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Fix My Mac: Repairing Problems with the Apple Macintosh and OS X

Updated on February 12, 2015

Common Solutions for Perplexing Problems

Mac OS X not running like it should? Need help fixing your Mac? Here, we show you what you need to know to get your Mac running like new and keep it that way.

As you can learn in my bio, I maintain a lab that I have built over the last eight years that now is comprised of about 30 Macs. There are various makes and models, spanning the gamut from the lowly "Clamshell" iBook to a high-end Mac Pro, and even an Xserve.

These computers are (ab)used daily by classes of teenagers. As such, I have had a great deal of real-life experience maintaining, repairing, and generally just caring for a wide range of Macs.

In addition, I help others on sites like Macfixit, MacNN, MacObserver, and MacWorld, answering questions in the forums. It was in one of those forums where the idea of this site was born.

Here, I have created a place where you can turn to quickly find the solutions for many of the problems you might encounter on the Mac. If the answer is not here, I will certainly point you in the direction to find the help you need.

No, the Mac is not perfect, just better than every other alternative.

Hope this helps,

Jim

First Things First: Day to Day Habits

Top Tips to Keep Your Mac in Top Form

Apple provides the following advice to its users:

1) Keep Things Up to Date

Make it a point to check for Apple software updates at least once a month (I have my computers set to check daily via the Software update preference pane in System Preferences) to keep your system running optimally. From the Apple menu, choose Software Update while your computer is connected to the Internet. Software Update will assess the Apple software on your computer and check our servers for new versions. If it finds any, the updates will appear in the Software Update window. Select the checkbox for the software you want and then click the Install button to download and install the software. You can configure Software Update to automatically check for updates either daily, weekly, or monthly.

2) Put Your Files Away

Put your files away where you can easily find them. This can help prevent accidental file deletion and help you find things much more efficiently. You can get organized by creating new folders (in the Finder, press Shift-Command-N) and arranging them into a workable hierarchy for your files at hand, or you can move your files into existing folders.

3) Name Your Files

Go through your generically-named files and folders and give them more descriptive names so you can find what you need fast. This can help you get organized and makes it easier for Spotlight to search and find what you're looking for, especially one file amongst your digital photo collection with names like DSC_0431.jpg and so on.

Note: If you use iPhoto to manage your photos, don't use the Finder to rename the files.

4) Prune Through Your Files

To reduce the amount of clutter on your hard drive, free up some disk space by archiving large, seldom used files, and be sure to name the resulting archive file appropriately, too, so you know what's in it. Delete any unnecessary or outdated personal files whenever possible and anything that you no longer want or need-just drag them all into the Trash and don't forget to empty it.

5) Back Up Your Files

To prevent losing your prized or important files, make it a point to back up on a regular basis. You can back up files onto a CD, DVD, external hard drive, iPod, iDisk, or other storage medium and then delete the copies on your hard drive to free up some space. To learn how to back up files, choose Mac Help from the Help menu in the Finder and do a search for "back up files." If you have a computer with "Leopard" (OS X version 10.5), you absolutely should purchase an external drive and set up Time Machine to handle back ups for you. Learn more about using Time Machine in the section concerning Time Machine below.

6) Clean the Outside

Dust and other debris can harm your computer's innards if you allow the stuff to build up around your workspace. Use a soft, dry, lint-free cloth, feather duster, or canned air to clean your Mac's outside as well as the surface areas around it. You can use a slightly water-dampened cloth to clean the screen. Do not use any type of liquid cleaner to clean your Mac.

7) Clean the Insides (use caution)

NOTE: Most newer Macs are closed, one-piece systems. I do not open these machines for this purpose. I use a vacuum that allows you to not only vacuum in the traditional sense, but also blows a stream of air out. Canned compressed air can provide the same effect, just be careful with it. Using this setting, with air blowing from the vacuum, I blow out-gently and from a safe distance-all the dust that collects inside the machine at least twice each year. You would be surprised at the amount of dust collected inside your Mac towers.

Staying Out of Trouble: Regularly Scheduled Maintenance Program

Perform regular tune ups on your Mac's engine

There are a number of things you can and should do to keep your Mac running smoothly. I recommend doing the following things:

1) Run Disk Utility -- Run this once a month or so. Apple's Disk Utility (ADU) allows you to do two things: repair permission and "verify" your volume. Repairing permissions is somewhat akin to voodoo, and geeks debate the merits of repairing permissions. I come down on the pro-side and suggest you repair permissions with regularity. ADU will also allow you to verify your disk, if you are running Mac OS X v. 10.5.x, otherwise known as "Leopard" or later. Here's what to do:

After launching ADU, select your hard drive in the sidebar section. Next, click Repair Permissions (don't bother with Verify Permissions). If there are permissions errors to correct, ADU will correct them. After this is done, click Verify Disk. If there are errors with the disk, you will have to boot to your install disk to repair them (more about that below).

