Solving Problems

If you understand the general techniques you should use when troubleshooting, you will be able to handle almost all of the problems you are likely to encounter. Having a good understanding of what you need to do will also make you more confident, which in turn will help you be more effective.

The general process of solving problems can be broken down into four phases, which are the following:

  1. Implementing a workaround

  2. Understanding and describing your problem

  3. Fixing problems yourself

  4. Getting help

You should work through these phases in the order that they are listed. Doing so will help you solve your problem as efficiently as possible.

Implementing a Workaround

One of the tough things about troubleshooting is that you usually have to do it at an inconvenient time?for example, in the middle of a big project. At times like these, you are likely to feel stress, which can lead to frustration, which in turn often leads to hasty actions. Haste will often drive you down the wrong path.

Effective troubleshooting requires a cool head. The best approach when you are working under a deadline is to find a quick workaround for the problem that will enable you to complete the job you need to get done immediately. Then you can come back and really fix the problem later when you are more in a "troubleshooting" frame of mind.

There are many kinds of workarounds you might be able to implement to get you working well enough to meet your immediate needs. Some examples are the following:

  • Use a different application to complete the project If your trouble is with a specific application, use an alternative one to get the project done.

  • Restart from an alternative startup volume If the problem is related to the system itself, use one of your alternative startup volumes until you have time to fix your current one.

  • Restart in Mac OS 9 If the application you need is available under Mac OS 9 and you have a Mac that was produced before January 2003, restart your Mac in Mac OS 9 and get back to work. If your Mac was released after January 2003, this won't be an option for you.

  • Use a different Mac If you use your Mac for important work, you should consider having a backup machine so that you can switch to it in times of trouble.

Understanding and Describing Your Problem

When you start to troubleshoot, the most important thing you can do is to understand your problem in as much detail as possible. This understanding will enable you to know what you need to do to correct the problem. As you gain insight into your problem, you should be able to describe it in detail; this will help you get help from others if you are not able to solve the problem yourself.

Use the assessment tools that you learned about earlier in this chapter to help you understand what is happening.

Putting the Problem in Context

Many problems are triggered by something you do (this doesn't mean that you cause the problem, but that some action you take initiates the problem). When a problem happens, think about what you were doing immediately before the problem occurred. Following are some questions you need to answer:

  • What applications and processes were running (not only the particular one with which you were working)?

  • What, specifically, were you trying to do (print, save, format, and so on)?

  • Have you made any changes to the computer recently (installed software, changed settings, and so on)?


If you create a system change log as was suggested earlier, answering the last question in the previous list will be much easier. Remember to use the Software Update logs to track changes to your Apple software, including those made to the OS itself.

The answers to these questions provide significant clues to help you figure out what is triggering the problem. Identifying the trigger goes a long way toward identifying the cause.

Trying to Repeat the Problem

When a problem occurs, you should recover the best you can, and then try to make the problem happen again. Try to re-create everything that was happening when the problem first appeared.


Obviously, you shouldn't intentionally re-create a problem in such a way that you will lose data. Make sure that your data is safe by having a good backup before you do much troubleshooting.

If you can replicate the problem, it will be much easier to figure out what is happening. The hardest problems to fix are those that only occur occasionally or intermittently.

Describing the Problem in Detail

After you have developed an understanding of how and when the problem is happening, write down a description of the problem. Be as detailed as you can. This description will help you decide on the best course of action, and if you are not able to solve the problem yourself, you will be in an excellent position to ask for help.

Fixing Problems Yourself

After you have described your problem, you should have some idea of where it lies. There are four general areas in which you will experience problems: applications, system, hardware, or during startup.

Correcting Application Errors

Application errors usually fall into one of the following kinds:

  • Hangs Sometimes application errors will cause your application to hang. Fortunately, because Mac OS X has protected memory, a hung application will usually only affect the application itself and your other applications will continue to work normally. You are likely to lose unsaved data in the hung application, but at least your losses will be limited to a single application.

