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Chapter 4. System Errors: Living with th... > Solve It! Recurring System Errors

Solve It! Recurring System Errors

If you have been directed to this section, you presumably have a recurring system error. If the error recurs, you probably want to eliminate it. Doing so requires using diagnostic guidelines, as follows:

Seek the Cause of a Recurring System Error

Suspect recent changes in the contents of your disk (such as a new system extension or an upgrade of the system software) as being the most likely culprits for a recurring system error. In general, the most common causes of system errors are software conflicts or incompatibilities, software bugs, and damaged software.

What Circumstances, If Any, Reliably Cause the System Error?

To see whether a system error recurs, first try to exactly duplicate the precipitating situation (for example, reopen all applications and documents that were open at the time of the error).

System errors can be quite finicky about when they recur. Perhaps the error occurs only when you choose Check Spelling immediately after you select Save, for example. It may happen only when you choose the command while a specific graphics application is also open. Or it may occur only when a specific startup extension is in use. Or it may occur only when many applications are open and memory is running low. You don't really know for sure whether a system error will recur until you repeat the exact circumstances.

More generally, note what process is typically taking place when the error occurs. Does it occur only at startup, when you are launching an application, or when you are printing? This, too, is an important diagnostic cue. Errors that occur while extensions are loading at startup, for example, are almost certainly due to an extensions conflict.

What Variations in Circumstances, If Any, Will Eliminate the System Error?

If you get the system error to reliably recur under a specific set of circumstances, your next step is determining how altering those circumstances affects the error. Suppose that a crash occurs after you choose Check Spelling in your word processor. Does it happen regardless of what documents, other applications, and other extensions are open and/or in use at the same time? Do other commands result in the same type of system error? Does the error recur when you are working with other documents and/or trying similar procedures with other applications?

If the error recurs only whenever a specific document is open, it suggests a problem with the document. If the error happens across all documents within an application, the problem is most likely with the application. If the error keeps recurring during the launch of the program, it usually means there is damage to the application (or one of its accessory files). If it happens across several applications, it is most likely an extensions conflict, a bug, or incompatibility in the system software.

Whatever happens, ideally you can narrow down or isolate the cause of the system error via this approach.

What If the System Error Recurs at Unpredictable Intervals and in Different Situations?

System errors that occur at unpredictable intervals or in apparently unrelated situations are the worst-case scenario, because it is hard to know whether and when the problem has gone away.

The single most likely cause of these types of system errors is a startup extensions conflict. The second most likely cause is corrupted system software, particularly the System file or the Finder. A corrupted font file can also cause system errors. Damage to the directory, the desktop, or the disk driver is also a possible cause. SCSI-connection or other hardware-related problems may similarly lead to system errors. Computer viruses are yet another cause of widespread system errors. Check out the next section of this chapter ("Fix It So That the System Error Does Not Recur") for a complete list of possible causes and where to find out what to do about them.

  • SEE Chapter 3 for more on information general problem-solving strategies.

BY THE WAY — Slow Down

Some system crashes occur because you are trying to do too much too fast. If this seems to be a possibility, slow down. Simply trying everything again, but at a slower pace, may solve the problem. In particular, don't choose several commands in rapid succession, especially from different applications (such as printing in one application and then quickly opening a large graphic document in another). Also, don't have too many background activities going on at one time (such as background printing and copying files).

Fix It So That the System Error Does Not Recur

After you narrow down the cause as much as possible, it's time to do something to fix the problem. This section provides a list of suggestions. Don't worry if you do not entirely understand all the terms (such as device driver or SCSI). These terms are explained in more detail in the indicated Fix-Its.

TAKE NOTE — Before You Take Another Step

It would take time and effort to try all the Fix-Its listed on the following pages. And most of them (perhaps all but one of them) have little benefit for your particular problem.

If you have followed all the steps in this chapter up to now, however, you may have narrowed down the likely cause. So if a damaged document seems likely, go right to that step. You don't have to try the next strategies in any specific order.

Otherwise, bear in mind that system-error problems are mentioned in different contexts throughout this book. You may want to look in these other, more specific chapters, before checking here.

Still, this section serves as a last resort for the most general case, when you have little or no insight about the cause of the system error and, therefore, have no basis for limiting the scope of your search. The first few causes account for almost all system-error problems. You are unlikely to have to go too far down the list.

  • SEE Chapter 5 for system errors at startup.

  • Chapter 6 for system errors when launching an application or when copying or deleting files.

  • Chapter 7 for more information on system errors specific to printing.

  • Chapter 11 for more information on system errors specific to PowerBooks.

  • Chapters 12 and 13 for more information on system errors specific to online connections.

  • Chapter 14 for more information on system errors specific to the iMac, iBook and newer Mac models.

  • Chapter 15 for more information on system errors specific to the latest versions of the Mac OS.