2) Get a copy of Cocktail -- Cocktail is a free program designed to perform a host of maintenance tasks. If you buy the full version (only $14.95), you can set it to run on a schedule. I invested in the program for the "Pilot" feature and have it running the tasks I selected on a weekly schedule. Here's what I run weekly from the Pilot tab (these are just check boxes in the Pilot; no brains required ;-) :

1) I run the Daily, Weekly, and Monthy scripts. (they run Apple's built-in maintenance scripts.)

2) I clear the System, User and Internet caches. (go with the default options)

3) Repair disk permissions

4) I chose the option to have Cocktail restart my Mac when the Pilot has completed the task.

5) Press run (unless you have the full version and it runs on a schedule) and walk away.

When it is finished, you will have completed a host of custodial duties, with little to no effort and your Mac will be ready to work or play.

3) Run fsck once a month or so. fsck is an acronym that is short for File System Check. I will discuss this in more depth in the section below. While it is a good preventative maintenance procedure, it is also a handy repair utility, so I will discuss it in that section. (Note: scroll about halfway down the page linked for fsck above to see the specific instructions for running fsck.)

4)Run DiskWarrior if you have a copy. I hesitate to put this here because DiskWarrior is a $100 program and most of you will not have it. For now, suffice it to say, if you have it (and you should, 'cause one day you are going to need it), I suggest you run it monthly. I will discuss DiskWarrior further along with fsck a section below. If you'd like to get a copy, here's a link:

DiskWarrior 4.0

OK, So You've Got a Problem...

What to do when things just aren't right.

Like I said, not every Mac runs perfectly all the time. Occasionally, we Mac-users run into problems. In this section, I will describe the first steps I go through to try to correct general problems.

1) Restart the Computer -- Sounds too easy doesn't it, but often this simple act will get things back on track. Because Macs are so reliable, in general, we rarely have the need to actually shut down our computers anymore, so we don't. And, really, we don't have to very often. But... there is a certain magic that happens with a complete shut down, pausing patiently for 5 or 10 seconds, and then restarting your Mac. Try it.

If the problem persists past a restart, then I move on to the two things I alluded to above: fsck and DiskWarrior.

2) Try running fsck -- Again, fsck stands for File System Check and the directions are at the link I just provided about halfway down the page. Since the instructions are available, I will speak about what it is and what you will experience here.

fsck is a command-line utility that can verify and repair your Mac software. It is a bit "weird" for Mac users in that you actually don't log into your desktop. If you follow the instructions (see link above) properly, your Mac's monitor will turn black and have a bunch of white writing on it (similar to the way Windows normally boots up). You type what for most users will be a strange string of characters:

sbin/fsck -fy

This will tell your Mac to perform the filesystem check and make all necessary repairs.

NOTE: If it makes any repairs, you will be notified in all caps that the ******FILE SYSTEM WAS MODIFIED****** If you see that noted, you must run fsck again until you not longer see that notice. When you are notified that "The volume appears to be OK," you will type reboot and press return. Your Mac will boot normally, and -- hopefully -- your problem will be solved.

4) Boot from the Mac's Install DVD -- The DVD contains a copy of Apple's Disk Utility (ADU -- yes, the same one mentioned above). Here's what you do:

1) Choose your native language at the first screen.

2) Select Disk Utility from the menu bar. This will take you to the Disk Utility screen.

3) Select your hard drive from the sidebar.

4) Click on the First Aid tab.

5) Click Repair Disk.

This will make any repair that it can. If there are errors it cannot correct, it will notify you of that. If that is the case, the next step is #4.

4) Run DiskWarrior -- If none of the procedures above solves the problem, I generally next turn to Alsoft's DiskWarrior. I can't tell you how many times DiskWarrior has "saved my bacon," as they say. It is simply THE Mac OS X utility to own. There are others (TechTool Pro and Drive Genius) that offer help, but if I am only buying one utility it will be DiskWarrior.

To run DiskWarrior, you have to boot your computer from the DiskWarrior disk:

1) Insert the disk in the the drive, and restart the computer.

