Troubleshoot your Mac by Eliminating What Works

You know the feeling when you go to turn your Mac on and it doesn’t work. It either doesn’t turn on, turns on but does nothing, works then locks up or just gets stuck. What do you do to figure out what is wrong with it?

How can you tell if the computer is ruined or just a little part needs to be fixed? Or, even cheaper, when re-installing the OS will fix everything.

Troubleshooting – Eliminate the problem:

Think of your Mac as a collection of parts. When some of those parts don’t work right, other parts may be affected. Also, remember that the Operating System (OS X) is also a “part”. Many times a corrupt file will cause the computer to break when physically, it’s not broken.

The first thing you need to do when troubleshooting is get as much information about the problem as you can. Don’t just start resetting the PRAM and ripping out parts willy-nilly. So, answer these questions:

– What were you doing when the problem occurred?

Opening a specific file / application, turning the computer on, etc. Computers are very linear. They work in a straight line and if something isn’t right, it will stop at that point – everytime. Of course, there’s always the intermittent problems which are a joy to troubleshoot but that is also a clue as to what it may be.

– Can you duplicate the problem or make it happen?

Once you’ve identified what you were doing when the problem occurred, do it again and see if you can cause it. Now you know exactly what you need to troubleshoot. – Everytime I do (blank), the computer does (blank).

– Did you do something recently and suddenly the problem started?

Think about what you’ve done with the computer recently, or if you share the computer – what someone else may have done. Did it happen immediately after you installed something? Dropped the laptop? Plugged something in? or most common – fiddled with settings, downloaded something or deleted some mysterious files? Backtrack your steps, one of them may be a clue. Remember, OS X updates greatly affect your system. If you just installed one and suddenly you have problems, that may be a cause.

Software or Hardware?

Now that you know something about the problem, eliminating software or hardware as the cause is a huge help. Obviously if your iMac does nothing when you push the power button, it’s hardware but other times it’s not so clear-cut.

A good rule of thumb is that if it affects a part inside the computer (display, airport, battery, keys, trackpad, etc) it may be hardware. If an application crashes all the time or the system freezes and spins, it may be software.

Don’t jump to assumptions though, follow the next step to be certain. A bad hard drive can masquerade as a software problem (it holds the software..) and sometimes drivers can fail leaving perfectly good hardware stop working.

Use the Install DVD:

The first thing you need to do is find your OS X Install DVD. If you don’t have that, your retail DVD or even borrow one from a friend. Make sure you get one for your model of machine or newer. Some Install DVDs will not work if the DVD is older than your Mac.

– Put in the Install DVD.

– Restart the computer.

– Hold down the “C” key after the chime.

Your Mac will now load from the DVD rather than the drive. If everything works fine, you know it’s either a software issue or the hard drive. If the problem still occurs, it’s likely to be a hardware (physical) issue.

Note: If it’s a problem with a specific application that isn’t part of the Install DVD, more than likely it’s a software issue specifically with that application.

If the problem stays:

When running from the Install DVD, if the problem continues, you have two options. Either call Apple Care or visit an Apple Store / Authorized Repair center, or your other option is to fix it yourself. I’d recommend going to Apple if you are uncomfortable with repairing a computer. What needs to be repaired depends on the problem, but further elimination will let you know.

Here are some common elimination steps for hardware:

Battery: Take the battery out, will the laptop run when plugged in? Put the battery in another laptop, does it charge? Put a different battery in your laptop, does it charge?

Power: Check the plug – is it plugged in? Power strip on?, Hold down the power button for a few seconds to force the computer off, then turn the computer back on. Reset the SMC.

Display: Connect the iMac / MacBook to an external display, does it show a picture? If yes, the video on the motherboard is good. If no, the Display is likely to be good (but not guaranteed) and the video on the motherboard is bad.

Airport: Check your wireless router – are other computers able to connect? Turn the Airport off and then back on. Boot from the Install DVD and see if it works. If yes, it’s a driver problem. If no, it will need a repair.

Memory: Memory problems come in two flavors – instant fail which makes the Mac beep and refuse to start up, or gradual fail which means random kernal panics. Reseat the RAM and check. Remove one chip and check. Put the chip back and remove the other chip and test.

Hard Drive: Drive problems are tough because what you’ll see is software issues caused by corrupt files. However, what caused those corrupt files could be a failing drive. Look for a large amount of quality time with the spinning beach ball indicating read failures. Slowness followed by the message “The file … could not be read of written” is another dead giveaway. Listen for unfamiliar noises coming from the drive. The flashing folder / question mark at startup means your Mac couldn’t see the drive. Try reseating it. Remember, your data is the most valuable part of your Mac – if the drive begins to fail, replace it.

If the problem goes away:

It’s likely either a software issue or a failing drive. Read the paragraph above about hard drive elimination. Then, backup your data and reinstall OS X. During the backup, if you have problems with reading the files and get a heavy amount of beachball activity, the drive is likely bad. If there’s no problems with the backup, its probably OK.

Remember, the most important part of troubleshooting is the elimination of what works. When you eliminate the good parts of the computer, you won’t be wasting your time dealing with parts of the computer that aren’t broken.

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