Problem Solving Guy #4: When disaster strikes!

Nemo asks, and Guy answers, this time with solutions for your crashes, bashes, and smashes that occur every so often on your Macs. What can you do to prevent them from happening? Read on, seeker of knowledge.

JOHN: How often do you restart or shutdown in Panther Guy under normal circumstances?

GUY: I very rarely feel the need to shutdown these days. Typically only after OS updates. My main workhorse these days is a 933Mhz G4 iBook; so I usually just close the lid and let it go to sleep. I really like just opening the top and going to work. At least I usually do. For a while, I was having the “not waking from sleep” issue.

JOHN: Whazzat?

GUY: This problem has plagued Apple users ever since Panther (OS X 10.3) came out. A few of you might not know what I’m talking about, so in a nutshell, here is what “Sleep Mode” is. Many users, to keep from having to waste time booting up their system, hardly ever turn it off. They simply put their computer to sleep. A computer put to sleep will save all current screen data and settings, spin down any drives (hard drives or optical), and shut down the attached monitor or screen. The power used by your computer while in sleep mode is minimal and your restart time is measured in seconds.

JOHN: Any Potential drawbacks?

GUY: I’ve left my iBook in sleep mode for days without losing more than 5-10 percent of available battery life. It is not a solution for everyone though. If you have system-critical information on your machine, remember that unless you set your preferences to ask for a password when waking from sleep mode, “Sleep Mode” gives you no security from anyone who can gain physical access to your computer. As far as your computer knows, it’s still you when the lid is opened. Something to think about before using it.

JOHN: So what was the glitch?

GUY: The dilemma that many users were having with their computers in Sleep Mode was that their machines were not waking back up. You would open the lid and stare foolishly (something I know a lot about) at a screen that won’t wake up no matter what you do. You pound in frustration on the spacebar. Your index finger aches from repeatedly pushing the “Esc” key. You howl at the Greek god “Hypnos” (Son of Nyx and her husband Erebos. No, I’m not making this up) for mocking you. But it is all for naught. Your computer lays dormant. Its soft white light at the lock clasp glowing on and off derisively.

JOHN: And the fix?

GUY: The not waking from sleep was a real pain in the neck. The weird thing is that the symptoms were never consistent enough to say “AHA! HERE’S THE CULPRIT!” It would happen with applications left running or even with a clear desktop. It would happen with the iBooks AirPort card (This is Apple’s wireless 802.11g card for those of you who haven’t paid attention for the last few years) on or off. Receiving a signal or not. The solution? Push and hold the “Power Button” until you hear the unmistakable sound of your computer completely turning off. Of course any unsaved data you HAD can be considered toast. It is gone, fineeto, sayonara baby. This never happened to me when I was using Jaguar (OS X 10.2). Fortunately once I downloaded the 10.3.8 update it stopped happening.

JOHN: What about crashes and freezes? Common or rare?

GUY: I know that freezes still happen to some people. If it happens to you, consider that the problem may not be software related. Cheap memory or a failing hard drive are likely suspects as well (Book ‘em, Dano). If you have consistent freezes or Kernel Panic (more on this later), there is a good chance that your problem is hardware related.

JOHN: You’re making me nervous.

GUY: Nervous? Welcome to my world. It’s always a good idea to have a System folder on a different bootable drive or partition. One that hasn’t been used for anything other than booting up. Not as your main “Let’s get this Party Started” drive. Just a back-up if or when something goes wrong. Remember to update it as well as the OS on your main drive. Different versions of even the same system can report a problem on your main drive, so you want to mirror that OS as best you can. Run “Disk Utility” from your mirrored OS onto the drive you suspect may have a problem. We’ll go into what to do with Disk Utility later.

JOHN: I sure hope so.

GUY: To test your RAM (assuming your have more than one RAM chip and that each is at least 256MB), open your machine at whatever entry point is required to gain access. Remember to first ground yourself on some internal metal inside your computer. The power supply is a good choice, but please make sure your machine is shut down and the AC power plug is removed. Depending on your machine, there can be dangerous voltage inside. If you have an all-in-one (any machine with an internal monitor like an iMac or eMac), there can be extremely high voltage present even with the machine off and the power plug removed. DO NOT DO THIS IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING. Anyway, remove one chip, close the covers, and restart your machine. Try some of the applications you have been using at the point of your system freezes or whatnot. If it runs OK, put the RAM back in and pull out one of the other RAM chips. Repeat for as many chips that you have.