Check for Hardware and/or System Software That Is Incompatible with the Application in Use

If the system error is specific to a particular application, check its manual for any troubleshooting advice. In particular, check for any mention of incompatibilities between the application and either the particular hardware or any version of the system software you are using. An application may crash when launched on a G3 Mac but not other Macs, for example. A game may crash if you try to run it with virtual memory turned on. In general, new versions of an application sometimes do not work with older versions of the system software. Similarly, older versions of the application sometimes do not work with newer versions of the system software.

  • SEE Fix-It #1 on incompatibilities between software and hardware.

  • Fix-It #4 on system software problems.

Install the Latest System Update (Fixes System Software Bugs)

Apple now releases system software updates on a regular basis. (It claims that it expects to release one at least every three months.) Updates of specific components of its software, such as QuickTime, may get released separately. Apple literally comes out with some sort of update almost every week. Try to stay up to date, as difficult as this may sound. Checking online is the best way to stay current.

  • SEE Fix-It #16 for more information on getting online help and technical support.

Check for Software Bugs in the Application

If you suspect a bug in the application, your only recourses are to find a workaround, avoid using the offending software, or get a bug-fixed upgrade to the software (if one is available). Call the software vendor (or check its Web site) to find out about known workarounds and upgrades. Often, publishers release minor maintenance updates designed to fix bugs. Sometimes, they send you these updates only if you call to complain. So call and complain. Remember, you cannot fix buggy software yourself.

  • SEE Fix-It #16 for more information on getting online help and technical support.

Turn Off Selected Options in Memory and Turn Off Sharing Setup Control Panels

Turn off File Sharing in the Sharing Setup control panel. In the Memory control panel, turn virtual memory off or reduce its size. Apple reports that setting virtual memory to more than 20MB, for example, can result in a error of type −250. In some cases, reducing the size of the disk cache may prevent certain system errors.

Check for Startup Extensions Conflicts

Turn off all your startup extensions (files that load into memory at startup). To do so, restart the Macintosh while holding down the Shift key. Continue to hold down the key until the desktop appears. If this procedure eliminates your system error, you have a startup extensions problem.

Be especially wary of extensions that actively process information in the background, such as antivirus utilities. These utilities are a particularly common source of extensions conflicts. In some cases, you can turn off the offending feature without disabling the entire extension. You can turn off the antivirus option that scans an application on launch, for example, while retaining the rest of its virus-protection features. This can prevent certain crashes that would otherwise occur when you launch an application.

Be especially careful never to use two extensions that do essentially the same thing, such as two screen savers. This is an almost sure way to cause problems.

  • SEE Fix-It #3 on resolving startup extensions problems.

Check for Memory-Allocation Problems

Whether or not a software bug is the ultimate cause, the immediate cause of many system errors is a memory problem. Usually, this means that an application or extension is trying to grab some memory that, for one reason or another, it can't have. Memory problems are the most common cause of an unexpected quit.

Some recurring system errors can be solved simply by allocating more memory to the application via its Get Info window. (To access this window, select the application icon and press Command-I). For starters, try increasing the preferred memory size by several hundred K (assuming that you have the memory to do so). Related solutions are covered in the relevant Fix-Its.

If the problem occurs while you're trying to print, try turning off background printing.

  • SEE Chapter 7 for more information on printing-related problems.

  • Fix It #3 on problems with startup extensions.

  • Fix It #5 on memory-management problems.

Zap the PRAM

Zapping the PRAM may eliminate certain system-crash problems or at least make them go away for a while. This technique been especially recommended for Type 11 errors with Power Macs.

  • SEE Fix-It #9 for details on how to zap your PRAM.

Check for Damaged Document Files

If a crash occurred while a document file was open, you may find that you lost what was not saved before the error and also that your entire document is corrupted. It either does not open at all or displays random gibberish.

If such a problem occurs, the crash may have been the cause of the damage to the file. Alternatively, the damage may be the cause of the crash, in which case trying to open the document will surely cause the crash to recur.

In either case, the preferred solution is to delete the damaged file and replace it with a copy from your backups. This technique by itself may solve the system error problem. If you do not have a backup copy of the file, you can try to repair the file or at least recover data from it before you discard it. For starters, if you can open the file (most often, you cannot), try copying the document to a new file by choosing the Save As command. Otherwise, you will probably want help from a recovery utility.

  • SEE Fix-It #11 for more information on recovering data from damaged files.

Check for Other Damage

A mixed bag of related causes fall into this area:

  • System software (System, Finder, Updates Finder preferences, and so on) If you have TechTool Pro, it checks to see whether your System file, Finder, Update, and/or Enabler files are damaged. (Make sure that you have the latest version of the software if you have a new-model Mac.) The freeware version of TechTool does a similar check, but only for the System file.

    If you have an extensions manager, such as Conflict Catcher, it can check for possibly damaged startup extensions (from Apple system software as well as from third-party software).

    Otherwise, replace the System, Finder, and Enabler/Update files if you have backups. Delete the Finder Preferences file (drag the file to the Trash, restart, and then empty the Trash). Make sure that you are using matching and most recent versions of all system software files and that they are designed for your model of Macintosh. If there is any doubt, do a clean reinstall of the entire system software. Make sure that you are using the most recent version of the Mac OS ROM file (and if you are, consider dropping down to an older version to see whether that helps).

