Macs are pretty reliable computers, but that doesn’t mean they’re not vulnerable to user error, accidents, and, in some cases, just plain stupidity. We compile a list of the most common “uh-oh” moments on a Mac and show you how to make them all better--and prevent them from happening in the future.
No computer is trouble-free. Even Macs behave cantankerously sometimes, abruptly refusing to act like the well-mannered, delightful machines we know and love.
That said, while PCs can be perverse, Macs are rarely malicious. Usually they only act up when provoked--for example, if you splash your MacBook’s keyboard with a beverage or don’t tend to basic maintenance chores. And sometimes, just like people, our Macs get tired and overworked and just need a little TLC.
When disaster strikes a Mac, there’s usually a fix-it-yourself solution. Sometimes you luck out and the cause and effect are clear. If you update the OS and an app refuses to run properly, logic tells you that the app will also need an update, for example. More often, mitigating Mac disasters requires you to work through a few key steps, from the most obvious and easily addressed--is the computer plugged in properly?--to the more complex. In all cases, try to keep your head and resist the urge to throw things--especially the Mac itself.
Here we present 17 survival tactics for common Mac, iPhone, and iPod disasters, ranging from the truly serious to the merely annoying. If you have any doubts about your ability to deal with a problem, it’s always best not to tread into unfamiliar territory, lest you make things worse. In those cases, take your machine to a professional to sort the problem out. And—you knew this was coming--don’t forget to back up important data regularly. If you don’t back up, even a little problem can turn into a major crisis. (Leopard users, you have no-brainer backups built into your OS with Time Machine, so you really have no excuse! For a step-by-step how-to on keeping your key files backed up with Time Machine, see www.maclife.com/backup.)
SURVIVAL TACTIC: If you accidentally douse your MacBook’s keyboard with a drink or other liquid, you need to move superfast to save your machine. Immediately disconnect the power cord from the computer and remove the battery. Then turn the machine over with the lid partly open and the hinge facing upward to let the liquid drain. Do not flop it over and lay it flat—you want to separate it from the moisture. Place paper or cloth towels under the machine to sop up the mess, and refresh them as needed.
After the machine disgorges whatever you spilled on it, don’t turn it on for 72 hours or longer—you want it to dry out completely before starting it up. Some people swear by hair dryers to speed up the drying-out process, but blow-drying your MacBook’s innards may bake whatever was in the liquid onto delicate computer components, so it’s better to let it air-dry. In fact, if you desperately need the data contained on the hard drive and are willing to pay in the area of $600 and up to get it back, your best bet is to contact a data-recovery company such as Tekserve (www.tekserve.com or 212-929-3645) or DriveSavers (www.drivesavers.com or 800-440-1904) shortly after you pull the plug on your computer. Be sure to ask if they want you to send the computer in as is (still soggy) or let it dry out first.
If your data is backed up (and you know it should be; see “5 Ways to Head Off Disasters Before They Strike,”), and you just want to see if you can save the Mac itself, let it dry out completely, turn it on, and see if it starts up. You may also opt to bring it to an Apple Store or a local Mac repair shop to have it checked out before you try this. (Just be aware that damage from liquid spills and food drips are not covered by Apple Care—and, yes, they can tell what happened, so don’t try to fib and say the computer “just stopped running.”)
If you’ve opted for the self-help route, and your now-dry computer starts up, your next step depends on what you spilled on the machine. Plain tepid water is the least likely to cause long-term problems (ice water on a hot motherboard is a really bad combination and most likely fried your computer on contact). A Mac may survive a dousing of sugary, acidic, or milky drinks, but problems will almost certainly crop up later as the residue starts to slowly corrode your computer’s innards. So once you’ve ascertained that the computer is working, you need to get it cleaned up pronto. If you’re totally confident in your ability to take your computer apart, swab down any sticky bits with distilled water or denatured alcohol (sold at hardware stores), and put it all back together again safely, go for it. If not, bring it to an Apple Store or a local computer expert for a thorough cleaning.
If you drenched a peripheral keyboard attached to a Mac tower or iMac, disconnect the keyboard from the computer immediately, and turn the keyboard upside down to drain the liquid out. Let it dry out for 24 to 48 hours (depending on how much you spilled), then plug it back in. Chances are good you killed the keyboard, but it’s worth a shot to see if it survived. Unless significant amounts of liquid also splashed the Mac, your computer should be fine.
SURVIVAL TACTIC: When your Mac has malingered on the startup screen for an hour or so with no apparent intention of booting up, start the troubleshooting process by shutting off your computer and taking a few deep breaths.