  • Quits Sometimes, the application you are using will suddenly quit. You might or might not get an error message saying something like, "The application has unexpectedly quit because of an error." When this happens, you lose all the changes you made to the open document since the last time you saved it.

  • Won't do what it is supposed to do Many times, errors will occur that prevent you from doing what you want to do?whether using a particular function of the software, printing, saving files, and so on.


When you see an error alert that provides an error id number, you should make a note of it. Although the number is not likely to be meaningful to you unless you have seen it before, it might be very meaningful to someone else when you ask for help.

Obviously, application problems are usually unpredictable. And when they happen, there isn't usually much you can do to recover your unsaved data (if you are saving frequently, you will limit your losses when the inevitable does happen). With an application problem, your real task is to figure out how to prevent future occurrences of the problem.


Some applications, such as Microsoft Office, have a recover feature that attempts to recover documents on which you were working when the application crashed or hung. This sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. However, you should take a look at recovered documents when you restart the application to see how much of your work you can restore.

Typically, there are many things you can try to correct an application error. Following are the general tasks you should attempt to get the application working properly again.

Hung Application

When an application is hung, your only option is to force it to quit. You can do this by bringing up the Force Quit Applications window by pressing Option+graphics/symbol.gif+Esc. Select the application that you want to force quit and click Force Quit. You can also use the Process Viewer to force an application to quit?the benefit of the Process Viewer is that you can see all the processes that are running along with their status. If other processes are also hung, you will be able to see them by looking at the Process Viewer window. This can provide important clues as to the source of the problem (where two or three hung processes are gathered, there is likely a problem in their midst).

After you unhang the application, try to replicate the conditions under which it hung. If the problem is repeatable, it is either a bug in the application or a conflict with another part of the system.

Try running the application by itself while re-creating the situation in which the problem occurred (use your problem description to be able to do this). If the hang doesn't occur again, you know that the problem is some sort of conflict with another part of your system?be aware that this is much less likely to occur under Mac OS X than with previous versions of the OS.

If the hang is repeatable, the most likely solution is to install an update to the application. Visit the support area of the manufacturer's Web page to see whether the problem you have is a known one. If so, there is probably an update to correct it. If not, report the problem to tech support to see what the application's manufacturer recommends.


When an error dialog box appears or when an application hangs, it can be useful to capture a screenshot so that you can reproduce it later when you are writing down the description of your problem. In the case of a hung application, capturing a screenshot can help you re-create at least a screen's worth of data if you lose it all. Sometimes this can be helpful (such as for a table of data). To capture a screenshot, use the Grab application or download and use the much more capable Snapz Pro X.

To learn how to capture screenshots, see "Capturing Screen Images with Grab," p. 424.


When an application unexpectedly quits, you should do the same tasks as when it hangs?except that you don't need to force it to quit because it already has. The solution to most quits is to get an updated version of the application from the manufacturer.


Applications under Mac OS X are like applications under other versions?they don't always work as they should and will sometimes crash or hang, in which case you will lose any changes you have made since you last saved your document. Make it a practice to save your documents frequently; make sure you take advantage of auto-save features to automate this task, such as in Microsoft Office applications. You can also use automation tools, such as QuicKeys, to save any documents at regular intervals.

Unexpected Behavior

If the application isn't working as you expect it to, the most likely causes are that the application has a bug or that you aren't using it in the way it was intended.

Eliminate the second possibility first. Check the application's documentation, help, or readme files to make sure that you are doing the task in the way the manufacturer intends. If you ask for help for something that is covered in the application's documentation, the responses you get might be embarrassing or unpleasant.

If you seem to be using the application properly, the likely cause is a bug and the solution is to get an update from the manufacturer.


If the problem you have is related to a Classic application, you should try running the application under Mac OS 9 (if your Mac was released after January 2003, this isn't an option for you) rather than in the Classic environment. If the problem doesn't occur under Mac OS 9, you know it is something related to the Classic environment. When this is true, you will need to either live with the problem or run the application under Mac OS 9 until the manufacturer releases a Carbonized or Cocoa version. Some manufacturers have released updates to make their applications work better in the Classic environment, but many won't do so.