    By the way, if a freeze occurs while you are using the Scrapbook desk accessory, the problem is more likely due to damage in the Scrapbook file (located in the root level of the System Folder) than to the Scrapbook desk accessory itself (located in the Apple Menu Items folder). Delete the file after recovering items from it, if necessary, by using a utility such as Can Opener (as described in Fix-It #11). Similarly, for problems with the Clipboard, delete the Clipboard file, if you find one in the System Folder. In either case, the Mac creates a new replacement file when needed.

  • Program preferences A program's preferences file may be damaged. To fix the problem, locate and delete the file. Go to the Preferences folder, located in the System Folder, and locate the preferences file that appears to match the problem application (such as Word Settings for Microsoft Word). Delete this file. Do this while the application is closed. Do this after starting up with extensions off, if you are doing it for a control panel.

    The program automatically makes a new preferences file when you next use it. You may have to reselect any customized preference settings.

  • Font files A font file may be damaged. Also suspect font-related problems, among other possible causes, if you have system errors that occur only when trying to print.

  • Directory Check for damage to the directory files on your disk. If you find directory damage, and it cannot be repaired, you have to reformat the disk.

    Check for a damaged desktop file by rebuilding the desktop.

  • Media damage With any type of damaged file, there is the possibility of associated media damage. If so, the disk will probably have to be reformatted.

Check for More than One System Folder on the Startup Disk

Although opinions on this issue remain divided, the presence of two or more System Folders on the same startup disk could cause system crashes. With recent versions of the Mac OS (8.0 or later), this is extremely unlikely. Still, to be safe, if you find more than one System Folder on your startup volume, make all but one unusable. You can do this by dragging the Finder out of the folder and storing it somewhere else or deleting it. Even compressing the Finder and leaving it in the System Folder should work. You can always reverse this procedure if you want to use the System Folder as the active folder at some later point. If you have no use for these additional System Folders, just trash them and regain the disk space they are wasting.

By the way, the folder that is currently considered to be the active System Folder is the one that has a mini Mac OS icon on its folder icon. Removing the Finder from that folder will force a second System Folder on your drive to become the active folder the next time you restart. You cannot delete the active System Folder. If that's what you want to do, restart using the newly active System Folder and then delete the formerly active folder.

Check for Multiple Copies of Applications and Related Files

Although it is only rarely a source of system-error problems, make sure that you do not have two different versions of the same application on your disk. If possible, check for files related to the application that may have two versions in the System Folder (such as two slightly differently named preferences files). If you find any out-of-date files, delete them. Use only your newest version.

Check for Viruses

Suspect a virus if you are having frequently recurring system errors that show no predictable pattern. It is especially likely if the problem begins immediately after you've added a potentially infected file to your disk.

Check for Problems with the Hard Disk's Device Driver

The device driver is software contained on a hard disk that the Macintosh needs to recognize and interact with the disk. This software is contained in an area of the drive that is normally inaccessible to the user. It may become damaged. Also, an older version of the driver may be incompatible with newer versions of the system software and newer models of Macintoshes. In such cases, the driver needs to be replaced or updated.

Check for Hardware Problems: Cable Connections, Peripheral Devices, SIMMs, and Logic Board

This is an especially likely cause if you are having frequent system crashes and/or ones that occur at apparently random and unpredictable intervals. A system error does not create a hardware problem, but it may be the symptom of an existing hardware problem.

Defective, incorrect, or improperly installed memory is a primary cause of frequent system crashes (assuming that you can start your Macintosh at all!). Persistent Type 1 and Bad F line errors are sometimes caused by nondefective but dirty memory chips. To test for this situation, remove the memory chips and clean them. If you are not sure how to do this, seek outside assistance.

If you are having frequently recurring system errors that seem to occur only when a specific external hard disk (or other peripheral device) is in use, this signals a problem with the way that these devices are connected. Start by disconnecting the cable that connects to the Mac port (SCSI, USB, or FireWire) to see whether the problem goes away.

Crashes that occur in a variety of contexts (such as whenever you launch an application or try to empty the Trash) may indicate a defective logic board.

Hardware problems tend to cause system freezes more often than they cause system crashes. Especially consider (as mentioned earlier in this chapter, in the section on system freezes) whether you might have a false freeze —that is, an apparent freeze due to a defective keyboard, mouse, or keyboard cable. Also note that some hardware-related causes of persistent freezes have been identified by Apple. You may qualify for a free repair or replacement of your Mac's logic board.

Although some hardware-related problems can be fixed easily by even an unskilled user, others require a trip to the repair shop.

  • SEE Fix-It #14 to check for problems with peripheral devices and connections.

  • Fix-It #15 to check whether hardware repairs or replacements are needed.

Seek Outside Help

If none of the preceding suggestions has helped, and you haven't already done so, it's time to seek outside help.

  • SEE Fix-It #16 for more information on getting outside help.

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