These days, many people try to claim that Windows 95,
98 and/or Windows ME are "just as easy" as the Mac, but as soon as you scratch below the
surface of each operating system, youll quickly discover that the Mac OS is still
the better designed choice.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to troubleshooting common problems.
Windows continues to show its ugly DOS-based history or some other arcane architectural
flaw as soon as you start trying to fix something that goes wrong on your PC (see the
articles "PC Software Troubleshooting Tips"
and "PC Hardware Troubleshooting Tips" for
more). The Macintosh, on the other hand, is generally much less prone to problems and
those problems that do arise tend to have more straightforward answers.
But that doesnt mean problems dont happen on the Mac because they still do.
In fact, for some people, they are maddeningly common. Sometimes the issues are
hardware-related (see the accompanying "Mac
Hardware Troubleshooting Tips" for more), but most of the time they have to do
with software problems.
Staying Up to Date
One area where the Mac really isnt that different from PCs is in the need to keep
your software up-to-date. New application updates, operating system patches, and other
types of upgrades are often the key to solving frustrating problems or just some annoying
glitches. So, before you get too far into the troubleshooting process, take an inventory
of your software and hardware and check to see if any updates are available online from
the web sites of the companies whose products you use.
One site youll certainly want to check is Apples
Software Updates page. In addition, dont forget to check on any extensions you
have installed, particularly ones that function as drivers for any hardware youve
added to your Mac.
Extending the Macs Reach
Speaking of extensions, the vast majority of problems that pop up on Macintoshes are
due to what are called extension conflicts. Before I get into what that means, let me tell
you a little bit about how the Mac OS works.
When Apple designed the Macs operating system they knew they wouldnt be
able to provide all the features that people wanted, so they also built in a mechanism
that lets Mac users add to or extend the capabilities of the OS very easily. This
mechanism consisted of files called extensions that could, well, extend or alter the
features of the operating system. By placing these files into a special Extensions folder
inside the System Folder, they are automatically loaded and run whenever the Mac starts
The only time most Mac users even become aware of extensions is during the startup,
when the little icons representing different extension files dance across the bottom of
your Macs screen. (Not all extensions have startup icons, by the way, so dont
presume that because you counted 8 or 10 different icons during the startup, or boot,
process thats all you have. Most Macs have at least 40 or 50 extensions and many
have 100 or more.)
The way that manythough not allMac extensions work is that they are loaded
into memory along with Mac OS at startup time and stay there until you shut down. So, for
example, if you have an extension file like Adobes Type Manager, it adds its
type-rendering features to the operating system as your Mac starts up, and stays there as
an "extension" to the operating system for as long as your Mac is on.
The benefit of this arrangement is that any and all programs that run on your Mac and
need access to the features offered by the extension can get to them by interacting with
the operating system, as they normally do. The downside, however, is that some programs
dont operate correctly when used in conjunction with certain extensions or certain
versions of specific extensions. In addition, some extensions step on each others
toes by providing some of the same types of changes to the Mac OS. Others simply make
changes in a way that conflicts with each other.
Finally, the last drawback of this arrangement is that if youre using
applications that cant or dont take advantage of the features offered by
certain extensions, youre wasting precious Mac memory. The reason is, once an
extension has been loaded into memory it stays there and continues taking up space until
you shut down your Mac. As we move towards larger and larger amounts of RAM this concern
is becoming increasingly less important, but its still there.
By the way, if you ever want to see just how much memory your extensions use, try this
simple procedure. First, do a normal Mac startup and when you reach the desktop, go up to
the Apple menu and select About This Computer (or About This Macintosh or whatever the
message on your machine happens to be) to see a display of how much memory each
application on your Mac is currently using. Make note of how much the Mac OS, or System,
is using. Now, restart your Mac holding down the Shift key until you see a message about
No Extensions (Ill explain what this means in a bit) and when you get to the
desktop, go to the Apple menu again and select the same menu item. You should see a
dramatically lower amount of memory being used by the Mac OS, or System, in this case. The
difference between the two is the amount of memory that your extensions are using.
Extensions Manager to the Rescue
So, whats the trick to solving Mac extension conflicts? Using the Extensions
Manager thats been built into the Mac OS since System 7.5, or an alternative
commercial utility such as Casady & Greenes popular Conflict Catcher.
Either program lets you selectively turn off individual extensions or groups of extensions
at startup time so that you can try and figure out whats causing the problem. They
also let you change the order in which the extensions are loaded, which can also make a
difference. Some extensions need to be loaded last or near the end in order not to
conflict with others.
To get to Extensions Manager (which is actually a Control Panel), you can hold down the
space bar while youre starting your Mac, or choose Extensions Manager off the
Control Panel submenu under the Apple menu while your Mac is already running. Conflict
Catcher lets you assign a hot key to launch it during startup but it also defaults to the
space key. Essentially what you do with either utility is select a group of extensions
that you want to keep "on" and a group that you want to turn "off" and
then after your computer starts with the set of extensions youve chosen, you try to
recreate the problem you were having.
In some situations, extension conflicts can keep your Mac from booting at all. If you
only make it part of the way through the startup process and then your computer freezes
up, then thats the classic sign of an extension conflict. (A partial boot can also
be a symptom of a hardware-based SCSI problem, though, so check the "Mac Hardware Troubleshooting Tips" article
for more.) If it does turn out to be an extension-related problem, youll know
youve found the problem when the Mac makes it through the startup phase and brings
you to the desktop.
