Be your own Genius 

This is a guest post by Joe Caiati. Joe works as an IT professional in New York City. He maintains a weblog called dot info, co-hosts the Diagnostics & Usage podcast and can be found on Twitter.

No one likes visiting the Genius Bar.

If you are going there it’s because something is wrong with your Apple product and depending on the time of day, you could be waiting for a while to see a Genius. Some wait all of that time just to ask a simple question, but others may need a repair and can be without their Mac for a couple of days or more. As a former Mac Genius (like Stephen is), I’d like to try to save you a trip to the Bar — but first you must become your own Genius.

In this article, I will be focusing on Mac troubleshooting. I think it’s worth exploring iOS troubleshooting in a future piece, but at the Genius Bar, they can ultimately replace your iPhone on the spot if it’s something involved.

Macs, however, are a different story. Apple isn’t swapping $3000 Macs if your drive fails or you’re unhappy with battery life.

When you’re tackling an issue on your Mac, there are three overall troubleshooting categories you must keep in mind. Is the issue software, hardware or environmental? It sounds very basic, but figuring out which category your problem fits into will get you far when diagnosing it.

Software

Software issues can be overwhelming to troubleshoot because there are different places in the file system where a problem can hide and narrowing that down without knowing the basics can be tough. The first question that you need to ask yourself to diagnose a software issue properly, is if the problem is user specific or operating system wide.

Before we get into software, having an external drive with a Mac OS X environment loaded is one of your greatest troubleshooting tools. This will act as your known-good operating system when diagnosing an issue and Apple has provided a guide on how to make one.

User and OS

By default, Applications are stored in the root of your drive so that all users of a computer can have access to it, but certain application preferences can be located within a specific user account’s Library folder. If you run into an issue where the problem could be in multiple directories, you must isolate the cause.

For an example, Let’s say that you are getting a not-so-very-helpful error message when using the Mail.app. It pops up on launch and after you get rid of it, it reappears shortly after. So far, you’ve removed and re-added your email account, but the error message continues to appear. What do you do?

I would start by going into System Preferences, then to Users & Groups and create a new administrator account. You can name it “test” or whatever you prefer. Then log into that test account, open the Mail.app and add your email credentials. Does the error message still pop up? If the issue is resolved, then you know to focus on your user account, if not, you can boot into a known-good operating system via an external disk to see if the same message appears there.

Once its isolated as a user or OS issue, you can explore the Apple Support Communities if you don’t know where to begin to resolve it.[1] Knowing that the Mac OS X filesystem works in a hierarchical form will give you better understanding on how to troubleshoot a software issue.

Console

What if you are getting kernel panics at random times or an app keeps crashing? The Console app — located in your Applications folder nested in the Utilities folder — can help you decipher those issues and more.

A lot of the text inside of the Console app may seem like gibberish (most of it is if you aren’t an Apple engineer), but the User Diagnostic and System Diagnostic reports in the Log List side bar can tell you a lot about why your machine is acting amiss.

For an example, if you see many log entries with the name of an app that ends with “.crash” or “.hang”, you may want to check for updates or reinstall the app. If you see a log with the word “kernel” that ends in “.panic”, the top of that log report may contain some pertinent information about what’s causing it. If it isn’t as obvious, posting the log to a support forum can help someone assist you further with your problem.

Activity Monitor

Sometimes, your machine is just running sluggish. That’s where Activity Monitor comes into play. Located in the same folder as the Console app, Activity Monitor has become more user friendly and powerful over Mac OS X’s life. Once launched, you have a couple of tab options along the top of the window to choose from. Memory is a common culprit when your machine is feeling bogged down. Click the memory tab and on the bottom left corner, look at the “Physical Memory” versus “Memory Used”. For instance, If you have 4 GBs of RAM and “Memory Used” is at 3.99 GBs, you may need to close some apps or just give your machine a reboot if it has been on for weeks.

If your fans are running wild and you don’t feel that you are doing much on your computer, the CPU tab can help you sniff out the runaway process. Just sort it by “% CPU” and you can quit or force quit the process.

With Mavericks, the Energy tab was added. It allows you to analyze battery life on your Mac and you’ll be able to easily determine if an app is draining your machine and adjust accordingly.

Saving Time

Armed with this knowledge of software troubleshooting, common issues that would take a Genius to fix in fifteen minutes after you drove there, waited to be seen and drove back can be resolved in the comfort of your own home. If you think you may be dealing with hardware issues, you may want to utilize your Apple Care at the Genius Bar, but there are still plenty of ways to resolve hardware issues at home that may not require the trip.

Hardware

Your computer isn’t turning on, it’s shutting off randomly, it isn’t booting to an operating system or it’s just beeping at you. These are just a sampling of issues you could be facing with your Mac. Why is it doing these things and what should you be looking for? There are many ways to troubleshoot hardware issues, so let’s begin with power issues.

Power

If your Mac isn’t doing anything when the power button is pressed, your limited in what you can do, but there is something. Each Intel-based Mac has a System Management Controller (SMC). The SMC controls many facets of power related tasks for your Mac including battery charging, thermal consumption, and features like App Nap. Its firmware can become corrupt at times and can cause sleep/wake issues, power issues, unexpected shut downs and more.

