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Troubleshooting: When Your Mac Locks Up or Acts Up

Macs have a reputation for reliability, but they’re not perfect. Computer software is extremely complex, and problems happen — even with Macs. When your Mac slows down, gets stuck, locks up, or other problems arise, every Mac user should first follow these basic troubleshooting remedies:

  • Back it up: The first rule of computing. Apple’s Time Machine automates the process if you attach a second hard drive and turn on Time Machine. Also consider doing a periodic manual backup of your most important files to DVD-R or an additional external hard drive.

  • Reboot: Select Restart from the Apple menu.

  • Check the hard drive: Run Disk Utility in the Utilities folder. Select your hard drive. Click the Repair Permissions button. Then click the Verify Disk button. If Verify Disk reports a problem, you can boot from the installation disc that came with your computer by inserting it and holding down the C key when you reboot. Running Disk Utility from that system will give you an option to Repair Disk. Do it.

    If you can’t find your installation disc, do a safe boot. Shut down your Mac. Press the power button. Right after the startup sound, hold down Shift. After safe boot is complete, restart your Mac. Safe boot repairs your file system as it starts up.

  • Fix preference file: If an application is acting up, the file where it keeps your preference settings (called a plist file) might be messed up. One way to deal with this is to change some preference settings and quit the application. For Finder problems, also change the System Preferences Appearance settings.

    Another approach is to quit the troublesome application, open the Library folder in your home directory, and then open the Preferences folder. Find the .plist file for the troublesome application and change its name by tacking the word old or something similar to the end of the filename. Then restart the application with its default preferences.

  • Zap PRAM: Every Mac stores some basic info it needs in a small, separate memory called parameter RAM, or PRAM. To reset it, hold down the P and R keys while you reboot.

  • Replace the battery: If you have a new Mac, you won’t run into system battery problems for years. But if you have an older Mac that is behaving weirdly — a common symptom is the wrong date at startup — the small battery on the motherboard that keeps the clock and PRAM working might have run down. These batteries are easy to replace on older Mac desktop machines and not so easy on all-in-one units.

    Replacing a battery is also a common solution to problems with wireless devices. If your wireless keyboard and mouse don’t seem to be working, replace their batteries.

  • Review Login items: These are listed in System Preferences under the Accounts icon. Check to see whether something that doesn’t belong has slipped in.

  • Figure out whether it’s the hardware: If your Mac is crashing frequently, it may be a hardware problem. For starters, disconnect all peripherals and see whether you still have problems. If they go away, reconnect devices one at a time to try and isolate which one is the evildoer. If the problems don’t go away, try running the diagnostic disc that came with your Mac. It typically offers you a fast and more thorough mode. Try the fast mode first. Then do the slow test overnight. If the diagnostic program reports an error, write down exactly what it says, with all the error numbers, and bring that info along with the sick computer to your service tech or have it ready when you call AppleCare.

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