Some extension conflicts dont occur during startup, however. If youre
having trouble running certain applications or groups of programs, youll want to
check those after youve selected a different set of startup extensions. If the same
problem occurs (or if your Mac still cant boot), then you havent found the
culprit and youll need to select a new set and go through the process all over
As you might expect, finding extension conflicts can be very slow and tedious
(arent computers grand!), but Conflict Catcher makes it a bit easier by automating
the testing and restarting process to a certain degree.
By the way, in addition to turning off certain extensions to avoid conflicts, you can
get more memory for your applications by turning off extensions that you aren't regularly
using. As the above example shows, extensions can take up a lot of memory and turning off
a bunch of them (or even sometimes just a few of them) may give you several megabytes of
RAM space back.
Giving Yourself Enough Room to Work
Speaking of RAM, another problem that can occur with Macs is running out of memory.
Like PCs, Macs take advantage of something known as virtual memory, which basically uses
some space on your Mac's hard drive to "fake" the system into thinking it has
more real physical RAM than it actually does. So, for example, a system with 32 MB that
uses virtual memory might appear to the MacOS as having 64 MB of working room. You can
turn virtual memory on and off via the Memory control panel. In most instances you'll want
it on, but there are some older applications that won't work properly with it turned on,
so you should check your Mac's settings and adjust them as necessary.
A practical benefit of virtual memory is that it gives your Mac enough room to open up
multiple applications. However, it doesn't necessarily impact how much memory each
application has to use, nor does it automatically increase the amount of memory allocated
to each application as needed. Instead, the amount of memory allocated to each application
is determined by an obscure setting in the application program's Get Info box. To find
this, click on the application you want to check in a Finder window and select Command
(the clover key)-I or select Get Info from the Edit menu. (You have to do this on the
original application file, not an alias.)
Inside the ensuing dialog box you'll see a reference to the minimum amount of memory
required by the application to run, as well as a preferred amount. If you increase both
those numbers (they're often in Kilobytes, so divide by 1,024 to figure out the amount in
Megabytes), you'll increase the amount of memory the application has to do its own work.
This can be very handy if you're working with large or complex documents because if the
application doesn't have enough room to do its work, you may get an error message saying
there isn't enough memory even if you have lots of RAM installed and it's the only program
You don't want to increase the amount too much, however, because these numbers affect
how much memory the MacOS sets aside for the application. If the application has way more
than it needs, you'll just be wasting memory. So, the trick is to find an amount that lets
you work without getting out-of-memory messages, but doesn't take more than necessary. By
the way, if you have only one or two problematic documents, you can always just adjust the
application's memory allocations--which is what these numbers are called--right before you
work with them, and then change them as soon as you're done. You can't change them while
the application is open, but otherwise it can be done at any time.
Problems with Preferences
Another fairly common problem on Macintoshes has to do with preference files, which are
files used by most applications to store certain settings they need to operate properly.
If youre having problems with a specific application, it may be due to a bad or
corrupted preferences file.
Theres no easy way to tell by simply looking at a preferences file whether it has
a problem, but there is a simple procedure you can try if you suspect a problem. Just open
the Preferences folder inside your Macs System Folder, look for the preferences or
"prefs" file for the particular application, and drag it into the Trash. Most
applications will automatically create a new preferences files the next time you start
them if they cant find an existing one in the Preferences folder.
In some cases you may have to reset any adjustments you had previously made to the
programs preferences or settings dialog box, but thats a small price to pay to
get your application working again.
Viruses and Other Issues
Mac users were very fortunate for many years because the Mac OS was fairly free of
computer viruses. Recently, however, that situation has changed and now Mac users also
need to be on the lookout for viruses (such as AutoStart Worms), Trojan Horse programs
(which hide bad things in a seemingly innocent packagehence their name), and other
nasty stuff that can wreak all kinds of havoc on your Mac.
If youre encountering strange problems, such as a Desktop Print Spooler that
keeps launching and wont go away, you may have contracted a virus. To fix that
problem and/or avoid getting any viruses in the future, make sure you purchase and install
an anti-virus program such as Norton
AntiVirus or Virex
and, most importantly, keep the virus definitions up to date. New computer viruses are
being developed and unleashed at an alarming rate and even if you have the most recent
version of an anti-virus program, you may still be at risk if the virus
definitionswhich is what looks for and erases specific virusesarent
If you come across generic Mac error messages that have specific numbers in them, you
might be able to find more information about them in this
article from Apples Technical Information Library. The article is a bit out of
date, but you still may find it helpful if you want to find out about certain types of
specific error codes. If youre still coming across Type 11 errors on your Power Mac,
you might want to read this
article (although updating to a current version of the MacOS would probably help as
Finally, if all else fails, there are several excellent Mac-specific troubleshooting
resources available here on the Web. Apples Tech Exchange and previously mentioned Technical Information Library, for example, are the
companys answer to Microsofts extensive Knowledge Base, and includes all
kinds of articles describing specific problems and offers solutions to those problems. The
Basic Troubleshooting Article
from the Tech Exchange, in particular, offers some great general troubleshooting advice.
You may also want to check MacFixIt, Macintosh Software & Extension Conflict
Troubleshooting, or other Mac sites you see listed on my Troubleshooting
Theres no question that the Macintosh and the Mac OS are great products, even if
they arent quite perfectyet. If you do run across problems, bear in mind some
of the previous tips, use some of the available resources and you should be able to keep
your Mac in top working form.