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5 Quick Fixes to Common Mac Problems

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As Mac users we’re used to not having to frequently troubleshoot our computer problems. However, that doesn’t mean that our Macs don’t misbehave from time to time. In this first of a two-part tutorial, we’ll detail five quick fixes to your Mac’s most common problems.

What’s a quick fix?

It’s exactly what it sounds like - it’s something that is very simple (usually a key combination or quick command) that is the first attempt by technicians to repair a problem quickly and simply. In tech support, time is a crucial factor for both technician and user. The user has to experience downtime and the technician is usually performance-measured on time to fix. Since most common issues are reasonably simple to resolve (despite the symptoms) then trying a ten-second fix makes much more sense than spending hours on a convoluted troubleshooting process.

“Other things being equal, a simpler explanation is better than a more complex one” - Ockham’s Razor

Let’s take a look at an example of a quick fix and assume we have a MacBook Pro that isn’t able to open any web pages. We could spend a lot of time reinstalling software, booting into safe mode, trying to use recovery tools, etc. The quick fix? Check the Wi-Fi. Many a time I’ve had worried users on the phone to report their Mac doesn’t connect to the Internet and it turned out that the Wi-Fi had just been switched off.

The Fix List

Before we begin, all the fixes we’re showing you are perfectly safe as long as you enter them (or perform them) exactly as described. They aren’t invasive in any way. However, always make sure you have a backup of your computer, not only in case a fix that’s performed causes your Mac to become unresponsive, but it’s just a good idea in general!

In addition, I’ll be including links to Apple support documents when available for further reading.

Power Cycle

You’ve no doubt heard the infamous line “have you tried turning it off and on again?” It actually has merit and is the first thing any user should do at the first signs of trouble. Restarting your computer boots the operating system again. If something had crashed and is slowing the Mac down or a particular function is having trouble working, most times a restart will fix it.

The Fix

Ideally, restarting your Mac should always be done gracefully - and I don’t mean with a pirouette! This means a clean shutdown or restart where your Mac was told to restart through the correct menu. A forced shutdown by holding the power key should only ever be used if all else fails - on modern Macs it’s unlikely to cause further issues but it could be enough to push an existing issue over the edge and make it worse.

Pressing the power button to turn it off should only be done when all else fails
Pressing the power button to turn it off should only be done when all else fails.

What Will it Fix?

Almost everything! If you suspect your Mac of misbehaving, give it a restart. In the age where most of us are using a portable computer, it’s all to easy to forget that every now and then restarting it is a troubleshooting step. We simply close the lid or let it go to sleep, this doen’t count as a shutdown as it resumes exactly where it left off.

Tip: If you’re not sure when the last time you restarted your Mac was, open Terminal and enter uptime followed by pressing enter. This will tell you the amount of time your Mac has been running its current session of OS X for. Restarting your Mac resets this. The time is displayed as days, hours, minutes.

Remove Unused Apps

Fix Type: Software

Sometimes a software problem is actually caused by another app that’s incompatible. While most Mac applications are just an app in the Applications folder, they can still place additional files elsewhere. In addition, applications such as Adobe Creative Suite have full installers rather than the more widely used drag and drop or installing from the App Store.

The Fix

Removing unused software will not only make sure potential incompatibilities are avoided but it’ll free up disk space as well.

Apps installed from the Mac App Store (as well as most downloaded apps) can simply be trashed. The way developers have to follow guidelines to have their apps approved mean that all their required files have to be within the app. Sure, there’ll be some preference files and temporary cache files, but they won’t be used by any other app and will remain dormant.

Removing apps can be done traditionally through the Applications folder or even through Launchpad
Removing apps can be done traditionally through the Applications folder or even through Launchpad.

There are dedicated uninstall tools available that scan your hard drive for related files. An example is an app called CleanMyMac. As well as offering other methods of file deletion, it includes a dedicated uninstaller.

Learn more about CleanMyMac Software.

To use these types of apps, you usually drag the app you want to remove onto it. In addition to removing the app, it’ll look for related files. An example of where this is useful is Spotify. If you’ve used Spotify before then you know you can cache music for offline use. Lets say you have done this for a playlist of about 200 songs and then remove Spotify. That cache file isn’t in the app, it’s in your home folder somewhere. Removing the app is ok but you’re left with about 4GB of wasted space. This is where uninstall tools such as CleanMyMac come into their own as they’ll sniff out these extra files and folders and group them all together.

