This quick guide to Macintosh support issues applies to computers running running MacOS 7.x-9.x; some of it may apply to computers running MacOSX. This is also a work in progress; /msg me if you wish for additions.

First Steps

If a program suddenly quits on you, restart the machine. The whole system might lock up on you if you don't. Your first step in solving any Mac problem is to restart and see if the problem clears up. If you experience a real crash, you should shut it down entirely and wait for 10-12 seconds before restarting. If it doesn't fix things, try the next steps.

Zap the PRAM

If your system's behaving oddly or if you have a RAM disk that won't go away, zap the PRAM by holding down the Command-Option-P-R keys as you restart. This will reset everything held in persistent RAM, such as your clock settings.

Trash Your Preferences

Having trouble with a specific piece of software? Try deleting its preferences (the file will be in the Preferences folder within the System Folder) and restart. The Preferences file sometimes gets corrupted, and trashing it is a quick way to fix problems (of course, you'll have to rekey passwords and settings).

Rebuild the Desktop

Some disk utility software does this as a matter of course; if yours doesn't, it's good to rebuild your desktop if you're experiencing problems. The desktop database is a hidden file that catalogs disk content, file locations, and file icons; damage to it causes all manner of system illness. To rebuild the file, just restart the Mac while holding down the Command and Option keys. Respond appropriately to the dialog boxes you see afterward.

If these three steps don't solve your problem, read on ....

What to Do If It Won't Start Up

If your Mac is hanging in its startup sequence, first try restarting it with its extensions off; do this by restarting while holding down the Shift key. If the Mac starts up properly after this, you're most likely dealing with a nasty extension conflict.

If, after starting up without extensions, the Mac's system still turns toes up soon after you get to the desktop, it isn't the extensions -- your system software's probably gone bad. You might also have some bad sectors on your hard drive. Same thing if it still can't get through the startup sequence without crashing.

What you'll need to do now is start your Mac up from a CD -- your OS disk would work, but at this point you will want to invest in some disk utility software like TechTool Pro (more on that in the next section). Put the disk in -- either by hitting the drive's eject button or, if that doesn't work, by inserting a paper clip into the little emergency eject hole to force it open. Then, restart the computer while holding down the "C" key. This should get the computer to startup from the CD, and you should be able to run diagnostic software from here.

If the system software is corrupted, or if you don't have diagnostic software to sort it out, you should reinstall your system software. Do a "clean" install if you can -- the documentation with the software will give you instructions on this.

If reinstalling the system software doesn't clear things up, back up your data as much as you can. Next, reformat the hard drive after starting up from your system disk, reinstall your system, and reinstall all your software. This is a pain, but it can fix migraine-inducing problems.

Okay, I need to reinstall my system software ... what's the difference between the "Install" CD and the "Restore" CD?

The restore CD is a quick way of reinstalling the system and all the software your computer came with if you need to reinitialize your hard drive and start over -- it'll put the system back to how it was when you bought it. The "Install" CD lets you do installs individually, but there may be differences in the applications it will install versus what the "Restore" CD will install.

iBook Issues

I recently needed to defrag my graphite iBook's hard drive in a bad way, but it stubbornly refused to startup from my TechTool Pro CD, which made it impossible to run defrag or do much in the way of fixing problems. After much experimentation, I realized that I just had to reformat the hard drive and use the Drive Setup utility to turn the hard drive into two volumes, one a very small volume just big enough to hold the system software and TechTool Pro. The Mac treats these volumes as separate hard drives, so I can choose to restart from the small volume and run diagnostics or defrag the main volume. It would have saved me a lot of time if I'd set my iBook up like this from the beginning.

Ack! I don't have a CD-ROM Drive!

If you're using a Mac that doesn't have a hard drive, chances are it's very old, which means your system disks came on floppies. Still have 'em? Good. Pop the first one in your floppy drive and restart. If it restarts from floppy, get a friend to make floppies of your diagnostic software, then run those.

