Last Week on My Mac: Systematic troubleshooting

Troubleshooting is one of our most common challenges, and one that we’re often worst at. When we’re dealing with complex systems that we have little understanding of, we’re all too easily fobbed off with generic solutions that might have been useful in the past.

Many are now turning to AI, specifically Large Language Models such as ChatGPT or its competitors, in the hope that their fact-unchecked rhetoric can diagnose a Mac’s problems and detail how to deal with them. Allow me to offer an alternative in a new series aimed primarily at Apple silicon Macs, but not forgetting other recent models: a systematic account of how to troubleshoot your Mac.

Expressed in a healthcare analogy, this needs to be more akin to what you’d expect in primary care and A&E or the Emergency Room, in providing a working diagnosis and a way ahead to refine that and fix the problem. It needs to be probabilistic in its approach, and built on the principle that common things occur commonest. Goals must be attainable, and prioritised realistically. If the only way to rectify a problem is to put the Mac into DFU mode and restore it to factory-fresh condition, then you can accept the work involved. But if it turns out that Erase All Content and Settings would have been just as good, then you’d be rightly upset at your wasted effort.

Solutions proposed need to be as specific as possible, rather than resorting to general panaceas. We’ve all come across situations in which someone has been misled into using a generic procedure such as reinstalling macOS when all they really needed to do was to change a small setting in System Preferences, or start up in Safe mode to flush caches. Much of this depends on a foundation of understanding, rather than just repeating a formula found on a website somewhere.

The primary focus in this series will be on Apple silicon Macs, although it will include additional material to cover recent Intel Macs where appropriate. That in turn limits the range of macOS it needs to cover. Sadly, trying to provide full support for all Macs capable of running Big Sur and later isn’t feasible, and only confuses many readers. Obvious examples are the differences in booting from external disks, most features in Recovery, and even System Settings.

Like it or not, the times they are a-changin’ as we move on from the Intel Macs of the past 16 years to the Apple silicon of the future. SAP has recently announced that half of its corporate Macs are now Apple silicon, and many who read this website do so because of its deep coverage of those models. Of the nearly 8,000 articles available here, almost half are about Intel Macs. There’s no shortage of information here about troubleshooting them, reaching back to El Capitan and before.

My first posts about Apple silicon Macs aren’t quite two years old, and my own experience with them slightly shorter. I’ve now dived into five different models starting with the DTK, and one M2 iPad Pro. We continue to learn about them every day: it was only last week that I think I might have answered the basic question of whether they perform power-on self-testing.

Because we’re all still beginners here, I invite your involvement not just as a reader, but as a contributor too. I’m aware that some of you now support dozens or even hundreds of Apple silicon Macs, and have had to handle problems the rest of us haven’t even heard of. While I’m keen to avoid getting too involved with enterprise features including MDM, those that are relevant to most users are particularly welcome. Please add your comments and put me right where I’ve got things wrong. Together we can improve the quality of the advice here, for the benefit of all, and show yet again how humans working together outperform AI.

Tomorrow I start the series with what might appear a stupid question, whether your Mac is dead or alive, which turns out to be more complex than you might have thought. I hope you’ll join me, and add your knowledge and experience.