Now press the Power button, and immediately press and hold down the Command key and the S key as the machine starts up. This boots you into Single-user mode and you should see white text appear on the screen.
When you see the # command prompt, type /sbin/fsck –fy (“fsck” is a file system consistency check utility) and hit Return. Now sit back and let your Mac attempt to find and fix whatever problem is plaguing it. This could take 15 minutes or so—or even longer if things are really messed up—so be patient.
If and when you see the message “File System was modified,” repeat the step above again, and again, until you finally, hopefully, see a message saying, “no problems were found.” When that happens type reboot and hit Return again.
If these steps don’t pull you out of startup purgatory, grab your OS X install disc and insert it into the drive. Hold down the C key this time as the Mac starts up. If you’re running OS 10.4 or later go to \Applications\Utilities\Disk Utility, select your hard drive in the left-hand pane and click Repair Disk on the First Aid tab. If no disk errors are reported, click Repair Disk Permissions. When that process is done, restart your Mac.
If you’re running OS 10.2, you can follow the same steps, but you’ll find what you need under Installer\Open Disk Utility.
If all of the above doesn’t work, you’ll probably need to turn your computer over to Apple for some expert care.
SURVIVAL TACTIC: If you hit the Power button and don’t hear the startup chime, the power indicator doesn’t light up, and you don’t hear any sound at all from the hard drive or the Mac’s fan...first, take a deep breath. Next, disconnect the power cord, pull out the battery (if it’s a laptop), disconnect all peripherals (printer, scanner, and others) and count slowly to 60. Reconnect the battery and the power cord, and see if the machine starts normally. If it does, you can plug in your peripherals one at a time and be on your way—disaster averted.
If this tactic does not work, disconnect the power and pull the battery again. Now try resetting the System Management Controller. The reason is that if the System Management Controller’s settings have become corrupted, your Mac may not be able to recognize its battery and/or power supply. On a MacBook or MacBook Pro, hold the power button down for 5 seconds, then reconnect the adapter, and press Power to (we hope) start the computer. Other Mac portables will require you to take slightly different steps. For example, with a MacBook Air, you’d need to hold Shift-Control-Option on the left-hand side of your keyboard and hold down the Power button. For other Mac models, check Apple support or Google SMC+Your Mac’s model name to find out how to reset the System Management Controller.
SURVIVAL TACTIC: If your Mac isn’t the perky little speed demon it once was, chances are it’s your fault. If you’ve downloaded slews of toolbars and apps you rarely use, and your Desktop is cluttered with folders and icons, it’s time to clean house. Dump the software you don’t use, collect all the folders and icons into one folder (each and every thing on your Desktop sucks up a tiny bit of memory, so consolidate it into one folder containing all the other folders you may have), and consider turning off useless but cool features like the system animations, zoom effects, and scrolling bars that gobble up system resources. The easiest way to do this is to download TinkerTool (www.bresink.de), a free application that lets you adjust all the preference settings in OS X to your heart’s content.
Also, consider your Mac’s sleeping habits. OS X comes with a set of UNIX scripts that are set to run automatically at 3:15 a.m. every day, weekly at 4:30 a.m. on Saturdays, and monthly at 5:30 a.m. on the first day of the month. If your machine is usually off or sleeping during these times (the UNIX machines for which these scripts were originally devised were always kept on), system-clogging clutter will build up in your temporary directories, and your Mac won’t run as speeidily as it should. Try to make sure your machine is on for most of these scheduled runs, if you can. If you’re running Leopard, the scripts will run the next time you start up. Or you can alter the programmed script timing with a utility like Cocktail ($14.95, www.maintain.se) or Leopard Cache Cleaner ($8.99, www.northernsoftworks.com).
SURVIVAL TACTIC: Another reason your Mac may be slowing down, spontaneously crashing, shutting off, or not running video smoothly is heat buildup caused from blocked vents and/or dust, dirt, or pet hair built up inside the machine. Leave this mess to fester and your Mac could die a slow heat-death.
Fixing this issue typically requires cracking open the computer’s case and blowing out all the gook with a can of compressed air. If you have a Mac that you can open up (look for a set of screws near the vents, which will let you remove a panel that covers the fan), and you’re comfortable doing this yourself, you probably already know the drill— lovingly disassemble the computer and give it a blow job. If getting that close and personal with your computer doesn’t seem like a fun activity, take it to the Apple Store and have them do it (and maybe ask them to show you how, so you can perform the procedure every three or so months). If you want to clear just the vent and fan of dust, but aren’t planning on getting seriously involved and actually opening the case, then make sure you don’t blow the dust deeper into the computer—angle the compressed air’s nozzle at an outwards angle. Blowing the crud further into the machine will just complicate the issue.
