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ATPM 8.11
November 2002



How To



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How To

by Paul Conaway,

Troubleshooting 101

Everybody has problems with their computer from time to time. Using my experience as a former help desk operator, the following article shows how I make sure that I experience few problems, and gives you a list of steps to take when problems occur.

The goal in troubleshooting a problem is to isolate the cause and correct it. This can easily be done by following a precise set of steps to determine the cause of the problem. In this article I will cover troubleshooting problems that can occur after installing new software or hardware. I would like to begin by providing some tips on how to minimize problems before they occur.

Problem Minimization

1. Backup your system.

Before making any changes to your system, back it up—regardless of whether you are adding hardware or software. Having a working backup is a must. With a working backup you can always restore your system to its previous state, in case you are unable to correct any problems you have after subsequent changes.

Most of the newer Macs come with a built-in CD burner, so backing up is as simple as dragging your System Folder (Mac OS 9, Disc Burner) to a new CD and ejecting the new disc afterwards. OS X users will find this a little more difficult, but last month’s article on cloning a Mac contains useful instructions on successfully backing up in OS X.

To be completely safe, back up your entire hard drive; another alternative is to back up just the System Folder and your data files. You can always restore programs if you have to erase your hard drive and start over. I can’t stress enough how important a backup is.

2. Make one change to your system at a time.

I know this takes longer, but it makes troubleshooting a lot easier.

3. Make sure your system is compatible.

Make sure your system meets the minimum requirements for whatever you are installing. Also make sure the hardware has compatible drivers. Always read the Read Me files.


There are a number of Web sites that can also be helpful. is a great place to check to see if there have been any problems with what you are installing. (Only the most recent information is available subscription-free.) A couple of other places that are helpful reference sources are and

Community-based Web sites are also useful. One example is, a place where Macintosh users ask questions and share Mac-related discussions. There are plenty of communities out there, but I am partial to as I moderate one of the forums there.

Usenet news groups are a great source of information. If you are not familiar with Usenet news groups, you can find the most relevant news group on Google Groups, although your ISP probably provides access to Usenet news groups besides. In news groups, you post a message to the specific news group best equipped to handle your question. comp.sys.mac.databases, for instance, would be the news group for database questions.

Finally, mailing lists can be quite helpful. Subscribe to a mailing list with your e-mail address, and you become part of a larger community holding a group discussion. Generally, when someone sends a message to a mailing list everyone on the list receives the message. You have to be a subscriber to the list to post a message. With most mailing lists you are given the option of subscribing to a daily digest, containing all the messages posted to the list that day. This means only having to wade through one long e-mail instead of lots of short ones. macosx-support is an OS X support mailing list on Yahoo! Groups.

As you can see, there are multiple support options available if you run into trouble. I recommend using more than one service, as different people tend to frequent different venues. Find the ones that suit you best.

I now want to describe the steps necessary to troubleshoot new installations of software or hardware.

Basic Troubleshooting Steps

1. Install new product.

2. Reboot and test. If something goes wrong, go to step 3. If not, end.

3. Reset to base system configuration plus new product only. Test. If problem disappears, go to step 4. If not, go to step 5.

4. Add an additional piece of software/hardware and then test. Repeat until testing reveals a problem.

5. Find out if there is a newer version of the conflicting software or if there is a known incompatibility with your configuration. If hardware, make sure it is compatible with your system.

System Folder Troubleshooting

1. Upon restarting, if something stops working check to see what files the new software installed.

All good installers generate a log file; check this for specific information as to what was installed where. If stuck without a log file, Installer Observer takes snapshots of your System Folder if run before and after the installation process, and will tell you what has changed. Another piece of useful software is Conflict Catcher. Most software problems are caused by conflicts with other System Folder items; Conflict Catcher tries to root out potential conflicts, but it also lets to manage your System Folder items such as extensions and control panels.

2. Load only the basic system.

In OS 9, disable anything in Extensions Manager that isn’t a part of the basic system. Enable all of the newly installed software’s System Folder items. Reboot and see if the new application works. If it does, start enabling disabled System Folder items one at a time, rebooting each time and testing the application until it doesn’t work, in which case the last System Folder item you enabled will be the conflicting item.

3. Now that you have determined the problem, find out if there is a newer version or a workaround for your particular situation.

Check and any other of your support sources to find any known incompatibilities.

Hardware Troubleshooting

1. Install or connect the hardware and load any software that comes with the hardware. Reboot. If your hardware does not work as advertised, go to step 2.

2. Disconnect everything except the basic system (keyboard, mouse, monitor, and computer) then add your new hardware and test. If it still doesn’t work, try installing the new hardware plus its software on another computer. If it still doesn’t work you may have a faulty piece of hardware. If it does work, start adding the rest of your hardware one piece at a time until the new hardware doesn’t work any more.

3. Now the hard part begins. There could be all kinds of reasons for a hardware conflict. Be sure to try different configurations. Put the new device first in the hardware chain or last in the chain. Make sure that the device is configured correctly for your situation. Visit the manufacturer’s Web site and other troubleshooting sites to determine if there are any fixes that you can try.

Software Troubleshooting

Software troubleshooting is more involved. At each step below, stop when the problem disappears. Also, any software that loads during startup may be affected by the order in which it loads. Change the load order for the problematic piece of software. This usually can be done through a startup manager such as Conflict Catcher, or by renaming the extension or control panel.

1. Remove the preference file associated with the software that you are having trouble with.

This can easily be accomplished by moving the file out of the System Folder’s Preferences folder (in OS 9) or the Library folder’s Preferences folder in your home directory (in OS X). Sometimes removing the file from your system completely is the only way to disassociate it with software. Backing up the associated preference file to another computer is a good way to preserve your settings. Reboot and test.

2. Rebuild the desktop file (OS 9 only).

This can be done by restarting your computer and holding down the Command and Option keys during startup. At the end of the boot process you will be asked if you want to rebuild the desktop. Click OK and allow the computer to rebuild the desktop. (Micromat offers a free utility called TechTool Lite which will do steps 2 and 3 for you.) Reboot and test.

3. “Zap” the Parameter RAM. To zap the PRAM, restart your computer and hold down the keys Command, Option, P, and R. Make sure you hear the startup chimes twice before letting go. Test.

4. Remove the problematic software along with all files related to it, except documents created using the software. Reboot and reinstall the software.

5. Run disk drive utilities such as Disk First Aid and Norton Disk Doctor (part of Norton Utilities and Norton SystemWorks). Fix any problems. Reboot and test.

If these steps don’t fix problems being experienced with the software you will need to start to research your problem. is a great place to start, and there are plenty of other places to look. Be sure to check the software publisher’s Web site to make sure you have the latest version; there may be a version of the software which fixes the problem that you are encountering.


In conclusion, remember you are not alone. Someone else has probably had the same problem you have and will be able to help, so don’t be afraid to ask. Community sites are great places to ask for help. Also remember that all experts at one time had the same level of experience you have.

Be specific when you are asking questions. Questions such as “my computer doesn’t work, what’s wrong with it?” are not at all helpful in diagnosing a problem, but saying “I get a type 2 error when launching Microsoft Word” is much more specific. Always write down error messages exactly as they appear, as this helps to a great extent whoever is trying to provide support. Remember, once you isolate problems you are on the road to solving them.

If you have any questions or comments about this article, please feel free to contact me.

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