Have you ever had your Mac crash and burn? Not literally burn, but most of us, at one time or another, thought our Macs were dying. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens.
The feeling is unmistakable. You see the screen go crazy or not go at all. Then your Mac’s behavior becomes all wonky. How do you fix your Mac when it crashes, burns, and seemingly dies?
Been there, done that, don’t like it. There are two simple rules to remember about your Mac. Rule #1: sooner or later, it will crash, burn, die. Rule #2: an extra hard drive is your friend.
I’ve been playing with Macs for a very, very long time. Heed those two axioms of Mac life and you make your Mac experience a good one. Ignore either one, and the technology gods will laugh at your terror and fear and taunt you all the more.
Sometimes I troll around on the Apple Discussions Forums. It’s an interesting place. We love our Mac brethren but they can do some crazy things with their Macs.
The Mac can do some crazy things by itself. The Apple support discussions area lists all the basic Macs and Mac software, from OS X to iWork, from Mac mini to MacPro, and everything in between.
This is a good site to visit when your Mac has become a problem. If not, it’s a good site to visit just to make you feel good about how well behaved your Mac is. Today. Tomorrow is another day.
In the Mac OS X Leopard Discussion Forum you’ll find Mac users with problem after problem. In some cases, their Macs crashed, figuratively burned, and seems dead.
For others, a trip to the local Apple Store and Genius Bar may be a quick solution. It doesn’t take long for a true Genius to figure out what’s wrong with an errant Mac, and recommend a solution.
For Mac users not within driving distance of an Apple Store or some other service outlet, what can you do to figure out what’s wrong with your Mac and why it’s wronging you?
Find Out What’s Wrong
It’s easier than you may think to get a sick, non-booting Mac back to good health. Let’s assume that your Mac does not have a hardware problem, but OS X just decided to do a Windows event, give you the Screen ‘O Death, and make you miserable.
Where’s your back up hard drive? Don’t have one? Go back to my Rule #2 above, and get one. It’s really, really important if you value your music, photos, movies, files, email, and everything else you plunk down on your Mac.
Assuming you still have an ill Mac, and you just purchased a new external Mac hard drive, there’s a way to test your Mac’s problems, and perhaps even bring it back to good health. How? Read on…
OS X Installation
Reinstall OS X on that shiny new hard drive. Go on. Try it. It’s fun. It’s easy. It’s a good way to help isolate a Mac’s problem personality, and a good learning experience so you won’t feel so frustrated, helpless, and fearful next time. Practice makes perfect.
Plug in the external hard drive to your Mac, Firewire or USB (it depends, but most recent model Macs will boot up with USB drives, too). Put your Mac OS X Leopard install DVD into your Mac and turn it on.
Immediately press the “C” key so your Mac will start up with the DVD (other options). In a few minutes your Mac should have OS X onscreen, ready to install onto your new hard drive.
Here’s the fork in the road. If your Mac still doesn’t start up, or starts up and behaves all wonky all over again, even using the Leopard installation DVD, then you’ll need to head to a Genius Bar, repair center, or call Apple. When hardware breaks, there’s not much we can do other than swap out RAM chips and hard drives.
By the way, some Macs get very wonky with bad RAM and a dying hard drive. Strange things happen. Crashes. Slow performance. Odd behavior. If you can isolate those two items—RAM and hard drive—both are easily replaced in new Macs.
Taking the other fork in the road will get you a second hard drive with Mac OS X running on it, which will allow you to retrieve all your Mac’s files (assuming the Mac’s hard drive isn’t dead—remember the need to back up? Rule #2?).
Walk through the OS X Leopard installation process. You’ll probably need to partition or format the new external hard drive. Use Disk Utility for that. It’s rather self explanatory.
Installing OS X will let you know that the installation process is rather easy, doesn’t take much effort, though it may take awhile (and it assumes that your Mac’s hardware is alright, but that OS X or something else really went wonky). Once OS X is installed you’ll be able to start up your Mac using the external hard drive.
Once the Mac is up and running, take a few minutes to log on to the internet and use System Preferences’ Software Update to download and install all the recent OS X updates and security updates. Again, these steps are easy. Most of your time will be spent waiting for the update to finish.
Once the updates are done, you’re almost finished. OS X may reboot several times, but that’s expected. Again, OS X tells you what it’s doing and why. After that, you’ll want to copy your important Mac files from your old hard drive to your new, working hard drive.
That can be handled via drag and drop, though you must be careful to make sure you’ve copied everything important. Music, Pictures, Movies, email messages, and so on. Most of those files are in your home folder which you can drag over to your new hard drive for temporary safe keeping.
Send In The Clones
Assuming your Mac’s external hard drive is working just fine and you’ve copied all your important files to it, and the Mac is still functioning properly, it’s time to get OS X back onto the Mac’s internal hard drive (again, this assumes that OS X caused your problems, not a hardware issue).
This is where the fun really begins. Use Disk Utility to partition or format your Mac’s internal hard drive. Once that’s done I recommend either SuperDuper! or Carbon Copy Cloner to simply clone your external hard drive to the blank internal hard drive.
Both are free for cloning a Mac’s hard drive. It may take an hour or so to do the clone, so relax awhile. Once it’s done, use System Preferences’ Startup Disk to restart your Mac, and you should be back to normal, and have a clean backup external hard drive, too.
As you can tell, this is a generalized way to fix a sick Mac, get a back up hard drive up and running, and learn something along the way. There are dozens of variations to this method, so your mileage may vary.
Most problems I’ve had with my Macs through the years came from software, often OSX, rather than hardware. There’s a nearly infinite number of things which can go wrong with software. Hardware, too, but they’re easier to isolate the problems (screen, motherboard, RAM, hard drive, power supply, etc.).
In summary, when your Mac goes crazy, crashes, and seems to die, it doesn’t take much effort to get it going again, or, in the process, isolate what’s probably wrong.
And, yes, there are dozens of other methods you can employ to get a Mac back on its digital feet. AppleJack is nice, but not for the faint of heart. Time Machine can work, too, but also requires another hard drive. Installing OS X via Archive and Install can work as well. Remember, Rule #1 will happen. Rule #3 is your friend.
For those more experienced Mac users, share with our readers what you do when your Mac goes bad. How do you troubleshoot a Mac? What’s your back up plan? Share thoughts in the Comments section below.