2) Hold down the letter C on the keyboard. This tells the computer to start from the optical drive.

3) Continue holding C until you see the gray screen with the Apple logo and the spinning gear starts spinning in the lower center of the screen.

4) It will take a while for the computer to boot; several minutes is not unusual.

5) Click agree when prompted and wait a bit longer.

6) When prompted, click the Rebuild button.

7) When prompted, click replace.

8) When that is complete, quit and restart.

If the errors are not beyond it, DiskWarrior will have corrected errors and optimized your drive. Life should return to normal. If the problems are beyond DiskWarrior's capabilities, well... you are in trouble. You may have to reinstall the operating system (more about that below).

Who to Turn To for More Help

There are great sites to help you help yourself.

So, things aren't working like they should and you've tried all the things above. What's next? Well,there are a number of other sources of help. Here are links to the places I turn to for help:

MacFixIt -- The name says it all. This is my first stop for any serious question/issue. Ask your questions in the forum.

Apple Support Apple's Discussion forum is another place that will serve you well.

The following forums are also good places to turn for help:

MacWorld Forums

MacNN Forums

Last Ditch Effort: Reinstalling OS X

When nothing else works, try a reinstalling the operating system.

OK, so you've tried everything else and haven't been able to solve your problem? It may be time for a reinstall.

When you reinstall the operating system, depending on your settings, you are taking the computer back to a fresh set of system files. Fortunately, Apple makes reinstalling the OS a relatively simple thing; however, there are some things to be aware of.

You can choose to 1)completely erase the computer (will will erase EVERYTHING, including your personal documents and files), or 2) simply reinstall the system files, leaving everything else intact.

My friends at MacFixIt have written an excellent how-to reinstall Mac OS X. If you feel this is what you need to do, this is what you need to read:

Reinstalling OS X

The Blinking Question Mark

See a blinking question mark when you try to boot your Mac?

Sometimes when Mac users restart their computers, we are faced with a blinking question mark. What does this mean?

Well, the blinking question mark on boot implies that your Mac does not know where to find the "System Folder" -- this is the folder where you system files are kept.

This could cause no problems at all (if it just shows briefly and then starts up normally) or be a bad sign.

If your computer will not start, you have some real issues to deal with. If the blinking question mark shows only briefly, you just need to set the system folder as the Startup Disk in your system preferences.

Apple has written a thorough support article which will help you work through your issues. You will find that article here:

The Blinking Question Mark

Time for a New Mac?

Eventually, it is time to consider a new Mac. Here's what I recommend:

Below, I have listed my recommendations. The models chosen are not necessarily the least expensive models at each level, but rather the ones I feel offer you the best value.

While I know price is a factor for many, my experience has shown me that just because you pay less you are not necessarily getting a better deal.

The models we recommend below are models we believe offer you the most value for your purchase.

The consumer models listed in the section below are the models typically chosen by the average home user. They are all good machines for the market each serves. There are three options: two desktops and a laptop.

1) The Mac Mini: a great little machine! I have two of them in my labs and they are rock solid. This is a great option for the buyer who already has a mouse, keyboard and monitor, and is looking to spend as little as possible.

2) The iMac: In my opinion, a better value than the Mac Mini, though it costs a little more. I have eight of them: 6 in my labs and two at home. While the mini, allows you to spend less, the iMac is really not that much more and includes a monitor and all peripherals. It receives my highest recommendation for those looking for a desktop machine. If I were buying desktop for an average home user, this would be the one.

3) The Macbook: Take everything I just wrote about the iMac and put it here, substituting laptop for desktop. If I were buying laptop for an average home user, this would be the one. (Note: they also come in a beautiful matte black for an extra $150.)

Now on to the Pro models. These models are for "power users": people who need the power these machines provide. These are also the machines you want if you simply want the most powerful Apple machines available. If you intend to spend most of your computing time editing photos or video, these are the models for you.

4) The Macbook Pro: This is a very powerful laptop. It is the computer I am typing this on and the one I use for hours most days. I love it. Whether I need to run Windows for certain school-related tasks, composite photos for the yearbook, edit a video project, or author a professional quality DVD, this is the machine I am likely using.

5) The Mac Pro: The ultimate Mac. It can do anything you want. This is the machine sitting on my desk at work. Orders of magnitude better than every other Mac. If you want the most powerful computer you can buy this is the model for you.

