Mac Daniel's Advice

Troubleshooting Your Mac

Charlie Ruggiero - 2001.05.16

Q: My Mac will not power up. Apple repair technicians want $60 just for looking at it. That's more than I want to spend, considering there is no guarantee that they will find the problem or even be able to repair it! Is there anything I can do besides paying the high repair prices?

A: Not everyone can diagnose Macintosh problems, especially hardware problems. Even if you can figure out what is wrong, how do you fix it? If you figure out how to fix a hardware problem, where do you get the parts? I will look at three categories of repair for three different groups of people: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. First, however, I will start with some information and tips that should help everyone.

No Startup

When computers do not power up, even the most advanced users can become puzzled. What do you do with your computer when it does nothing? At least when it boots, it can give you hints at the problem source, and you can interact with it, but you can't run Norton or run Apple's Hardware test when it doesn't boot. It almost seems like a dead end, but it rarely is. There are four common problems that will cause a Mac not to boot.

First: The power cable is not plugged in or there is something wrong with the power. This sounds dumb, but many people will accidentally turn off their power strip, or someone will unplug it, or the power plug is dead. Check all those things. Never assume a power plug works either.

Second: The battery on the motherboard has run out of power. Surprisingly, this can cause a computer not to boot or cause it to exhibit very odd behavior. You can order batteries online at many places or go to your local electronics store (like Radio Shack). If you show them the battery, they can order it if they don't carry it.

Replacing the battery is usually very easy and costs only about $10. There are a few computers out there where it's tricky (like the Power Mac 7100 and similar Centris and Quadra models). The battery usually has a plastic snap-on cover over it. You can see the battery (usually purple) through the hole in the snap-on cover. Remove the cover and pull the battery out.

Be sure to follow proper grounding techniques when you are touching the insides of your computer. Always turn the computer off before removing or changing anything inside your computer.

Third (for intermediate or advanced users): Disconnected cables (inside and out), partially connected cables, unseated PCI/AGP/PDA cards, unseated RAM, and other similar connections. Go through your motherboard (following safety measures for static) and check all the connections. Gently push down on SCSI or IDE cables, make sure the PCI cards and RAM are not on a tilt.

Fourth (for intermediate or advanced users): Some piece of hardware is damaged. RAM seems to be very susceptible to damage from static electricity and power surges. Pull out the RAM, one stick at a time, to see if the computer's starts.

Sometimes the power supply will burn out or the fuse will blown in the power supply. Unless you have some electrical engineering skills, you may have to buy a new, used, or refurbished power supply. Disconnect hardware that is not essential to the computer's operation and see if it will boot. If it does, add them back one by one until you find what is wrong.

Basic Troubleshooting

Beginner: Try to find someone who has an interest in Macs and has used them for a long time. See if they can offer any help with your problems. Do not let just anyone touch your computer, however. Try to get a feel for their knowledge.

Check online discussion groups, sites like this one and Accelerate Your Mac! have significant amounts of technical information for a wide variety of Macintosh computers. You can also check Apple's technical information database. You can search by keyword and usually find some common problems that may be specific to your computer.

Check the cables on the outside of the Mac to see if any are loose are disconnected.

If you still can't solve your problem, shop around for the best price on computer repair. Try to get an estimate for the repairs that need to be done so you can be sure buying a new computer or a similar used computer does not cost the same amount.

Intermediate: Research help online to see if you can find out what the problem is. A lot of the trouble shooting techniques I mentioned above apply to intermediate users and above, as they require dealing with the motherboard. If you find something like removing your USB card makes the computer boot, then get a new USB card or send the old one in for repair if it is still under warranty.

Try taking out RAM chips one at a time and switching their slots around. If you can, test your hardware in another similar Macintosh. Check cables both inside and outside of the Mac. Cables can come loose and cause a short which could keep your computer from booting up.

Advanced: The power supply may be dead. You can often find refurbished power supplies online. If you think it is the motherboard, you can sometimes find them on eBay or at a Mac retailer who sells parts. Buying them through an Apple repair place can cost way too much, and that's if they even are willing to sell it to you without installing it in themselves.

One of the best places to find companies with Mac parts are in the back of Mac magazines. Searching the web can be a pain because of the great number of computer parts stores - and few are Mac specific.

If you plan on getting a replacement motherboard, be sure to check revision numbers. If you have a revision three Beige G3 motherboard and replace it with a revision one, you are going to end up with a different video chip and loss of the ability to slave IDE drives. This applies to other hardware as well - be sure you get something that is going to work with the hardware you already own.

If you have the equipment, check to see if there is power going from the power supply to the motherboard. Make sure your computer is not bogged down with too many peripherals. If your PCI slots are full and you have four hard drives and two CD-ROMs, you may have overtaxed your power supply.

Here are some general trouble shooting tips for everyone:

  • If the computer powers up but does not boot, try resetting PRAM (cmd-option-P-R). Boot from a CD (hold down C while booting) and try to reinstall or repair the hard drive.
  • Hard drive errors can account for a lot of strange problems. Check your drive with professional repair software before writing the problem off as hardware damage.
  • Don't assume the program crashing is the program's fault. It could be the operating system or something in the background, or even a hardware problem.
  • Always back up your computer before attempting trouble shooting. Sometimes trying to fix your computer can cause more problems.

Charlie Ruggiero has used a lot of Macs, from Plus to G4, and even ran a BBS (remember those?) on a Plus. He works as Macintosh tech support and technology advisor for the College of Education at Michigan State University. He does a lot of hardware and software troubleshooting, as well as a great deal of video editing, capture, and streaming. Charlie is well versed in HyperCard, fairly knowledgeable in Future Basic, and has a good background in sound and video. He even has his own site, Edge of Heaven.

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