For less severe diagnostic issues: I once owned a Powerbook 5300 that lacked a CD-ROM drive, as many of the older Powerbooks do. One thing you can try with these is to create a RAM Disk (if you have enough RAM) in which you can install a basic system and your utility software. To set up a RAM Disk, open up your Memory Control Panel (look for it under Control Panels in your Apple Menu) and follow the instructions. Next, restart using the RAM Disk as your startup volume, and run your diagnostics from there. This won't work on more modern Macs, but it worked fine on my 5300.

What if it's not starting at all?

If you're hitting the power button and nothing's going on, you've got a hardware issue. Check your external cables to make sure it's nothing as simple as your keyboard cord or power cord not being plugged in firmly.

If you're hearing activity on the hard disk but nothing's appearing on screen, it could be a problem with your monitor or your video card. Find a monitor you know to be good and hook it up. If that doesn't help, either check/replace the video card yourself, or seek the aid of a Mac hardware specialist.

If you're not hearing any activity from the hard drive, unplug the Mac and open the case and make sure all the cables etc. are plugged in firmly. Make sure to wear a grounding strap to avoid further damaging your system with static. If something's loose, plug it in, close up the case, plug in the power cord, and try to restart.

If the cables seem fine, something's dead, be it the motherboard or the hard drive. At this point, if you haven't worked with hardware before, you should seek professional technical help. If you know what you're doing, try removing your hard drive and see if you can mount it in somebody else's machine (this is where it helps to have friends who own Macs). If it works, rescue as much data as you can/need to. If it doesn't work, try a new hard drive in your machine. If you can't cheaply obtain replacement parts, a new computer is in order.

Corrupted Software

Many of the programs on Mac computers, particularly Adobe products such as Photoshop and PageMaker, are extremely large and complex. With hundreds of thousands of lines of code in each one, it's easy for little errors to develop over time because of things such as electromagnetic interference and system crashes. Little errors turn to big errors, and suddenly you've got a program that malfunctions or freezes up at strange times. (Other possibilities for programs crashing/freezing are memory problems and extension conflicts; read further for more information on those).

If you have a program that was initially fine but starts seeming "crashy" and you've haven't installed new programs that could be creating an extension conflict, software corruption is the likely culprit. You'll need to re-install the program.

The system software can become corrupt over time. If you have several bad system crashes resulting in the infamous Mac bomb icon, system corruption is likely. Many experts recommend reinstalling the operating system once every six months to ensure a stable computing environment.

File corruption is more insidious. If the Mac crashes while you're trying to save a file, it is very likely that the file will be damaged. To prevent data loss and to preserve the Mac's stability, it's very important to use disk utility software such as Norton Utilities, TechTool Pro or DiskWarrior.

These programs will let you check for hard drive problems, defragment/optimize your hard drive, and will diagnose/repair some types of software corruption. They will also let you recover or irrevocably wipe data. TechTool Pro will also test your RAM, processor, and other drives and let you rebuild your directory. In my experience, Norton Utilties is your best choice if you're running MacOS 7.x or 8.x, but if you're running MacOS 9.x, you should give TechTool Pro a try.

Religiously using disk utility software will protect your computer from most software corruption, and will significantly delay your having to reinstall the system software. You should run it any time your computer freezes and you have to restart; alternately, running the diagnostics once a week and defragging your hard drive once a month should suffice.

Memory Issues

If you're new to working with Macintoshes, they handle memory a bit differently than PCs. Properly managing memory issues is crucial to keeping your system running smoothly and avoiding freezes and crashes.

Virtual Memory

If you check out your control panels, you'll see one labelled "Memory". If you open it up, you'll see options such as "Disk Cache" (which you generally won't need to mess with), "RAM Disk" (which lets you create persistent small drive out of some portion of your RAM), and "Virtual Memory".