Correcting System Errors

System errors can be tougher to solve because they are usually harder to isolate. Your goal should be to isolate the problem as much as you can. If you have carefully investigated and described your problem, you should have some idea where it originates.

Your first step should be to make sure that your system software is current?use the Software Update tool to check this.

The following list provides some general things to try for various sorts of system errors:

  • If the problem seems to be related to a disk, run the Disk Utility or other disk maintenance application to correct it. The problem might be related to the disk being too full, so check that as well.

    There are many Unix commands that can be helpful when you are trying to solve system problems, such as getting rid of files that you can't delete in the normal way, and working with directories.

    To learn how to use some basic Unix commands, see Chapter 9, "Unix: Working with the Command Line," p. 213.

  • If the problem seems to be related to a specific user account, try repeating the same action under a different account. If the problem goes away, you know that something is wrong in the user account configuration.

    Some troubleshooting tasks will be possible only when you are logged in to your Mac as root. Logging in as Root can be dangerous, so you should know what you are doing before you try any action under the root account.

    To learn about logging in as root, see "Logging In As Root," p. 206. (Chapter 8)

  • If the problem is more general, you might have to reinstall the system or specific components of it.

    For help maintaining and installing the OS, see Appendix A, "Installing and Maintaining Mac OS X," p. 835.


Consider creating a "test" user account for those times when you are troubleshooting problems. Keep this account relatively clean, meaning that you should leave this account configured in the default state as much as possible. You can use this account to isolate problems that are caused by some aspect of a user account configuration.

Correcting Hardware Errors

Hardware problems are almost always caused by one of the following two conditions: improperly installed hardware or problematic drivers.

Eliminate the first cause by reviewing the steps you took to install the hardware. Check out the instructions that came with the device to make sure that you are following the manufacturer's recommendations.

If the hardware is an external device, check the cable you used to connect it; if you have another cable, try that. If the device is connected to a hub, reconnect it to a port on the Mac itself.


A good way to check to see whether a device is successfully communicating with your Mac is to use the Apple System Profiler. Use the Devices and Volumes tab to see whether the device with which you are having trouble is listed.

If the hardware is internal, repeat the installation process to make sure that it is correct.

The most likely cause of hardware problems is a faulty or buggy driver. Your only solution to this problem is to get an updated driver from the manufacturer. Visit the manufacturer's Web site for help.


Many devices have a Mac OS 9 driver available. If the device you are using does and your Mac was produced before January 2003, consider restarting in Mac OS 9 and using the hardware from there until a better Mac OS X driver is available.

It is also possible that the hardware is simply defective. Although this doesn't happen very much, it can occur. If none of the other solutions works, you might be left with this possibility, in which case all you can do is to exchange the unit for a different one or repair it.

Solving the Startup Problem

One of the worst problems you can have is when your Mac won't start. This can be caused by many things, including software conflicts, buggy software, disk problems, failed hardware, or a combination of all of these. Instead of loading the system, the machine just sits there and flashes a broken folder icon, meaning that your Mac can't find a suitable System Folder to use to start up the machine. (If the system doesn't try to start up at all, but you just hear the chimes of death, that means you definitely have a hardware problem.)


If you create and maintain at least one other valid startup volume, running Mac OS 9.2 (Macs made before January 2003) or Mac OS X, you should be able to use that to start up in most cases. Although you won't be able to solve Mac OS X problems when you are booted up in the Mac OS 9 environment, you can at least get to work. And you should also be able to access the Internet to get help with the problem. If you have Mac OS X and Mac OS 9 installed on the same volume, a problem with that volume might prevent you from starting up in either system. That is one reason it is better to have the versions of the OS installed on separate volumes.

In this case, start up from an alternative startup volume, such as a CD-ROM. Most likely, you will have to reinstall the OS on the volume that you can't use to start up to correct the problem. However, before you do that, try running the Disk Utility on the disk containing Mac OS X to make sure that it isn't a disk problem.


