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Troubleshooting Basics for Mac OS X

Your computer is a tool, subject to mechanical failure, like any mechanical device. There are a wide variety of preventive measures you can take to avoid having problems. Most important is to remember to back up your data as often as you can; the computer and programs can be replaced, your data cannot. If a problem does occur, there are some standard things to try to correct the problem.


While backups might seem like an unnecessary or tedious task, having a current backup is the best preventive measure you can take against any computer disaster. If a file is accidentally deleted or your computer suffers a hardware problem or is stolen, your data are safe and can be restored.

Which data are important? System software and software applications can often be re-installed from their original disks or downloaded, so they do not need to be backed up. It is the documents that you have created or acquired that would be difficult and time consuming (or in some cases, impossible) to recreate or re-acquire. You may also consider bookmarks from your web browser, and programs you have purchased online and downloaded.  Some programs such as Endnote, Matlab, and Stata sometimes save their data within the application so it's good practice to check the program itself if you have these applications.

There are many different methods to back up your computer:

  • Burning CDs or DVDs.
  • Copying files to a USB drive.
  • Mirroring or syncing files to an external hard drive.
  • Using a network backup service.

Points to consider:

  • You should have a copy of your backup in more than one place (a copy at home and at school), and on more than one device (external hard drives and flash drives can fail, DVDs can get scratched).
  • Using CDs, DVDs, or an external hard drive to back up files requires consistent effort and a detailed labeling system, but can provide archival storage.
  • Using backup software helps to automate the process by allowing scheduling; the program keeps track of what needs to be backed up. Some programs may cost money; others, such as Time Machine, are free with the appropriate operating system, but will require additional devices (external hard drives).
  • Centralized backup services over the network are automated and keep track of when and what files need to be backed up. The backups are not in the same place as your computer, so if there is a fire, flood, or theft, your data are backed up and safely stored in a different location. However, you can only back up your data when your computer is connected to the campus network (this service is currently only available to faculty and staff).

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If your machine is sluggish or acting odd, there is a possibility that a computer virus has infected your system. There is an online utility you can use to scan your computer to see if this has happened. If the scan finds viruses and you need further assistance, please contact the IT Service Desk (Help Desk) at 646-2999, send e-mail to, or call your department's IT support office.

To minimize the chance of your computer being infected by a virus, we strongly recommend you have a virus protection program installed on your computer, and that it be set to scan any floppy, CD, or file you download from the Web. Symantec AntiVirus for the Macintosh is available for members of the Dartmouth community from the Software Downloads page. Installing it before you have a problem is a lot less expensive and easier than trying to repair the damage that can be caused by a virus.

Once the program is installed, use the LiveUpdate feature in Symantec AntiVirus to download the latest virus "definitions" so you are always protected against the newest viruses. Symantec AntiVirus should be configured to download virus definition updates daily, at a time when your computer is consistently on. We also recommend you configure Symantec AntiVirus to run virus scans at least weekly.

Your computing habits can also help prevent the spread of viruses, simply by being aware while surfing the Web and or when you receive e-mails with attachments. Simple actions such as not clicking on links that will take you to Web sites that you don't know or trust, closing the window on a web browser instead of the button inside marked cancel, deleting e-mail from unknown senders, or not opening attachments received via e-mail that you were not expecting - even if you know the sender - can often be one of your best defenses.

For more information related to this topic, see:

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System Errors (Kernel Panic)

UNIX-style operating systems such as Mac OS X may experience a type of error called a "kernel panic." A kernel panic is an error that occurs when the core (kernel) of an operating system receives an instruction in an unexpected format, or it fails to handle properly. A kernel panic may also follow when the operating system is not able to recover from a different type of error. A kernel panic can be caused by damaged or incompatible software or, more rarely, damaged or incompatible hardware.

Because a kernel panic can happen at any time, backing up your data is always important. Be sure to either set the autosave features in programs like Microsoft Office or save your work regularly.

Try to isolate the problem and determine when the problem started, or identify if the problem occurs during a specific operation. You may find that the problem is linked to the addition of new hardware or software, or to a specific operation, such as saving a document or printing. If so, you can correct the problem by removing the incompatible hardware or software, or perhaps updating a hardware driver or software version to be compatible with the operating system and computer hardware. If the problem is related to a specific operation, such as saving a document, you may need to remove and reinstall the software program in which the problem occurs.

Other methods might include creating a new user account on the machine to see if the error is system or user related, and starting or booting the computer from an external device. The latter can help indicate if the problem is software or hardware related.