Finally, the Macbook Air. In my opinion, this is a niche product. It is an incredible design: very thin and elegant. However to achieve this feat, Apple chose to leave out a built in CD/DVD player and Firewire ports, and includes only one USB port. In a sense, it is a crippled machine with these omissions, however, what is achieved is a very light, very thin machine. Here is my recommendation:

6) MacBook Air: It is a machine I only recommend to a certain subset of users: the traveler. If you are someone who lives on the road a would like the option of an ultralight laptop (3 lbs) and are willing to give up a few standard (but important) features (firewire and built-in optical drive to start), then this is for you. Otherwise, look to the Macbook or MBPro.

Is it Time?

Find the New Mac That's Right for You

Above you've read our recommendations, now it is time to find the model that's right for you.

Apple Computers

Reader Feedback - Let me know what else you would like me to cover here.

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    • Viss profile image

      Vishal Chaudhary 3 years ago from New Delhi, India

      May be you can include Stellar Volume Repair as an alternative disk repair software for Mac OS X. It comes handy when disk utility fails to repair corruption on Mac disk. People are aware of Disk Warrior and no doubt it is a great tool but this tool is around for some 2 years time. Ultimately it helps Mac user salvage the Macintosh HD. Here is an honest review of the software - http://essentialmac.co.uk/app-of-the-day-aotd/stel...

    • profile image

      laurakhadijah-ali 5 years ago

      hi my imac has and y icon across the screen wht to do to repair it

    • MJ Martin profile image

      MJ Martin aka Ruby H Rose 5 years ago from Washington State

      I love my macs, thanks for some great reminders on how to keep them running in tip top shape.

    • profile image

      RoyGrundy22 5 years ago

      @RoyGrundy22: I forgot to add my screensize is 20 inch

    • profile image

      RoyGrundy22 5 years ago

      I am about to buy a Mac Pro and want to know if I can hook it up to my G5 PowerMac 8,2 to use the larger screen without compromising the Pro. If yes what do I need?

    • profile image

      carlaganell 5 years ago

      My mac OS X just sits with the beginning screen saying Mac OS X I can hear it running but it will not do anything else and the bar that shows it loading is empty. I inserted a disc and it will not even eject it? Can you help me with this?

    • Ted Bergman profile image

      Ted Bergman 5 years ago

      Thanks for all your effort and expertise. I'm tech challenged and this site is a real treasure to be bookmarked. I have an iMac & just bought a MacBook Pro. - Again, thanks a lot, teach.

    • OrlandoTipster profile image

      OrlandoTipster 5 years ago

      Thanks for the pointers.

      Going through the apple support on their website is always hit or miss.

      I have better luck with you tube videos uploaded by other mac users.

    • profile image

      brkaczmarek 5 years ago

      My Macbook was given to me by dear friends who upgraded to MacBook Pro, but I don't know my password, and so I've never been able to get any Apple Updates or install software. I recently saw the Spinning Rainbow Circle of Death a few times in a row, and the final time lasted over an hour. I held down the on/off switch to force shutdown, waited fifteen seconds, and pressed it again. Now there is only a solid white screen. Nothing else. What does the white screen mean? (No question mark on it.) Is my Mac toast? Dare I hope there is an easy solution?

    • profile image

      tompatricka 6 years ago

      Last time Mac mini hard drive upgrade to 1 TB gave me huge opprutunities to work upon plenty of data. My video editing software does carry in huge files size which made me upgrade it with 1TB. But again over period of 10 months I needed to do cleaning of the OS X because the slight sluggishness was intolerable to me. I know the tips would be helpful like the first time when I implemented but considering this environment I decided to spend up 30 dollars approx to own a stellar speed up mac tool. Hard drive seems to be in good shape than before. I had a regular check up software installed too on my mac to regularize the disk health status. I do not like to spend money on unncessary software but to keep a mac healthy I make no compromise. Choosing wisely is what matters at the end.

    • profile image

      tompatricka 6 years ago

      Last time Mac mini hard drive upgrade to 1 TB gave me huge opportunities to work upon plenty of data. My video editing software does carry in huge files size which made me upgrade it with 1TB. But again over period of 10 months I needed to do cleaning of the OS X because the slight sluggishness was intolerable to me. I know the tips would be helpful like the first time when I implemented but considering this environment I decided to spend up 30 dollars approx to own a stellar speed up mac tool. Hard drive seems to be in good shape than before. I had a regular check up software installed too on my mac to regularize the disk health status. I do not like to spend money on unnecessary software but to keep a mac healthy I make no compromise. Choosing wisely is what matters at the end.