If you have a backup of your entire system when it was working properly, you can restore that version instead of reinstalling a new one. The advantage of this is that you won't have to reinstall your third-party software.

Getting Help with Your Problem

Unless you can instantly see how to solve your problem or one of your tools takes care of it, the odds are that you will need to get help. There are plenty of sources for troubleshooting help, including the following:

  • Manuals and online help

  • Technical support from the manufacturer

  • Web sites

  • Newsgroups

  • Magazines

  • Troubleshooting software

  • Mailing lists

  • Co-workers and other people you know personally

When asking for help from people?regardless of the means you use, such as the telephone or e-mail?be sure that you keep the following in mind:

  • Use basic manners You have no call to be rude to people who are trying to help you, even if they happen to work for the manufacturer of the software or hardware that is giving you trouble. Besides being the right thing to do, using good manners will probably get you better help. Manners are equally important when making requests via e-mail or other online sources. "Please" and "thank you" go a long way toward encouraging people to be willing to help you. Sometimes this basic rule can be hard to remember when you are stressed out about a problem.

  • Give accurate, specific, and complete information Use the work you did earlier to provide a complete description of your problem. Unless you give the person who is trying to help you a good idea of what is really going on, that person is unlikely to be able to help.

  • Don't wear out your welcome with someone who is only trying to help You need to be careful not to impose on people who are trying to help you only out of the goodness of their hearts. If you are asking a friend, co-worker, or even a complete stranger to help you with a problem, use their time efficiently. Be prepared to describe your situation. Be specific. And if the person can't help you after a reasonable amount of time, go to someone else. It is not fair to ask a "volunteer" to spend large amounts of time trying to solve your problems. You can usually tell if someone is willing and able to help you quite quickly. If you sense that you are butting up against a dead-end, bow out gracefully and try another path.

Getting Help More Effectively

An ineffective request for help goes something like this, "I was printing and Word quit. Help!" This kind of question?which happens more than you might imagine?is just about impossible to answer.

A more effective question might be something like this: "I am using a 500MHz Power Mac G4 running Mac OS X version 10.2.2 that is connected to an Epson 740i. While I was trying to print from Microsoft Word for Mac OS X version 1.1, Word unexpectedly quit. I didn't get any sort of error message. I am able to print from other Mac OS X applications, and I have installed the latest printer drivers. Do you have any suggestions that might help?"

Table 28.1 lists some specific sources of online help with Mac OS X issues.

Table 28.1. Sources of General Help for Problems
Source Contact Information Comments
MacFixIt This is the ultimate source of information related to problem solving and should be your first stop whe ever you need help. You can get help on literally every aspect of using a Mac. Most of the information comes from Mac users, and you can ask specific questions although the answer to your question is probably already available. You can get access to current information free; however, you must pay to access older information maintained in an exhaustive set of archives. The fee is quite reasonable for the quality of the information to which you have access.
Apple Apple's support pages are also great sources of information about problems, and you can also download updates to system and other software. Check out the Tech Info Library to search for specific problems. You can also read manuals and have discussions about problems.
MacInTouch This site offers lots of Mac news that can help you solve problems, especially if those problems are solved by a software update of which you are unaware.
MacCentral Another source of Mac news. Be aware that some of this "news" is press releases from various companies. However, you sometimes learn useful information from press or marketing information.
The Mac Resource Page More Mac news and information.
Version Tracker You can quickly find out whether updates have been released for applications with which you are having trouble.
Mac OS X for Users list Mailing lists discussing many aspects of Mac OS X, especially solving problems. You can ask questions or lurk to get help with your problems. Visit the FAQ at the URL listed in this table; you can subscribe to the list from this location. Several Apple employees are active on this mailing list, so you sometimes get to read information directly from the source.
Me You can e-mail me to ask for help, and I will do my best to provide a solution for you or at least to point you to a more helpful source if I can't help you directly.

    Part I: Mac OS X: Exploring the Core
    Part III: Mac OS X: Living the Digital Lifestyle