If the problem is related to the operating system itself or a hardware issue, it may require the reinstallation of the operation system or sending your computer for hardware repair.

If you need assistance in isolating the problem, contact the IT Service Desk at 646-2999, send e-mail to, or call your department's IT support office.

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Installing Files in Your System Folder

Putting files in the System or Library folders on a Mac OS X computer can cause major problems.  NEVER put anything into these folders. Additions or updates to the Operating System will be taken care of automatically when running software updates or program installations.

It is recommended that users store their data inside their user profile, which can be as easy as simply saving to your documents folder or the desktop. Being consistent and uniform can simplify backups and aid in data recovery, if needed.

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Icon Recovery

On occasion, icons may not show correctly for files that are imported from another operating system or after you have re-installed an application on a Mac OS X computer. First, try restarting the computer. If the icon for a document is still not showing the correct icon (for example, a PDF file), make sure the appropriate application (i.e., Preview or Acrobat) is set to open the document. To do this, click on the document once to highlight it, then select Get Info from the File menu. In the Get Info window, check the Open With section to make sure the correct application is selected. Be sure to select Change All if you wish to make this a computer-wide change.

Resetting the Parameter RAM (PRAM)

For Mac OS X computers, resetting the PRAM may correct a variety of problems by returning various settings back to the default, such as display and video settings, time zone, start-up volume choice, speaker volume, and recent kernel panic information, if any.

To reset the PRAM, hold down the [Option], [Apple], [P], and [R] keys at the same time while the computer starts up. Continue holding down the four keys until your computer chimes a second time, then let go. Your computer should start up properly.

If the problem(s) persists, contact the IT Service Desk at 646-2999, send e-mail to, or call your department's IT support office.

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System Utilities

For computers running Mac OS X, start the computer using the system Install CDs that came with your computer. Insert the Install CD into the CD drive, then restart your computer and hold down the [C] key as the computer starts up and before you hear the start up sound. It will appear that you are reinstalling the operating system. However, when the Installing OS X screen appears, select Utilities from the Menu bar, then Disk Utility. Select the hard drive you want to check.

  • S.M.A.R.T. Status: Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology, or S.M.A.R.T., is a monitoring system for hard drives that detects and reports on various indicators of reliability, in the hope of anticipating failures. Disk Utility displays this information. If your hard drive is functioning properly, the status will be Verified. If it is failing, you will see this information in red letters and the hard drive will most likely need to be replaced. If you do not have a current backup of your hard drive, contact the IT Service Desk at 646-2999, send e-mail to, or call your department's IT support office for assistance.
  • Repair Permissions: Sometimes the permissions (read, write, etc.) associated with the files on your hard drive can become incorrect. This utility will attempt to repair them. Click on the Repair Permissions button to begin the repair. When it is finished, restartyour computer as you normally would to see if the problem has been corrected. If not, follow the instructions above to return to Disk Utility and run Repair Disk.
  • Repair Disk: This utility inspects and repairs the files and directory structure on the hard drive. Click on the Repair Disk button to begin the repair. When it is finished, restartyour computer as you normally would to see if the problem has been corrected.

If the problem(s) persists, contact the IT Service Desk (Help Desk) at 646-2999, send e-mail to, or call your department's IT support office.

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Software Update

Apple provides an easy way of downloading updates to their operating systems and other Apple applications called Software Update. Your computer is set to automatically download updates once a week. To check if there are updates currently available, select Software Update from the Apple menu. Alternately, you can select System Preferences from the Apple menu. In the System Preferences window, click the Software Update icon. In the Software Update window, click Check Now to check for pending Mac OS X software updates. Software updates that are necessary for your computer will appear with a check mark next to them in the Software Updates window. We recommend always installing the checked items in Software Update. Your account (administrator) password will be required to install updates.

Check Connections

When things are not working as intended, a common problem is that the cable between the computer and a device has become loose, broken, pinched, or disconnected. If you are having problems with your keyboard, mouse, printer, monitor, or any other peripheral, please do the following:

  1. Turn off your computer.
  2. Unplug the problem device.
  3. Check the wire to make sure it is not damaged or pinched.
  4. Plug it back in and make sure it is attached securely.
  5. Turn the computer back on to see if the problem has been corrected.

If the problem has still not been corrected, please contact the IT Service Desk (Help Desk) at 646-2999, send e-mail to, or call your department's IT support office.

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Last Updated: 2/1/13