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Computers are very complex beasts and there are a lot of constantly moving parts. I'm not speaking so much about mechanical parts as I am things constantly changing on your computer. Whenever something goes wrong the first thing that usually comes to mind is "it was working yesterday!" To the best of your knowledge you haven't done anything different. Yet the thing you're trying to do today doesn't work like it did yesterday. Believe it or not, it happens all the time. The most common reason for these unexplained problems is that something did in fact change. Perhaps it was a system update. Perhaps the last time you used an application and closed it, something happened to the preference file that the application uses. It could be that your Mac has been on for days/weeks at a time and some application has used up all of your available RAM because it has a memory leak. Or maybe you've plugged a device into your computer that wasn't there the last time the "thing" worked fine. There are countless reasons for something to all of a sudden stop working the way it used to work. There are also dozens if not hundreds of things you can try to troubleshoot the problem. I've put together a quick list of 5 to start with before you pick up the phone to call tech support:

  1. Reboot – Many times a problem can be cured simply by rebooting your computer or logging out and logging back in. This forces all the applications to quit (even the ones running in the background that you don't know about), it clears the RAM and gives you a fresh start. Even a reboot may not do it. In those cases try a full shut down and then boot up again.
  2. Delete the Preferences – If it's an Application that is all of a sudden misbehaving, it may have a damaged preference. You can first try moving the preference file for that particular application to the desktop and then try launching the App again. Most applications will build NEW preference files when they don't see an existing one.
  3. Unplug all peripherals – try unplugging any extra devices you have attached to your computer that aren't absolutely necessary to run the computer. USB devices, hard drives, hubs, etc. Then try the operation again. One day I noticed that my computer had slowed down to the point that it was simply unusable. I rebooted and it was still lagging. Finally I unplugged an external Firewire hard drive (that I wasn't even using) and everything returned to normal speed.
  4. If you're getting an error message or something that is repeatable Google is your friend. Try a simple Google search with the exact message. 9 times out of 10 someone else is having the exact same problem and those searches often lead to a discussion thread where a solution has been achieved.
  5. Try logging in as a different user. This is also preference related. Your applications create preferences for each user. If you create a separate "Test" account in Mac OS X, you can then log in as that user and have a fresh set of preferences for all of your applications. If the software works under this Test user account then you'll know that something under your regular user account has become damaged/corrupted and you'll need to dig deeper into the preferences.

You can always call for support. However, in many cases the above tips will help you narrow down the problem before you pick up the phone. Also in many cases whoever you're going to call is going to have you do these things anyway. So save yourself a little time and get them done ahead of time.

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  • Jamie Feldman

    Two other things that I would try before calling tech support.

    1. Repair permissions using Disk Utility. Open Disk Utility > highlight your start-up hard drive > open the First Aid tab > click on Repair Permissions. This will take several minutes.
    2. Run fsck -fy. Start the computer in Single User Mode by holding the Command and S keys as the computer starts until you see black with white writing. When you have a curser at the end of the writing, type in fsck -fy (there is a space between the k and the hyphen). Then hit Return. It will take a few minutes. If it says your drive is OK, then type reboot and hit Return. If it said there was some repair, I like to rerun fsck -fy.

  • erin

    “2. Run fsck -fy. ”

    Oh, this can be very very dangerous indeed… fsck can alter critical system files, leaving you in a much worse state than before.

    When stuff goes wrong with fsck, it goes WRONG. And the risk of losing data becomes much more real…

  • pete

    Second on the “fsck -fy”. fsck, with the “f” option will happily “fix” whatever file system links IT thinks might be wrong. It doesn’t particularly care if it whacks necessary system files while doing so. Thus, this option should be used as a measure of last resort: but ONLY after you have backed up your drive.

    Better yet, clone your drive using “dd”, then fsck the cloned drive and try booting from that. Since dd does a bit for bit copy of the drive, you’ll get a good indication as to whether fsck would whack your main drive (unless there is a hardware problem with your main drive, in which case you may be able to see probable errors in the S.M.A.R.T. status in System Profiler).

    Don’t forget, ALWAYS backup your system prior to running any potentially destructive file system utilities. Otherwise, you could end up with a nice, clean, empty drive.