) can provide more clues.

power strip

Mac won’t start? Perhaps it’s something really simple.

Or you’ve made some change—installed an operating system update or jacked in some new peripheral—and everything goes kablooey afterwards. Or this one app quits or locks up every single time you launch it. Or, good lord, your browser is so slooooooow.

Each behavior is a bit of evidence. And more often than not, you can come up with a short list of prime suspects based on the nature of the crime. If you can piece together that evidence and the likely cause, a web search can often give a clue as to where the problem lies (and what you can do about it). Sometimes a solution is as simple as undoing the last thing you’ve done, reinstalling an app, or plugging that thingamajig into a different port.

Have faith

Apple is not doing its current bang-up business simply because of its sleek designs and minty-fresh breath. People like Apple products because they famously “just work.”

Of course they don’t always (and thank heavens for that, as this column’s life would have been severely truncated if everything worked perfectly). However, the gist of this idea is that the operation of Apple’s hardware and software is predictable. Far more often than not, you perform tasks in a way that makes sense. You want to turn a page on an iPad? Swipe to the left, just as you would with a book. You’d like to zoom in on an image on your Mac? Place two fingers on the trackpad and spread them apart. You can’t close this window? Maybe there’s an active one somewhere else that has to be dealt with first.

Apple’s interface designers know their business (and honestly, I’d say this whether or not I was joining the company). When faced with a problem, meditate for a moment and try to think of the most obvious way to get out of it. Force-quitting apps is a common last-ish resort (though denying your device power of any kind is the ultimate last-ditch effort). But there are usually several steps in between—updating your operating system, downloading a more current version of an app, restarting your device, and so on.

It’s precisely because of Apple’s dedication to (mostly) consistent and intuitive design that I’ve been able to bang away on this column for these many years. I’m trained as a musician, for goodness sake. I couldn’t describe to you the precise mechanics of an integrated circuit nor program my way out of a cheesecloth sack. But the workings of Apple technology and design? That I get.

And if I can understand it, there’s no stopping you.

Former Senior Editor Christopher Breen couldn’t be more grateful for your attention these many years. You can now unfollow him on Twitter @BodyofBreen or take in his about-anything-but-tech blog at

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