Solving Problems

If you understand the general techniques you should use when troubleshooting, you will be able to handle almost all 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 in which 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 types 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.

  • Log in from your clean user account? Some problems are related to corrupted preferences and other files that are part of your user account. If you followed my recommendation to create a clean user account, log in under that account and try to complete your work.

  • 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 can be started up under Mac OS 9, restart your Mac in Mac OS 9 and get back to work. Not all Macs are capable of this, so it isn't an option for everyone.

  • Use a different Mac? If you use your Mac for important work, you should consider having a backup machine so 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, such as the Activity Monitor and the Console, 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 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:

  • Which 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. You can also view the install log as explained in the previous section to see which installers have been run recently.

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, figuring out what is happening will be much easier. The hardest problems to fix are those that occur only 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 unable to solve the problem yourself, you will be in an excellent position to ask for help.

Use the Console to save logs related to the problem and the System Profiler to create a report about your system's configuration. This will create much of the detail that will enable you or someone else to solve the problem.

Fixing Problems Yourself

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

Correcting Application Errors

Application errors usually fall into one of the following categories:

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

  • Quits? Sometimes, the application you are using suddenly quits. 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 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 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.



For version 10.3, Apple has added a crash reporter feature. When an application crashes, the crash reporter appears. At the top of this window, you can enter information about what you were doing at the time of the crash. When you have described this in as much detail as possible, you can send the information to Apple. Apple collects this information and uses it to identify problems that need to be fixed.

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/mac.gif-Esc. Select the application you want to force quit and click Force Quit. You can also use the Activity Monitor to force an application to quit?the benefit of the Activity Monitor is that you can see all the processes that are running along with their statuses. If other processes are also hung, you will be able to see them by looking at the Activity Monitor 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 do this). If the hang doesn't occur again, you know that the problem is some type 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, an update is probably available 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 an application hangs, it can be useful to capture a screenshot so 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. 469.


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 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 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 ensure 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, a likely cause is a bug and the solution is to get an update from the manufacturer.


Occassionally, an application's preferences can become corrupted, and cause problems for you. One way to eliminate this as a cause of a problem is to log on under an alternative user account. If the problem doesn't occur under that user account, the cause might be corrupted preference files. Log back into the previous user account and delete preferences related to the application that are stored in that user account's Library folder.

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 ensure 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.

    Many Unix commands can be helpful when you are trying to solve system problems, such as getting rid of files 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. 243.

  • 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.

    The best option for this is to use your clean user account to assess this. Because this account should have few or no third-party software installed, it often helps determine whether a problem is part of the system or is related to something happening under a specific user account.

    Some troubleshooting tasks are 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. 236.

  • 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. 947.

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 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 whether a device is successfully communicating with your Mac is to use the System Profiler. Use the bus type information (such as FireWire) for that device to see whether the device with which you are having trouble is listed.

If the hardware is internal, repeat the installation process to ensure 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 has an available driver and you can restart under Mac OS 9, consider restarting in Mac OS 9 and using the hardware from there until a better Mac OS X driver is available.

The hardware might simply be defective. Although this doesn't happen very often, 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 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 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 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. You should also create an alternative Mac OS X startup volume.

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 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 ensure 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.

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