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How to Use Console: Your Mac's Diagnostic Diary

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The hardest part of fixing a computer problem is often identifying its cause. As operating systems become more advanced, this becomes increasingly challenging, so it's a good thing that OS X includes a handy utility called the Console. We'll walk you through what it is and how to use it, so you can become a master at diagnosing your computer's ailments.


Dear Diary

Fun fact: your computer is more diligent about keeping a journal than you are. Sure, you may write daily missives on the significant things in your life, but your Mac has you beat: it keeps a record of everything it ever does — literally. Not only that, but it makes these records available to you and helps you make use of them to understand what might be going wrong with the system.

The Console is, at heart, a log viewer, but it packs in some extra features that make sifting through the vast amounts of data more manageable.

An Open Book

Accessing the Console app is as easy as opening it from the Applications > Utilities folder. Alternatively, you could use your Command+Space shortcut to call up Spotlight and begin typing ‘Console' to access it.

However you call it up, the Console will open to a bewildering list of messages. The interface is built around the central section where the actual log messages appear, with some basic tools available along the top and a sidebar that you can open or close using the Show/Hide Log List button located in the top left corner.

Console's main interface
The Console: a whirlwind of log messages.

If you select the All Messages option in the sidebar, you'll be presented with a live look at your computer's activities — updating constantly. This is interesting to look at, but is often too cluttered to be of any real use, so how exactly are we supposed to use this thing?

What Am I Looking At?

The first step is knowing how to interpret the strings of messages flashing across your screen.

For starters, you can think of a log as OS X's way of organizing information about the operation of system processes or specific apps. Typically, each process or app will have its own log generated, but the formatting of those logs remains fairly consistent: a timestamp, followed by the name of the process/app, followed by the actual log message.

Anatomy of a Console message
The anatomy of a Console message: a timestamp, the process or app, and the message itself.

Occasionally, you will also see a small paperclip icon on the far right end of a log message. This indicates that the message shown is only a smaller part of a more extensive report, and clicking the icon will open the full text in your text editor.

The actual process names tend to be fairly obscure. Most of us probably wouldn't expect a name like “mdworker” to refer to the Spotlight process, but it does. On the other hand, “ReportCrash” is OS X's crash reporter and “backupd” is Time Machine, so not everything is incomprehensible.


Troubleshooting

If you're toying with the Console, then chances are you're trying to diagnose an issue with your computer. Since the swiftest way to learn is a trial by fire, let's try and find the root cause of a problem I'm having on my computer.

The issue is with Adobe Updater, which has spontaneously stopped updating my copy of Acrobat, offering only vague indications that updates could not be completed. Google searches for those generic errors have turned up nothing, so are we out of luck? Of course not — Console to the rescue!

Step 1: Narrow Down the Search

Adobe's updater log

Since we know that the error has something to do with Adobe, we can drill down in the Console to logs that pertain to Adobe's software rather than having to weather the barrage of messages that the “All Messages” view offers us.

To do this, we'll use the sidebar to look in “~/Library/Logs”. Sure enough, there's a listing for Adobe near the top, and if we click on the disclosure triangle we can see a few different entries, including one for “Adobe Acrobat Updater.log”. Perfect!

Step 2: Find the Error

Since we've found the log we need, we can browse through it and try to make sense of what our problem is. Since I've run the updater several times to try and get it to work, I'm noticing similar blocks of log material being repeated. Furthermore, toward the end of each block, I'm seeing a consistent message:

The offending error

This appears to be our culprit!

Step 3: Find the Solution

Now that we have an actual error code to work with, a quick Google search reveals that this error is caused by missing files in the installation. But why would I have missing files? The software works perfectly! Well, as it turns out, if you use any drive slimming software to remove excess language packs from your software, it can sometimes upset Adobe's updaters since they run an integrity check on the program before applying any updates.

Sure enough, I had performed some language pack slimming recently, but was thankfully able to reverse it by restoring my untouched Acrobat application from a backup (you're keeping good ones, of course, right?)

Problem Solved

You'll notice that we not only solved my little issue with almost no hassle, but we didn't even need to know what the log was talking about! Clearly we're not going to be able to interpret every log message and understand what the issue is, but we don't really need to — all we need to do is find a more precise description of what's going wrong.

This usage represents the most common scenario for popping open the Console, but you'll recall I mentioned that there's more to this app than basic log viewing.


Markers & View Options

If you're working on hunting an error in a log that has many updates, it can be easy to lose your place. Console offers a helping hand in the form of its marker functionality, which allows you to drop in a highlight on any message in the log. To do this, either use the Insert Marker button in the toolbar, or use the Option+Command+M shortcut.

Marker
Using this marker, I can see where one error cycle ends and the next begins.

Combined with Console's ability to alert you of new updates to the log you're viewing via dock bounces or automatically jumping to the foreground (accessible via its Preferences), you can easily keep a sharp eye on what's causing errors to crop up, which is particularly useful if you're trying to figure out how to reproduce them.

Likewise, to help alleviate some of the visual clutter, you can enable bold process names and icons from the View menu.

Advanced Techniques

If you want to get more involved, there are two more features you should be aware of. The first is Console's ability to open multiple windows. This becomes crucial when you're monitoring a process and want to clearly see its effects on something else — opening two windows and setting each to show a different log will give you a birds-eye view of the situation.

Console query
Setting up a query, which will then appear in the sidebar for easy access.

The best feature is the ability to define a custom query. By going to File > New System Log Query, you're able to set up a smart search that will appear in your sidebar and conform to the settings you've chosen. The uses are endless, from monitoring only activities that happen while your computer is idle overnight to seeking out all instances of a particular process' logs that are marked as being of a critical or emergency level.

Lastly, remember that for any log item you access, you can hit Command+R to reveal your selection in the Finder. This comes in handy when you're trying to report an error to a software developer and they ask you to send them the crash log. Once you've found it in the Console, revealing it in Finder allows you to quickly copy it into an email and deliver it.

Parting Thoughts

The Console is a powerful and flexible tool for diagnosing your computer's issues. It offers a glimpse into the inner functions of your Mac and can be very enlightening. That being said, there is a lot of information that goes into the Console that may seem threatening or problematic, but is in fact perfectly routine.

If you don't understand what a message is referring to, or it doesn't explicitly indicate that there's an error, it's most likely nothing to worry about. Next time you encounter a seemingly mysterious issue with your computer, you can feel more equipped to handle it on your own using the power of the Console!

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