Tip: Tip: Most of these tools use educated guesses and mostly get it right with the extra files and folders they find. However, they’re never 100%, so always check before just hitting that Confirm button!

Apps that have an installer such as Adobe Creative Suite will have their own recommended method of removal. These apps are a lot more invasive and will have other related files and software installed in places other than the Applications folder. Use their required removal tool first as simply trashing the app could lead to more problems.

What Will it Fix?

As mentioned earlier, it’ll free up hard drive space and also prevent other applications from having trouble. Microsoft Office 2011 doesn’t automatically remove Microsoft Office 2008 from your Mac. If you created a file in Office 2011 then accidentally opened Office 2008, it might report a problem opening the file. Office 2008 then might set itself to be the default app to open all your Word documents, thus giving the impression that Word doesn’t work anymore.

NVRAM Reset

Fix Type: Keyboard Shortcut

The NVRAM Reset is a simple key combination that’s performed at startup. The NVRAM is a special part of the system memory that your Mac uses to store particular hardware settings. You may sometimes hear this referred to as a PRAM Reset (especially from old-school Mac technicians) though they are actually the same thing. The difference is simply that on Intel-based Macs, the special memory is referred to as NVRAM and on older PowerPC (G3, G4, G5) Macs it’s called PRAM.

So what does the NVRAM store?

  • Speaker volume
  • Screen resolution
  • Startup disk selection
  • Recent kernel panic information, (if any)

Tip: More detailed information on the NVRAM is available over at Apple Support.

The Fix

Power off your Mac. Power it back on again while holding the key combination Command+Option+P+R.

Your Mac will sound like it’s booting (with the chime) and then your screen may flicker. Your Mac then reboots and chimes a second time. On the second chime, let go of the keys.

Holding down these four keys will reset the NVRAM
Holding down these four keys will reset the NVRAM

What Will it Fix?

Resetting the NVRAM will usually resolve the following issues:

  • No sound through speakers
  • Screen resolution not changing correctly
  • Issues using an external display
  • Mac takes a long time to boot (it might be looking for a different startup disk, delaying booting)

Even if your problem isn't be listed above, resetting the PRAM is actually a good starting point. It’s so simple to do and it doesn’t harm your Mac in any way.

Disk Permissions

Fix Type: Software

Repairing disk permissions uses the application Disk Utility that’s located in your Applications > Utilities folder. It’s an often illusive process that seems to fix a wide variety of issues.

Permissions are a set of access rights on each file and folder. For example, if you have more than one user account on your Mac, each user can’t view the files of the other user. They don’t have permission to. Permissions can be changed at any time by the owner of the file (a file you created) or by the system, depending on the situation.

Now, Disk Utility doesn’t repair all file permissions. Disk Utility repairs Apple-related permissions on files and folders. Effectively, it addresses operating system related files. So how do permissions change?

If you’ve ever installed a driver or some software and it prompted you to enter your administrator password, it may need to make a temporary change to a file’s permission so it can work. This is especially true of printer drivers. Now, many installations don’t change the permissions back (or don’t know how to). This means that permissions that an installation changed didn’t get changed back. It’s not a very big deal, but sometimes you can find your Mac just isn’t working quite right.

Tip: More detailed information on repairing Disk Permissions is available over at Apple Support.

The Fix

To repair disk permissions, simply perform the following:

  1. Open Disk Utility (located in Applications > Utilities or Spotlight “Disk Utility”)
  2. Select your startup disk (if in doubt, it’s usually the first one in the list)
  3. Click Repair Permissions

Tip: You can also run Verify Disk to check the physical disk and see if there are any problems. If there are, we’ve got you covered later on!

Disk Utility’s permissions repair is straightforward to use
Disk Utility’s permissions repair is straightforward to use

What will it fix?

This is a tough question since there’s so many things it can fix. Among the (many, many) problems it can fix, it’s been known to fix:

  • Printer issues
  • Problems running software
  • Installation issues of software and drivers
  • Slow boot times
  • Freezing and crashing

Just like the NVRAM installation, I’d highly recommend performing this as a first or second step. Even if the problem wasn’t resolved with permissions repair, it’s still worth running it anyway!

