Beginners Start Here: A Mac troubleshooter’s toolkit

Sean McNamara
26 March, 2009
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As a Mac consultant and troubleshooter who has exposure to the Dark Side occasionally, I feel that the Mac is easier to troubleshoot and support than Windows PCs (no flames from Windows fans, please, it’s only my humble opinion). That said, Macs, like all computers, will occasionally muck up, and being prepared will make getting back up and running that much easier and quicker.

So what’s handy to have when your Mac starts to misbehave? The list below is just the start – there are things I haven’t included which others will swear by, and things others will think are superfluous. But the following items will certainly come in useful should you need to troubleshoot problems.

The first item actually is a category of items, and it’s “Redundancy”.

The most conspicuous example of redundancy for computers is a current (and, hopefully, complete) backup of your system. I’ve written about backups several times in these pages, and, although I might sound like a broken record, you should have a backup at all times. Any sort of backup is better than none. If you’re lazy like me, just be running Mac OS X v10.5 Leopard and have an external disk or Time Capsule (or a Mac OS X Server with a Time Machine share point) and make sure your machine backs up at least semi-regularly. If you want to do more work, by all means set up a different backup program or run periodical clone operations on your machine. But without a recent backup, the rest of the toolkit could end up being useless.

A fairly extreme version of redundancy which we can’t all aspire to is to have a spare machine in case your primary machine goes completely belly up or you need quick access to a machine until you get a chance to fix the problems of your primary machine. Mac minis and old laptops are great for this as they are small – laptops are especially useful because they have screen, keyboard and trackpad all built-in. Run the same OS as your primary machine, pre-install your most critical apps, have your backup handy and you’ll be able to get back to work even if your primary machine has blown up.

Hardware redundancy can also extend to having spare memory modules to swap out (if bad RAM is your problem) – if you upgrade your RAM, keep the old modules in the static protection bags and you can quickly test for and get past that problem. This sort of redundancy can also include having spare cables, spare keyboard and mouse, and even a spare modem/router. And, of course, if your internet is down, having redundant connection either through dialup, wireless broadband, or even an iPhone can help you to research networking or hardware problems when you can’t get online in the usual way.

Another handy item for our toolkit is a boot disk – the most basic version of which is the Mac OS X install disk. Useful as that is, having an external boot disk (Intel-based Macs can even boot from thumb drives) with an install of Mac OS X and some troubleshooting apps might be a shortcut to getting your Mac running again.

You can even use the hard disk of another Mac (with a compatible Mac OS X install) through FireWire Target Disk Mode as your boot disk (another reason to have a spare Mac lying around). Alternatively, if your screen is dead or you can’t usefully start your Mac but it will start in FireWire Target Disk Mode, you can mount the problem Mac’s HD on your spare Mac to perform troubleshooting (or recovery) on the hard disk.

If you can boot your Mac from another disk, which software tools are worth having? Well, Mac OS X comes with the first port of call in troubleshooting, Disk Utility’s Repair Permissions function can clear up some issues in Mac OS X, as well as perform basic disk directory repairs as well.

For hard core disk directory repairs, I tend to use DiskWarrior, which will rebuild your disk’s directory from scratch. And if it can’t write the new directory to the disk for wahetevr reason, it has a Preview Mode which allows you to grab what you can off the drive. This works especially well when booted from a hard disk (not the problem one, of course) rather than from the DiskWarrior CD, so another vote for an extra Mac or spare boot disk. If you have a favourite disk repair utility, you can use it as well, I just tend to find DiskWarrior does a great job.

From the physical tools point of view, a screwdriver set with many different size heads is a handy thing to have, and the ideal ones are those with Torx heads as well.

Lastly, remember our old friend, the humble straightened paperclip – I don’t know a Mac troubleshooter who hasn’t had to ask clients for a paperclip for ejecting disks. These days, there’s not so much need for them as disk drives don’t tend to have eject holes any more, but if you’re working with older Macs you’ll certainly want one. And if you want to swap out the SIM card in an iPhone and have lost the little tool Apple supplies for this, a straightened out paperclip will once again come to your rescue.

What’s in your toolkit? Let us know in the Forums.

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