Apple says that some MacBooks may have a thin piece of clear plastic covering the rear vent. This was used in the factory to prevent dust from getting into the computer and should have been removed before shipping, but some MacBooks escaped with the plastic intact. If your MacBook has plastic over the vent, remove and discard it. And make sure your computer’s vents aren’t blocked by other things that reside on your desk or are being slowly smothered by being placed on soft surfaces like pillows or possibly your lap. Your computer needs to breathe.
SURVIVAL TACTIC: If an application that’s always behaved nicely suddenly begins crashing and otherwise acting up, consider what you might have done to upset it. Did you download and apply a system update, install a new piece of software, or change something else on your computer? You may need to update the misbehaving program too, so it can start playing nicely with others again.
If nothing has changed, see if the program’s preferences are at fault. Go to Accounts, and create a shiny new user account. Log in as the new user and run the program that has been giving you problems. If nothing amiss happens, chances are the issue is your personal program preferences. In some cases you can remove preferences by dragging them out from the Users/Library/Preferences folder. With programs like Photoshop, you can reset your account preferences to their defaults by holding down Command+Option+Shift when launching the application; as Photoshop starts, you’ll be asked if you want to reset the preferences. Make sure to save any custom presets before resetting Photoshop preferences. If you can’t figure out how to reset a program’s preferences to default, check on the manufacturer’s website.
Corrupt fonts can also wreak havoc with applications and even entire operating systems. See #14 for some tips on how to deal with them.
Last, there’s bad RAM to consider. If your applications start acting kooky and crash with no apparent provocation, you could have a bad RAM module. If you can access your machine’s RAM—which you should be able to on most current Macs, except the MacBook Air—and have more than one module, try removing one module from the computer. If that doesn’t make a difference, try moving one module to a different RAM slot. Then repeat with the other module to isolate the problem.
SURVIVAL TACTIC: Metal gets scratched; it’s just a fact of life. The first scratch to mar the case of your Titanium PowerBook or MacBook Pro was probably the most traumatic. After the pristine surface is scraped up a bit, all those other marks are much easier to bear. But if you just can’t view those scuff marks as signs of an interesting life well lived, ignore any temptation to break out the Brasso. It works wonderfully on banged-up iPods, but it can strip the finish right off of your MacBook Pro’s case. You can look into a scratch-removal polish specifically made for the metal that makes up your computer’s case, but make sure to follow the directions carefully. And obviously you’ll want to avoid getting any drippy goo near any vents, ports, or openings in the case, and disconnect the battery and power adapter before starting the scratch-removal process. If your MacBook Pro’s case is just seriously smudged and not actually marred by scratches, try the Apple Polish Cleaning Kit from iKlear ($24.95, www.klearscreen.com) to get it shined up like new.
SURVIVAL TACTIC: White MacBooks tend to get grimy over time (especially on the wrist rest), and the black ones seem to compel your fingertips into producing insane amounts of oil, which ends up smeared unappealingly on the MacBook’s case. But you can get your MacBook back into pristine condition with little magic, compliments of Mr. Clean—the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. You want the plain kind, not the ones that foam up when wet, and you can find them at almost any grocery or drugstore for about $3.50 for a two-pack (also see www.mrclean.com/en_US/products/eraser.shtml).
Begin by wiping down your MacBook with a clean lint-free or microfiber cloth. Unplug your MacBook and remove the battery. Wet the Magic Eraser with a slow trickle from the tap and wring it out until it’s just slightly damp. Swab down your MacBook with the Magic Eraser, moving the eraser in one direction, rather than back and forth. Stay away from the keyboard and all ports or other openings. When you’re done, dry off the computer with another clean lint-free cloth. If there’s a chance that you got even a drop of dampness into your machine, leave it unplugged and off for at least six hours before plugging it in and starting it up.