    • themacman profile image
      Author

      themacman 6 years ago

      @MrsRuHa: That's tough to diagnose. I would suggest taking it in to that Apple store if you have one nearby. They're pretty good at helping. I know that they have recently changed the way they handle JAVA due to some inherent security issues with it. Make sure you've run all your updates, also. Good luck...

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 6 years ago from New Zealand

      I have just brought a new Mac. Have always had windows, so still learning. My biggest problem is trying to resize photos for Squidoo intro. You have great lens here, I have bookmarked it and joined Macworld forum. Thank you for sharing your information with us. Blessed.

    • profile image

      MrsRuHa 6 years ago

      Hi,

      I'm new here. I own an iMac that my husband & I bought new in 2007. We recently upgraded to Snow Leopard & seemed to be pretty happy with it.

      I play a lot of different games at Pogo.com & they have been changing some of their games over to flash from java. I have never had any problems before, but lately I have been experiencing my computer freezing or locking up. I have tried to use the shortcut keys to force it to stop, but they don't work & I end up having to just press the power button to shut it off, then again to restart it.

      I don't know if it's the flash player or what. I have been reading issues similar to other people at Apple support & have gone thru every suggestion but nothing they have offered is my problem. No malware, plenty of RAM, plenty of disk space still available.

      And this morning, my hubby told me that he couldn't get the iMac to turn on! THAT got me outta bed in a hurry! I came & sat down at my desk, pressed the power button & it came right on. Could there be some underlying problem here or what? Any suggestions would be helpful.

      Thank you.

    • jeffersonline profile image

      jeffersonline 6 years ago

      Nice to visit a Mac lens that truly wants to help, rather than sell something. Thanks for putting this lens together for all of us - it is a blessed lens.

    • MJ Martin profile image

      MJ Martin aka Ruby H Rose 6 years ago from Washington State

      This is an awesome lens. I forget to run my disk utility. Thanks for other things to help out my macs too.

    • profile image

      jasonlrodriguez6 6 years ago

      Even using a Mac book takes me some time, what more if repairing some problems with it, Mac are not so very user friendly, not like windows, but they are very efficient and very stable, but hey, nobody's perfect, sometimes, mac also hang's up or had a problem, usually, those online computer support tends to fix the problem and of course, because they are all experts in their field.

    • profile image

      tompatricka 6 years ago

      @tompatricka: As a result, I did noticed change for good in the system with improved and increased performance and speed. (Oops, a funny spelling mistake)

    • profile image

      astana 6 years ago

      My macbook air fell down from my hands, now it caused some problems which often loses all informations and i'm obliged to reinstall operator system. but the important thing that if i turned off system,so it doesn't turns on again. and if i keep it turn on it works normally not as good as past times.please write something to me if you know about this problem.

    • profile image

      tompatricka 6 years ago

      I am going to upgrade my Mac to Lion from Snow Leopard and I am happy about it. And to make sure I can fix any error in my Mac I will take care of the steps which you suggested. However, recently I fixed some issues in my Mac mini. Few months earlier my Mac mini didn't used to perform like it should be. I was wondering the cause and trying to reach at a solution. The system freezing became more frequent and I was worried for my HDD. Although, I got to know I have to do something to speed up Mac mini. I used disk-utility and a clean up software to free my disc. As a result, I didn't noticed change for good in the system with improved and increased performance and speed.

      Did anyone else faced this problem?

    • profile image

      TravelingRae 6 years ago

      Great lens! I'm going to get Cocktail. I recently switched from an iMac to a Macbook Pro. I've noticed that it gets very hot and the fan runs at length (at first, I thought it was the processor). Is there anyway to manually regulate the fan so that I can get it to start before the MBP overheats?

    • wizardgold lm profile image

      wizardgold lm 7 years ago

      I have a iMac that is messed up right now - the display is not working. Had a new graphics card six months ago and now this. Think I will be buying a new one rather than spending money on this.

    • jeffersonline profile image

      jeffersonline 7 years ago

      Good stuff for Mac Newbies. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • themacman profile image
      Author

      themacman 9 years ago

      [in reply to bry] The first thing I would try is to download the latest driver from HP for your all-in-one. I believe this is the link you need to find the right one: http://h10025.www1.hp.com/ewfrf/wc/softwareList?os...

    • bry lm profile image

      bry lm 9 years ago

      Ever since I got Leopard on my mini it no longer prints in color on my hp 7310 all in one. HP can't help and neither can Apple what is up with that? Any ideas? Great lense by the way. :)

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