To Do When Mac Crashes


Yes, it’s our dirty little secret: Macs crash. Not very often, but they do. Freezing, spinning beach balls, Kernel Panics. Yikes! Follow these steps to get past the most common Mac crashes and on with your day.

Two Different Kinds of Crashes. The first thing to learn about Mac crashes is that there are two types: application crashes and computer crashes. The first kind, application crashes, are known by either the endlessly “Spinning Beach Ball of Death” (SBBOD), or the nice little alert message that comes up saying, “the application ___ quit unexpectedly.” The other kind is when your whole computer crashes and is not responsive. This will be obvious because either no mouse or keyboard click will effect anything, or worse, in a Kernel Panic (nice name, huh?) a gray image with text in many languages descends from the top of your screen like a premature curtain dropping on a bad stage show.

Spinning Beach Ball of Death.
Although the name is based on the famous Blue Screen of Death from the Windows world, it’s not quite as bad as that. You will see the SBBOD when your Mac is taking a while to “think” about something. Sometimes it may just be for a few seconds and then your normal cursor returns. I suggest waiting 30 seconds or so before taking more drastic action. Sometimes, it is just waiting for your hard drive to spin back up and get ready to be used after inaction.

Because the Mac allocates memory in RAM dynamically, it will often swap information from the faster RAM memory to slower storage on your hard drive and back again. Increasing the amount of RAM memory in your Mac will decrease this swapping and being stuck with the SBBOD.

What to Do First. If you are seeing the SBBOD, determine if the crash is just an application or the whole computer. The quick way to do this is move your cursor away from the window you were working in and over another application or Finder window. If it turns back into a arrow cursor, it’s an application freeze or crash, and you can click the other application to bring it to the front. If you can’t see another window or the desktop, use the key combination Cmd-Tab to bring up the Application Switcher and hit Tab a few times to select a different application. If neither of these things work, it’s a full computer crash, so skip ahead to Hard Restart.

Force Quitting. Once you are in another application, you can “Force Quit” the crashed application in 3 different ways. The first is the Force Quit dialog box. This is the equivalent of the Control-Alt-Delete function to get the Close Program box in Windows. Click the Apple Menu, select “Force Quit…”, or use the key combination Option-Cmd-Escape. In the box, select the crashed program from the list of running programs (it’s probably colored in red text). The second way to Force Quit is to Control-click (Right-click) the application icon in the dock and select Force Quit from the pop up menu. The last way is to open the Activity Monitor utility in the Utilities folder, select the crashed program from the list and click the “Quit Process” button at the top. I have Activity Monitor running at all times, so I just click over to it. See below for more on Activity Monitor.

Unfortunately, Force Quit doesn’t always work the first time. I often run through all 3 ways of doing it to get the program to quit. If you can’t get the program to close using these techniques, switch to your other programs, save and close them, then do a Hard Restart.

Hard Restart. This is for when your computer is not responding to any input. Before doing this, try to use the application switcher (Cmd-Tab) to switch to another program. If Cmd-Tab doesn’t bring anything up, you are very likely stuck with a Hard Restart. To do a Hard Restart (or Hard Reboot), hold down the Power button on your Mac for 5 seconds or more. This should turn it off. Once off, press the Power button again to start back up. Unfortunately, doing this will cause you to lose any unsaved work you may have been doing prior. If pressing the Power button for a while doesn’t turn off your Mac, you will need unplug it (and remove the battery as necessary).

Persistent Crashes. If your Mac keeps crashing over and over again even after restarts, check for these two likely culprits: Permissions and bad RAM. Bad RAM seems to be the number one cause of persistent crashes. If you have bought additional RAM and installed it, run Apple Hardware Test. See below for a link to directions.

Another diagnostic that you can do is to check and repair permissions from Disk Utility. See the link below in Dig Deeper for a guide. Also, don’t forget you can bring in your new Mac to your nearest Apple Store to have one of the Mac Geniuses take a look at it for you.

Avoiding Crashes. My experience is that most crashes are memory related. Data is being swapped back and forth from RAM to your Mac’s hard drive all the time, and sometimes it doesn’t go perfectly. You can decrease this activity somewhat by buying more RAM and keeping fewer programs open at once. I usually have 10 or more programs open at once, but I also have 3.5G of RAM to help out.

It also helps to not use the last available bits of your hard drive. Try going through iPhoto and weeding out photos that you clearly will never use. Even after deleting the photos, they are still in your iPhoto Trash. To really delete them, you need to select Empty Trash from the iPhoto menu. Another way to clear up a huge amounts of space is to go through your iMovie files and empty the trash in the files by selecting Empty Trash from the iMovie File menu. If you want to see what’s in the trash first, click the Trash icon in the lower right of the iMovie window and then click the Empty Trash button. You will be surprised at how much space is wasted in the trash of iMovie files! If you are still getting down to the last few available Gigs of space available, it’s time to upgrade or add another hard drive.

I’d like to tell you that Macs never crash, but if you are reading this, you already know our little secret: they do. There is some consolation in knowing that when your applications crash, they usually don’t take your whole Mac down with them and can be dealt with fairly easily. Think of the occasional crash as a suggestion to make using Cmd-S (Save) the first key combination you know by heart. Practice it often!

A Note About Activity Monitor. Use Activity Monitor to get a real time view into your Mac processes and how it is allocating memory. Click System Memory and Disk Usage to find out how much RAM and hard drive space is being used. I especially like to turn its icon in the Dock into a real time bar graph about how hard your Mac’s processors are working. You can select Dock Icon > Show CPU History in the program’s View menu to do it yourself. I have used the setting in System Preferences > Accounts > Login Items to launch Activity Monitor and hide it whenever I log in. You might want to try it too.


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