SURVIVAL TACTIC: If you somehow manage to dislodge a key from its place on your keyboard—whether it’s an older Apple or third-party keyboard or a one of the newer aluminum keyboards now shipping with new iMacs and Mac Pros—you may not be able to just pop it back in place. Turn the key over and see if it has a little plastic “scissor” attached. If it does, and it’s not broken, lift the scissor carefully off of the key and reattach it to the keyboard by hooking it under the tab on the right-hand side, and then fastening the two little plastic hooks into the catches on the left side. Now you’ll need to slide the key cap onto the top tabs of the riser; you may want to use a toothpick or other small implement to keep the riser steady while you reattach the key. Note to anyone with a new aluminum keyboard: The non-letter and -number keys on the Apple aluminum keyboards are trickier to reset because the loop that stabilizes them is made of pliable metal that’s easy to bend the wrong way unless you have a very soft touch.
If you break the plastic scissor on a key cap, you’ll almost always be able to find people online who are selling replacement key caps and scissors.
SURVIVAL TACTIC: If you start to hear ominous sounds coming from your Mac—anything from a high-pitched whine to the occasional thump coming from the vicinity of the hard drive, assume your disk is entering a death spiral. Other symptoms include frequent application freezes, files that mysteriously disappear, regular freezes during startup, and increasingly slow speed when saving or opening files. There’s no way to fix a dying drive besides replacing it, so as soon as you notice these symptoms, back up your files immediately, even if Apple Disk Tools report that the drive is fine.
You should also consider yourself lucky if your drive has the good manners to alert you to its impending demise. In some cases, the only warning you get is when the machine simply stops functioning, followed by an icon of a folder with a question mark when you restart the machine. All drives eventually die, so don’t neglect your backup routine.
SURVIVAL TACTIC: Some folks swear by toothpaste to buff out scratches on the iPhone or iPod touch’s tempered glass touchscreen. The mild abrasive in the paste that’s intended to whiten your choppers can also remove surface scratches from iPod/iPhone screens. While we like toothpaste for cleaning jewelry, we’ve found that some brands are actually a bit too abrasive for iPod/iPhone screens. It’s safer to stick with products meant for this job, like Applesauce polish ($19.95, http://applesaucepolish.com/) or RadTech’s Ice Creme ($20.95 to $25.95, www.radtech.us). Both products will, with a bit of elbow grease, remove light scratches and scuffs from your devices’ faces; just be sure to follow the directions—especially the part about varying your strokes—or you could end up adding scratches rather than removing them.
SURVIVAL TACTIC: If it’s your MacBook’s screen that gets scratched, don’t attempt a home repair. Anything that’s strong enough to remove scratches will also strip away the screen’s protective coating. We’ve heard about people who take the screen to a jeweler to have scratches buffed out or squish a little Vaseline into the scratch to disguise it, but we can’t recommend these approaches. If the scratch seriously bothers you or obscures a key portion of the display, your best option is to have the screen replaced. Your Apple Care Protection Plan probably won’t cover this, however, as it’s likely to be classified as accidental damage. Companies like TechRestore (www.techrestore.com) can replace MacBook displays for about $350 to $500, depending on screen size. A 17-inch Display for an aluminum G4 PowerBook costs $449.99, including installation, overnight delivery of the repaired machine, and a one-year warranty, but it doesn’t include shipping the notebook to TechRestore, which could range from $29 to $69. If you’re handy, you can buy a new display from PowerBook Medic (www.powerbookmedic.com) and install it yourself. Here, an Aluminum G4 17-inch Display LCD Screen costs $349.95, with a one-year warranty, shipping not included.
SURVIVAL TACTIC: So you dropped your iPod or iPhone into a body of water (bathtub, toilet, deep puddle, the ocean). If the gods of technology happen to be smiling on you, it may be fixable. Fish out the device and shut it off immediately if it was on when it took the dive—in which case it’s very likely dead, we’re sorry to say. If it was off when it got dunked, your goal is to get the device dried out completely. To facilitate this, place it near the vent on the back of your cable box or air-conditioner. Or bury it in a deep bowl of dry plain rice or a container with a few silica packs—you know, those small packets often rattling around in boxes of new shoes that say, “Warning: Do Not Eat.” If it seems to have absorbed a lot of liquid, prop the device up so that any water can drain out without leaving it sitting in the puddle, or put it on an absorbent surface like a stack of paper or cloth towels (that you should check frequently for moisture). If you know how to open the device’s case (guitar picks are our tool of choice for prying open iPods), do so and remove the battery (this voids the warranty, but, hey, it’s an emergency), which will greatly facilitate the drying-out process. Let the device air-dry for 72 hours, then try turning it on. If this doesn’t work, let it dry for another 48 hours. And depending on what type of liquid it was dropped in, you may also need to open the device and clean it out with some denatured alcohol to remove any residue that might come back to haunt you later.
