Mac troubleshooting for beginners

Mac troubleshooting for beginners
Quick Mac Tip, 18 September 2011

Sometimes things just go wrong: a keyboard stops working, your Mac freezes up, something ‘weird’ happens. These techniques give you a place to start if your Mac stops behaving.

Accidents, bugs, mistakes and the unexplained

It’s a huge pain when something goes wrong with your computer. And things are always going wrong, even in the best of all possible worlds.

Sometimes it’s because of something accidental, such as not noticing a cable has come loose. Sometimes it’s a mistake you’re making. Sometimes it’s a bug. Sometimes it’s out of your control all together, such as when your Internet provider has a fault.

So where do you start? How do you fix a problem when all you know is that there is a problem? Here are some basic steps anyone can take.

1] Did something change?

If it was working before and now it isn’t, can you pinpoint what changed? Did you change something?

For example: your fonts have gone ‘weird’. Did you just install some new software?

2] Check the cables and the power supply

For example: the keyboard stopped working — try a fresh battery in a wireless keyboard. Try plugging a wired keyboard into a different port.

For example: the printer stopped printing. Check that the cable is still firmly plugged in. Did you accidentally knock out the power from the wall while cleaning?

3] Compare and contrast

For example: Suddenly the keyboard doesn’t type half the letters. Try a different keyboard — does the problem continue? If a different keyboard works fine, perhaps it’s not the keyboard. If the problem persists, perhaps you’re using a keyboard with a Num Lock key and you accidentally engaged it.

For example: someone sent you a .doc file and it looks weird in MS Word. Try opening it in TextEdit or Pages. Does the problem persist? If so, perhaps the sender needs to try a different format. If not, perhaps it’s just a glitch with that document and Word.

4] Disconnect other ‘stuff’ and try again

For example: your screen isn’t showing some of the windows you should be able to see. Do you have any extra screens attached? If you remove them does it fix the problem? If so, you may need to check how the monitors are arranged in the Displays section of System Preferences.

For example: you’re having a problem importing photos from your camera or card reader. Try plugging the device directly into the computer rather than plugging it into a keyboard or monitor port or a USB hub.

5] Try to narrow down the problem

It’s hard if it just feels like the ‘whole computer’ is ‘broken’.

For example: you try to visit a web page with Safari and are unable to get past the first page because the links ‘don’t work’. What happens if you try a different web browser such as Firefox or Chrome? Perhaps the website is broken and it’s not a problem with your computer.

Try alternatives, one at a time and see what happens.

6] Check the hardware

Is the volume turned up? Is the screen brightness turned up? Are there objects pressing on the keyboard? Do you accidentally rest your hand on the trackpad, making the cursor jump around?

7] Try Quitting the app or restarting your Mac

It’s a bit of a cliche but sometimes just restarting your Mac can solve a problem. Similarly, quitting an app and starting it up again just might make a difference.

8] Try Google

It’s worth searching the web for other reports of the same problem — you can often find a fix online.

For example: you’re using Apple’s and having trouble sending emails. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Try searching for problem sending email and look at the results. Try to include the name of the software, the word problem and a couple of words that summarise the difficulty.

Apple Support pages.

Apple Support pages.

9] Explore Apple’s Support pages

Apple has a huge section of its website dedicated to helping people use their products. Visit and see which parts of that page may lead you to an answer.

Apple Support Communities.

Apple Support Communities.

10] Search forums

Apple Support Communities, also known as forums, are places where people who use Apple products discuss their experiences. Some people ask questions (you could too) and others offer advice and sometimes solutions.

11] Read
Take Control of Troubleshooting Your Mac

The books in the Take Control series are practical, helpful and informative.
Take Control of Troubleshooting Your Mac, Second Edition, by Joe Kissell is far more complete than my simple guide here. At 110 pages, the book includes:

Troubleshooting Mac.

Take Control of Troubleshooting Your Mac

  • Read Me First
  • Introduction: Don’t Panic!
  • Troubleshooting Quick Start
  • Prevent Problems
  • Prepare for an Emergency
  • Learn Basic Troubleshooting Procedures
  • Solve Common Problems
  • Troubleshoot Novel Problems
  • Learn More
  • About This Book

Even though I’ve been using Macs for more than 20 years now I still learned a few new tricks from Take Control of Troubleshooting Your Mac, such as 3 additional methods for Force Quitting a problem application beyond the 2 or 3 I already knew. I highly recommend you buy and read this book before you really need it.

Tell us in the comments how this Tip helped you.

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