JOHN: How often?

GUY: If you have bad RAM, any other chips besides the one determined to be faulty that came from the same source can be considered suspect. If you didn’t get your RAM from Apple when you ordered the machine but from some third party manufacturer, you could have a bad batch. Always go with a reliable source. One that’s been around awhile.

JOHN: Good idea.

GUY: I haven’t had an actual system freeze (I have had Kernel Panics. An altogether sort-of different beast.) since moving to OS X. That’s not to say that I haven’t had applications crash, but the worst thing when that happens is you lose whatever unsaved work you had. In pre-historic times (Classic OS 6-9), a crash could happen at any time, for almost any reason. If you had documents open with other applications at the time, you would pray that the machine wouldn’t hard freeze before you could save. These prayers more likely than not, were usually in vain.

JOHN: What is a Kernel Panic?

GUY: Colonel Hogan’s evil twin. Actually, it’s a dirty little Mac secret. For all the boasting and bragging that Mac fanboys do about OS X not crashing, or laughing at Windows owners and their blue screen of death, Macs have their own equivalent. It’s called a Kernel Panic. It’s related to OS X’s UNIX roots. How do they happen? It may be related to a Directory Failure or from a user moving or deleting a file they shouldn’t. It can even be caused by some Utility programs attempting to fix unrelated problems. Even a waylaid font at startup can cause a Kernel Panic. Purchasing hardware without OS X drivers can cause problems.

JOHN: Do you then force quit and log out / log back in, or do a full restart?

GUY: If you’re dealing with a Kernel Panic, then all you can do is restart the machine by holding down the “Power Button.” If it’s just an application crash, typically I’ll just keep working. I’ve rarely had applications crash more than once during any session. If it’s an application freeze (where the spinning beach ball just won’t go away after a reasonable amount of time), I’ll use the good old option+command+esc to bring up the force quit menu. I hate to do that though because any work not saved is going to be gone.

JOHN: How stable is OS X, Guy?

GUY: I have to say there is a world of difference between OS X and Apple’s old operating system (The OS formally known as 7-9) as far as crashes go. I could count on at least one crash a week with OS 7-9, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Kernel Panics I’ve had since switching to OS X in 2002.

JOHN: After a problem, are you running any utility software, such as Apple’s Disk Utility?

GUY: Unlike many reports, I have had no major OS related problems. I do use Disk Utility on occasion. Mostly just to check that file permissions are on track.

JOHN: When and how often should people be using Disk Utility to repair permissions?

GUY: Well, according to Apple, permissions should be checked anytime a major OS change is made. Like updating to a new rendition (10.3.8 to 10.3.9) or a new OS altogether. I’m getting ready to make the move to 10.4 (Tiger) as soon as can get it to me. If you have some spare time, it’s not a bad idea to do it after installing any big applications.

JOHN: What are permissions, anyway, and why do they need to be repaired?

GUY: Permissions are another “gift” from the wonderful world of Unix that has added so many other joys to OS X. After installing a program or creating a new file or folder, you can set who can use the item. In other words, you can establish who has permission to have access to or use a particular item. It’s easy to do too. Just right-click or CTRL-click on the item and select “Get Info.” An information box will open with all kinds of nifty options. One of those is the “Ownership and Permissions” section. Be very careful. Choosing the wrong parameter can make the file, folder, or application unavailable to even you. Of course you can always change it back as root, but it can be troublesome if you’re not sure what you’re doing.

JOHN: Don’t the developers coordinate their permissions?

GUY: Yes they do, but making major changes can do odd things. Sometimes when you add a new program or change/upgrade your operating system, the way permissions are handled may change a bit. Add in that third party software makers don’t always follow Apple’s rules or that Apple itself doesn’t always follow their own rules and you can have either corruption or even deletion of your permission files. When that happens, Katie bar the door, you’re going to get all kinds of problems. One of the first things to do is to use the Disk Utility software and check/repair your permissions.