Software Updates

Fix Type: Software

A lot of the time a problem can be resolved simply by updating software. It may not necessarily be the most obvious choice, but the act of updating your software is a crucial part of the troubleshooting process.

Apple has included Software Update features for a long time in OS X and with Mountain Lion, they’ve moved it to within the Mac App Store so that 3rd party apps purchased through the store are updated at the same time.

Software Updates are now found in the App Store since the introduction of Mountain Lion
Software Updates are now found in the App Store since the introduction of Mountain Lion

Although software updates are very important, I’ve met a lot of users who are actually afraid of updating their computer for fear of causing it to stop working. While it’s true that on both OS X and Windows, occasionally an update is released that didn’t work quite right, it’s so rare for it to happen that it’s something to not really worry about. A good rule of thumb is to wait about a fortnight before installing updates straight away. Sometimes you can’t - maybe an update to iTunes is needed because you want to use your latest iDevice that needs it.

Tip: To make sure your Mac will have no problems with updates, always make sure any software you use from day to day is compatible. Packages such as Adobe Creative Suite or Microsoft Office are often known for having trouble with OS X updates.

Software updates are not just limited to OS X and Apple software. Software such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite have their own updaters. Utilising these frequently (or at least setting them to check for updates once a week) will ensure you won’t have problems with them either.

Tip: More detailed information on Apple Software Update is available over at Apple Support.

The Fix

OS X Mountain Lion

To update your software, simply open the Mac App Store using the Apple menu on the top left and then select updates. Any system updates and applications purchased through the App Store will display an update if available.

OS X Lion and Below

You will still use the Mac App Store to update 3rd party apps you’ve purchased but system updates are available through Software Update. This is also in the Apple menu on the top left of the screen.

Using Terminal

Oh yes, you can use Terminal to update your Mac. This is very useful if you’re finding some apps won’t run properly or have a problem opening Software Update or the App Store.

If you have remote access to a Mac or cannot run updates traditionally, Terminal is a good alternative
If you have remote access to a Mac or cannot run updates traditionally, Terminal is a good alternative

In Terminal, you can list all available updates for your Mac using the command sudo softwareupdate -l.

To install all available updates (recommended), use the command sudo softwareupdate -ia.

Using Terminal has its advantages, but unless you're comfortable in a command line environment, I recommend sticking to the default apps.

Combo Updates

Every time an update is released to OS X (for example, 10.8.2), Apple releases an update commonly referred to as a Combined Update, which technicians refer to as a Combo. These are all updates Apple has released for that version of OS X since launch. So, the 10.8.2 Combo would include every security and update since 10.8. This doesn’t mean the update is massive in terms of file size, a lot of the time updates overwrite files it already updated, so they usually hang around the 1.5GB–2GB mark.

Combo updates also work well if your Mac is up to date but you suspect it’s software. You can reinstall your software updates by downloading and installing a Combo update at any time.

Tip: Combo updates are available from Apple’s support download page.

What Will it Fix?

Your Mac may be experiencing a problem that Apple specifically releases a software update for. Your Mac may even be experiencing a problem not quite the same as the update describes but it can still fix it anyway. Either way, an up to date Mac not only is a good quick fix but it also eliminates old software from your troubleshooting steps.

I was recently experiencing some heavy crashing on an OS X 10.7.4 Mac. For some reason, any time I would try to use Quick Look, the Finder would crash. Most apps would crash on launch - it was incredibly frustrating! I first did an NVRAM reset and then repaired permissions but the problem still persisted. At that point, I ran Software Update, but it would crash too! I was able to update the Mac through Terminal though. There were a couple of updates including 10.7.5, so I installed the updates and voila, no more crashing!

You may experience a similar situation to what I did. If you find your Mac isn’t behaving itself, it’s acting odd, updating your software is yet another quick fix.

Wrapping Up

In this first of a two-part tutorial, we’ve looked at the five most most common fixes to problems you might have. Knowing about these will aid your attempts to resolve issues if your Mac should have any. Keep checking Mactuts+ for the second part of our tutorial, in which we’ll look at five more quick fixes. What are your preferred fixes? Have any of these worked for you in the past? Let us know in the comments!

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