What virtual memory does is allows your Mac to use some portion of your free hard disk space as virtual RAM. Overall, this is a pretty cool feature, but it is a double-edged sword. First, virtual memory is no substitute for real RAM, and trying to use it to increase the number of programs your computer can have open at once will lead to a crash.

For instance, if you've got an old Performa 6300 that can't hold more than 48 MB of RAM, virtual memory will let you get a lot more out of your programs, but it won't let you install MacOS9.

Also, some programs will malfunction if you have virtual memory on at all, but this is generally noted in their README files.

The moral of this story is that you should install as much memory as you can on your older Mac and have at least 128MB on your newer Mac.

Program Memory

If your Mac has plenty of RAM, freezes due to a real lack of memory are unlikely (a possible scenario is if you're running many memory-intensive programs at once and then try to run a complex filter in Photoshop).

However, it's possible a program could malfunction if it hasn't been allocated enough existing memory. If you think a program doesn't have enough memory, open up the application folder and highlight the program icon by clicking on it once. Then, hit Apple-I to bring up the info window. Click on the "Show" pulldown menu and scroll down to "Memory." Once you have done this, you will see two information boxes: "Minimum Size" and "Preferred Size". Increase the Preferred Size first, and then the Minimum Size (try increasing both by 1000 or 2000 K). This should solve any memory allocation problems.

Extension Conflicts

An extension is an accessory program that creates the proper system environment for a main program (for example, Photoshop). When Photoshop is installed, its extensions are automatically copied into the System Folder. When the Mac is re-started, the Photoshop extensions give the operating system specific instructions to modify it (extend it) so that Photoshop can run properly. However, if there are other extensions from a different program already in the System Folder and those extensions and the new Photoshop extensions give the operating system conflicting instructions, the system won't know what to do and will lock up.

So, if you have new software and the Mac hangs after startup, you likely have an extension conflict. The potential for extension conflicts is a very good reason to install only one program at a time and then restart the machine to see how it behaves. When installing new software, it is very important to read the README file that accompanies the installation software; often this file will contain information about potential system conflicts.

What do you do if you think you have an extension conflict? First, restart the machine with the extensions off; do this by holding down the Shift key during the restart (if the machine is freezing during startup, restart the machine by holding down the Control-Apple-Power keys at the same time, then hold down the Shift key after you hear the restart chord). Then, after the machines been restarted without extensions, you'll need to open up the System Folder and find the Control Panels folder. Then, you'll need to find and open the Extensions Manager panel. Double-click to open it.

Once you've launched the Extensions Manager, the checkboxes on the left indicate whether an extension is on or off. By looking for extensions associated with newly-installed software and disabling them, you should be able to resolve your extension conflict.

Typical Offenders

  • Screen savers are frequently the cause of extension conflicts.
  • FaxSTF's extensions are a force of evil, and will mess up programs such as BBEdit.
  • Adobe Type Manager is a big offender; this gets installed with Pagemaker and Acrobat, and if you have an incompatible version, it can screw up a wide variety of programs.
  • Older Microsoft products tend to create lots of extension conflicts on Macs, so be aware of this if the decision is made to install Microsoft Office on the Mac.
  • Some Firewire and USB drivers are incompatible with MP3 players such as SoundJam and iTunes.

Conflict Catcher

There is a piece of software called Conflict Catcher that works pretty well in painlessly solving extension conflicts. However, it did nothing to fix the most troubling problems I've experienced, so ultimately IMO if you use Macs, you need to get to know your Extensions Manager and learn how to use it to troubleshoot your system.

Using a UPS

If you have your computer in a place that experiences frequent power fluctuations, even subtle ones, you should be using an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) instead of a plain ol' surge protector. Using a UPS is also a good idea if your computer is running off "dirty" current -- current that may be getting electromagnetic interference from a large appliance such as a refrigerator that's running on the same household circuit.

The UPS filters your current and gives your Mac a stable, non-fluctuating power supply. Subtle fluctuations in your power can cause hangs and system crashes. I've found my UPS to be a very good investment.

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