JOHN: Is this a preventive measure, or some sort of treatment?

GUY: It can be considered both depending on what your experiencing. Like I said earlier, it isn’t a bad idea to run it every so often (once a month) and it should be one of the first things you do if you have problems with an application.

JOHN: How often do you need to restart from the Panther installer disk, holding down the C key, and then run Disk Utility to repair your hard drive?

GUY: Believe it or not, I’ve never had an OS related drive problem since going to OS X with 10.2.

JOHN: Never?

GUY: Call me lucky, but the only drive related failure I’ve ever had wasn’t due to faulty hardware or an errant system malfunction. Nope, it was due to my own blindingly incredible stupidity.

JOHN: Go public with it.

GUY: I was afraid you’d say that. My QuickSilver 933 G4 has a 60 GB drive. When I needed more space, I added a 120 GB internal drive on the same IDE buss. What I DIDN’T do was set one to a master and one to a slave via those unbelievably small jumpers on the front of the drive. So I basically had two master hard drives on the same IDE bus. I think the most amazing part of this was that it worked for almost six months before disaster struck.

JOHN: What did you do to recover?

GUY: I tried Apple’s disk utilities, but the drive was hosed real bad. OS X wouldn’t even see it except as a blank and kept trying to get me to erase and reformat. Since I had a lot of almost irrecoverable DV files, I was in a blind panic. I did some research and ended up buying MicroMat’s TechTool Pro and another 120GB drive. I was able to get all the data off the fracinstat drive and transfer it to the new one. I was even able to re-use the hosed drive after reformatting.

JOHN: Have you ever used something called “FSCK” after restarting, then holding down the Apple and S keys? What is this, and do normal people need to understand it?

GUY: OK, this is right off a Linux page.
“Fsck is used to check and optionally repair one or more Linux file systems. filesys can be a device name (e.g. /dev/hdc1, /dev/sdb2), a mount point (e.g. /, /usr, /home), or an ext2 label or UUID specifier (e.g. UUID=8868abf6-88c5-4a83-98b8-bfc24057f7bd or LABEL=root). Normally, the fsck program will try to run filesystems on different physical disk drives in parallel to reduce total amount time to check all of the filesystems.”

Well, that was crystal clear. Seriously though, broken down, FSCK simply checks file systems. I’ve never actually used it and most non-UNIX geeks have probably never heard of it.

JOHN: I’m sorry I asked.

GUY: It was much more common in the 10.0 and 10.1 timeframe (you know, the old days) to have a system error and have a partial start-up with a command line saying “file system dirty, run fsck.” These days, you’re better off just running the disk utilities that come with your operating system installation disks.

JOHN: Not always practical.

GUY: That’s true, sometimes your system disks may be far away from your location. In that case, fsck may be your only hope to recover from disaster. How to use it? First you must reboot your computer into single-user mode. But GUY (I hear so many of the voices in my head telling me), I only have one user at a time using the computer. Not the same thing. To put your computer into single-user mode you must restart your computer and then hold down the command (you know, the key at the bottom of your keyboard next to the space bar. C’MON! The key with the little Apple on it) and “S” key. Hold them down until a bunch of text that in no way resembles the actual English language appears.

JOHN: What next?

GUY: When it stops and you have a blinking cursor (If you ask me what that is, I will really have to smack you.), then type in the following: fsck –y (For those of you that are instructionally challenged, type in the following although without the quotes, “f” “s” “c” “k” “hit the spacebar once” ,“then the minus – symbol”, “y”. If you typed in the “hit the spacebar”, or the, “then the minus symbol”, please consider having yourself neutered.), then hit “return” or “enter”. You’ll see a lot of text go across the screen. If during the test you see:
repeat the fsck –y command until this no longer appears. This is crucial so don’t forget.

JOHN: I promise.

GUY: Once you no longer see this message (or maybe you never saw it, which is OK too), to get out of single-user mode, type in either “exit” or “reboot,” then press the Enter key

JOHN: Are there any third party utility applications you prefer?

GUY: I’m a big fan of MicroMat’s “Drive” and “TechTool Pro” series of utilities. In the past I have also used FWB’s “Hard Disk Toolkit”

JOHN: How often in real life should they be used?