Resetting the SMC on your Mac can fix a lot of these problems. Apple has provided documentation to reset your SMC and aside from not completely powering on, an SMC reset can resolve quirky issues that your Mac may be having. Alternatively, If your Mac does powers on, but you aren’t getting much further, it may not have completed POST.

POST

POST, Power On Self-Test, is what leads that chime you hear on startup. It’s an indicator that the main components in order for you machine to power on are working. The basic working components needed for POST are the Main Logic Board (including processor), RAM, speakers and fans.[2] If you want an in-depth explanation of POST, this article on TUAW from 2009 still applies.

If your Mac doesn’t POST, you have some options for troubleshooting. A Mac may not chime, but instead give you are series of beeps. Apple has outlined what these beeps mean in a support article and generally it is due to an issue with your RAM. If you can get access to your RAM [3], a simple reseating of the chips may solve your issue.

Does Not Boot

If your Mac POSTs, but you can’t get into your operating system, you have even more options to try to troubleshoot the problem. Resetting your NVRAM (mistakenly still referred to as PRAM, although only non-Intel Macs had PRAM) can help fix a number of problems. Non-volatile random access memory stores speaker volume, screen resolution and startup disk selection even when your Mac is turned off. If your issue is a blinking folder with question mark on startup, your machine may not know where to boot from. Resetting the NVRAM would tell your Mac to default back to the internal drive.

Trying to boot to a know-good OS from an external drive can also help narrow down a multitude of issues regarding a failed boot up. While holding down the option key on startup, you can try to get into your external OS. If you are unable to even boot to a secondary OS, that may indicate a large component failure on your Mac, but if you can boot into an OS, you will be able use tools like Disk Utility to try to figure out what the issue is.

Another common issue I’ve seen is HFS+ corruption or a failed hard drive. In both scenarios, if you haven’t been proactive with backing up your machine, being able to boot to an external OS to try to access the file system and grab your data can be a huge life saver.

Wi-Fi

I’ve come across two very common Wi-Fi issues. One, is where it shows you are connected to a network with full bars, but you can’t browse the web. The other, is that when you connect to Wi-Fi, there is an exclamation point on the Wi-Fi icon in the menu bar.

For both issues, there are two fixes that you can try to resolve the connection problem. First, is navigating to System Preferences → Network and creating a new Location from the drop down menu. Sometimes after connecting to a number of different networks, the default Location can hold data that could prevent you from connecting to the internet.

The other fix, which is more invasive, would be deleting the files in the System Configuration folder and restarting your computer. This would get rid of any network .plists, but also removed remembered networks. You can find this folder in “/Library/Preferences/SystemConfiguration”

Environmental

Your problem may not be your Macs hardware or software and that is where it becomes an environmental issue. This is the least likely case for your problem, but I have seen it pop up from time to time.

Peripherals

Certain peripherals like Wacom tablets, external hard drives and audio and video devices can install proprietary software or kernel extensions which can cause everything from not booting and kernel panics to constant Finder crashes. A great way to isolate this is to try to boot your mac into safe mode so that you can get your operating system to a stable point. Kernel extensions live in “Library/Preferences/Extensions”, but be careful what you delete. There are pre-existing extensions there and you would only want to remove one from a third-party app that has been giving you trouble.

Stupid Magnets

As odd as it sounds, magnets have caused Mac users more grief than you’d expect — specifically, magnetic jewelry or poorly made products with the wrong magnetic strength. A spinning disk hard drive could fail close to magnets and MacBooks can spontaneously go to sleep if too close to one.

I once had a customer who’s hard drive kept failing every few weeks. It wasn’t until I noticed them leave their iPhone case on the palm rest when discussing the issue for me to ask how long they had that case and where they bought it. They said they bought it off one of those street vendors in the city and got it for 5 dollars. The poorly manufactured iPhone case had one of those flip covers and the magnets in it were too strong causing the drive to fail.

Another favorite example is a customer whose notebook would be very hot when she removed it from her laptop bag, as it was waking up and running. Sometimes, applications or files would be open that she had closed before sleeping the machine.

During our conversation, I noticed she pulled a third-party wireless mouse out of her bag to use the MacBook Pro. I asked her if she turned off the mouse before packing it and she said she wasn’t aware she could. I quickly realized that the mouse was being activated as it moved in her bag and was waking up the machine.

Environmental issues could be tricky to discover, but if you feel like you’ve exhausted all options in troubleshooting hardware and software, it’s most likely something that isn’t in your computer.

Go and Do Likewise

Now that you’ve received a crash-course in troubleshooting your Mac, my hope is that your trips to the Genius Bar will be meaningful, necessary interactions and that you’ve learned to resolve the trivial annoyances and basic issues on your own.

Remember that when you start trying to resolve an issue, think of your basic troubleshooting categories and you’ll have an easier time discovering the cause. Now go and do likewise.


  1. Tip: If you are going to be messing with .plist files, be sure to make copies of the file before modifying or deleting.  ↩

  2. Depending if it is portable, iMac or Mac Pro the components list could vary.  ↩

  3. New portable Macs have soldered RAM, but they fail less often.  ↩