SURVIVAL TACTIC: Tiny font files can cause huge problems. Corrupt fonts can cause printing and display problems and even crash applications. And font caches can become hopelessly muddled, causing all sorts of jumbled-type display problems onscreen.
In OS X (Tiger and Leopard), you can check for bad fonts by going into your Applications folder and launching Font Book. Once there, Command-click to choose a group of dicey fonts—perhaps fonts you recently purchased or downloaded for free from possibly shady websites—then go to File > Validate Fonts. If a font is corrupt, you’ll see a round icon with an X in it. Click the checkbox beside the bad font(s), and then click the Remove Checked button to purge the evil from your system. If you see a yellow warning icon beside a font, it may be causing trouble, so remove it from your font folder, restart, and see if the problem is resolved. If you’re using an older version of OS X, you’ll have to manually test groups of fonts half-a-dozen at a time to see which trigger the problem, but this takes more patience than we possess. It’s smarter to buy a font-management application like Extensis Suitcase Fusion ($99.95, www.extensis.com) or Insider Software’s FontAgent Pro 4 ($99.95, www.insidersoftware.com). Both of these apps also offer myriad ways to organize and work with fonts, and both offer 30-day free demos, so you can try before you buy.
SURVIVAL TACTIC: If Safari is moving at less-than-gazelle-like speeds, purge it of all the data it’s binged on by choosing Safari > Reset Safari. This will give you the option to delete stored login info, favicons, cache, history, and cookies. If you do a full reset you’ll likely see noticeably improved browser performance, but you’ll need to log in to all the websites that normally “remember” you, so if you doubt you’ll be able to recall all of your login info across the Web, try deleting everything but login info and cookies first to see if that speeds things up.
SURVIVAL TACTIC: Proving that even Apple can release seriously flawed products, MobileMe is troubled by a variety of issues including outages, syncing problems, and more. Assuming that you want to continue using what Apple has admitted is a flawed service, back up all of the data you’ll be syncing via “the cloud,” and then try resetting iSync. Go to System Preferences > MobileMe, click Sync/Advanced and then click Reset Sync Data. From the pop-up menu choose All Data, unless you’re having a problem with specific sorts of info; if so, pick just the data you’re having problems syncing. Click the right arrow button and you should see text that says “On MobileMe with sync info from this computer.”
SURVIVAL TACTIC: If the advice in #16 doesn’t fix the problem, or if you’re getting error messages referring to inconsistencies in data, reset the Sync Services folder by choosing Preferences from the iSync menu and clicking Reset Sync History. If you have multiple Macs you may need to do this on all computers that are syncing with MobileMe. Start with the machine that has the most current info. You may also need to reset each computer’s Sync Services folder. Just make sure to back up that data before you reset syncing, as it’s possible it may get overwritten or deleted.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, a stitch in time saves nine, and so on. Those old wives obviously knew how to maintain a computer. It’s much easier to prevent problems before they happen than it is to fix them after the fact. Here are five ways to lessen the chances that one of the 17 Mac disasters outlined in this article will befall you.
1. Stay Dry
Keep the beverages away from electronic devices—make it an unbreakable rule not to drink and compute. Ditto any watery activities: Leave the devices at home or buy a waterproof case.
2. Stay Up-To-Date
Mac owners can get blasé about keeping their software up-to-date, as they aren’t plagued with the plethora of PC viruses/spyware/hack attacks. But Apple software does have security holes, and it’s important to get those patches onto your machine. Ditto the fixes from outside vendors—even if the patches don’t address security issues, they do make programs more stable and efficient. To make sure that your machine is up to date, go to the Apple menu, choose Software Update, click the Check Now button, select the items you want to download, then click Install. Reboot and repeat, as some software will only be available if other software is installed. To keep your other applications in shape, drop by the vendor’s site once a month or so to see if there are any updates.
3. Stay Secure
Security always requires trade-offs in usability, but protecting your data from prying eyes is worth it. Don’t enable automatic login, and set password protection for key files by customizing the Account settings in System Preferences.
4. Stay Clean
Keep your Mac happy inside and out with a monthly cleanup, blow the gunk out of its innards (see #5), repair disk permissions, delete or archive old files because a less cluttered hard drive is a more efficient hard drive, purge your Desktop of everything that really doesn’t need to be there, and run those UNIX scripts (see #4).
5. Back Up. Period
Just do it—OK? We’ll buy you a pony. Backing up your data is the single most important thing you can do to ensure that you—and your precious files—will survive any technological trauma.