GUY: Depending on what you use your computer for, once a month or so should be sufficient. As a general rule of thumb, I don’t like to use more than half of the space available in any hard drive. Sometimes though (especially with portables) you don’t have any choice. If your hard drive is more than half full, then you may want to consider doing maintenance tasks a little more often.

JOHN: Which third party apps, in priority order, need to be bought and owned by most of us?

GUY: With Apple’s Disk Utility right there as part of your OS, there may not be any in particular you need. The right tool for the right job is finally on board for most mortals.

JOHN: Is it any loss that Symantec’s Norton Utilities is no longer being supported for the Macintosh?

GUY: Back in the System 7-9 days, Norton Utilities was an almost gotta have piece of software. Symantec has turned a once great program into a pile of dung, only fit for festering beetles, egg sucking dogs, virus programmers, and Madison Avenue advertising executives (not necessarily in that order). OS X doesn’t seem to need as much handholding as the old days, and Symantec never updated Norton to make it even half as useful as it once was. Plus many other companies stepped up and filled the gap left behind.

JOHN: Why don’t computers work well enough, like a finely tuned car, so they only need routine maintenance, instead of all this special software and other remedies?

GUY: Another car analogy! Generally speaking, cars are made to do one thing. Take us from point A to point B safely. Computers are made to do whatever we ask of them. Whether you’re just making a document or editing digital video, computers these days are born to multi-task. Because of this, it’s impossible for the manufacturers to anticipate exactly what we might do. Even specialty makers like Alienware for gamers or some of the Audio or Video computer specialists can’t determine ahead of time what the users might do. Heck, I barely know what I’m going to have for breakfast even as I make it. Apple is different from many other computer makers not just because of a processor or operating system, but because their computers are made to do almost any task that most users might ask right out of the box. If you want a Dell or Gateway to do many of the same things, you can’t order their low-end boxes and expect them to perform like a Mac mini. Sure it costs more, but you get more and that’s the real value of buying a Mac.

JOHN: What happens if people simply wait until a bad problem occurs, then contact Apple or independent tech support, rather than worry about all the possible nuts and bolts that can shake loose (figuratively speaking)?

GUY: Then they’re just about like everyone else that makes a significant purchase. No one expects to spend a lot of money and then have problems. But sometimes things happen. Do routine stuff like Disk Utility once a month or so and leaving your computer on once a week overnight (You can have the monitor go to sleep, but the computer must be functioning) for the built-in Unix maintenance to do their thing should leave you for the most part trouble-free.

JOHN: Are some Macintoshes more reliable than others, and should be purchased with that attribute in mind?

GUY: I typically avoid first generation machines of any type. If there are going to be serious bugs, that’s where you’ll find them. I remember that some of the clones were somewhat problematic. I had an APS M-Power 200MHz 604 (This was a sub-licensee using Motorola’s StarMax design) that I never really did get to run right.

JOHN: How many times have you wanted to toss your ailing Mac into the nearest dumpster?

GUY: Well never the Mac. I have been tempted to dump some problem making software that wouldn’t do what I wanted it to.

JOHN: Have you ever rescued an Apple computer from a near-death experience?

GUY: A few times I’ve assisted in such an endeavor. I belong to the Washington Apple Pi ( user group and one of the neat things these guys do is the “Tuesday Night Clinic.” Just bring in your Mac (Don’t even need a keyboard, monitor, or mouse as they supply just about any kind required), and for a small donation, an expert volunteer will try and fix your machine. There are usually 4-6 people there with an incredible sense of knowledge between them and they bring in all the software necessary to fix almost any Mac. That’s one of the differences between Mac owners and PC users. You don’t see Dell or Gateway support groups like MUGs.

JOHN: What’s your one-sentence advice to summarize all this conversation on troubleshooting and repairing software problems?

GUY: Macintosh computers like any other man-made devices can break down. If I had to come up with one sentence to summarize (and I guess I do since that’s what you asked me to do), it would be this: While things can go wrong with a Mac, you’re much better off than with all the problems for a PC owner. Or is that just redundant?

JOHN: Thanks, Guy. I think I’ll head over to the Apple Store to look at the faces of the unsuspecting customers.

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