Becoming a proficient support technician is a rite of passage for Mac admins. Troubleshooting is an inescapable job requirement for just about anyone working in IT. Troubleshooting is the practice of problem-solving by tracking and correcting faults. When troubleshooting, technicians attempt to determine if the problem is caused by hardware, software, environment or education, as understanding the root cause of the problem leads the technician to a possible resolution. While more veteran technicians may feel like they have seen just about every problem possible, and yet, every app and operating system update brings with it potentially new troubleshooting strategies underscoring the belief that technology requires IT professionals to keep their skills sharpened and up-to-date.
As Apple continues to expand in the enterprise, many seasoned Windows admins are seeing Apple devices added to their fleets. At the same time, many organizations are expanding their Mac support teams with new and additional technicians. Troubleshooting a Mac can be daunting, even for those with years of experience with other operating systems. In my experience, identifying where to start when a user reports a problem is the greatest challenge many new Apple technicians face. However, regardless of your experience level, there are a handful of basic techniques that can help quickly identify and resolve issues. Fortunately, many troubleshooting techniques apply across operating systems.
There are many reasons why organizations choose to deploy Macs, one of which is their reliability. But no piece of technology is 100% perfect, and here at Jamf, we want to help organizations succeed with Apple. If you’re a new technician, you’ll discover that users often face challenges they need assistance with addressing. Therefore, we constructed this guide with some recommended initial steps to aid in your diagnosis and problem solving. If you're a senior technician, consider sharing this article with your newest team members as a part of their learning journey. This guide assumes that a user's Mac is running macOS Sonoma and uses Apple Silicon instead of an Intel processor.
In this blog, we’ll go over these tools and techniques to help a technician get started with Mac troubleshooting.
With remote and hybrid work increasing dramatically over the last few years, screen sharing continues to be a powerful tool technicians leverage to diagnose issues. It can be challenging to get users to provide specific details on the issue they’re experiencing. After all, to most users, all they know is that their computer is not working the way they believe it should be.
Technicians rely heavily on asking open and closed ended questions to appropriately identify a user's problem and then guide them through a resolution. Screen sharing takes what was previously a challenging verbal process and makes it easy for a user to show the problem they’re experiencing and for the technician to control the computer to attempt troubleshooting.
Related Reading: Screen Sharing Using TeamViewer and Jamf Pro
Force quitting an app
Once screen sharing, say you see that the user is experiencing an unresponsive app, perhaps accompanied by a spinning wait cursor or "beach ball.” Force quit is a feature within macOS that allows the user to force the app to shut down even in its unresponsive state. While an app can become unresponsive for various reasons, we're focused on returning the app to working condition. To force an unresponsive app to quit, navigate to the Apple logo () in the top left corner | click Force Quit… | select the unresponsive app | click the Force Quit button. Alternatively, the keyboard shortcut, Command+Option+Esc also forces an app to quit. The app should close, then you or the user can re-open it.
Related reading: How to force an app to quit on your Mac (Apple)
Clear Safari cache and cookies
In situations where users are experiencing issues with Safari, an excellent first step is to have them clear their browser history. By clearing Safari's history, cache and cookies will also be removed. Doing this may help resolve issues for users experiencing web pages not loading or other issues isolated within Safari.
Clear Safari's history by navigating to History in the menubar and selecting Clear History… | Clear History. You or the user may need to adjust how far back the history needs to be cleared. While clearing all history is the default choice for many of us, make sure that the user fully understands the data that is being removed is unrecoverable.
While in Safari, ensure that the user does not have any browser extensions installed. If they do, consider disabling them to see if that resolves their issue.
Related Reading: Get extensions to customize Safari on Mac (Apple)
App and OS updates
Overall, macOS and the robust app ecosystem that runs on it are built reliably by incredible developers. However, occasionally there’s a bug that can’t be resolved by simply quitting the app and instead relies on being patched by the developer, whether it’s Apple or a third-party developer. When facing an app or OS-related issue, you or the user should verify that macOS and the app in question are running their latest versions.
Users can check for macOS updates by launching System Settings and navigating to General | Software Updates. Checking for an app update can vary based on if the app came from the App Store or the internet. Launch the App Store and click Updates to check for any pending updates from apps sourced from the App Store. Otherwise, check the individual app for a "check for update" or similar button.
Reinstall an app
Even if an app is running its latest version, there may still be an unresolved issue. A great next step is to uninstall the app and then reinstall it. Apple has a guide on removing apps sourced from the App Store and another guide on uninstalling apps downloaded from the internet.
Reboot the Mac
Rebooting a computer is a long-relied-on method for resolving problems regardless of the operating system. Rebooting a computer can resolve a myriad of issues. Have the user reboot their Mac either by holding their power button until the display goes black or by navigating to the Apple logo in the top left corner of the display and selecting Shut Down… | Shut Down.
Try a secondary account
Creating a secondary account is a helpful trick when users report issues that may be user account specific. While a problem could be related to macOS or the hardware, others may just be a simple user configuration. Creating a secondary "test" account on the Mac allows technicians to compare whether an issue occurs on another account. If the issue does not happen, the technician can safely assume that the problem is likely a setting or another user configuration. Jamf Pro can assist with automating the creation of a test user account by using a policy.
Add a user or group on Mac (Apple)
Start up into safe mode
When a Mac first starts up, numerous apps and services may be set to launch at login. Any app with a launch agent or daemon could cause an issue with the boot-up process. Safe mode is a special startup process that loads the user's account but prevents launching non-Apple apps automatically at login. Safe mode provides technicians with the valuable ability to determine if an app launching at startup is indeed causing a problem and to remove it if needed.
Related reading: Start up your Mac in safe mode (Apple)
Run Apple Diagnostics
Say you’re troubleshooting a Mac but you’re unsure if the issue is hardware related or software. A great way to quickly know if the Mac needs a hardware repair or not is with Apple Diagnostics. Apple Diagnostics is a consumer-grade equivalent to the diagnostics tools available to Apple’s technicians at the Genius Bar. When running Apple Diagnostics, the Mac will do a general self-check for each system component.
If something isn't reporting back from the check, Apple Diagnostics will alert you of the issue. When Apple Diagnostics provides an alert, you can reasonably assume the problem is hardware related and bring the Mac in for repair at Apple or an authorized service provider. If the Mac passes all diagnostic tests, then the issue the user is experiencing is likely software related and further troubleshooting is required.
Related reading: Use Apple Diagnostics to test your Mac (Apple)
Run Wireless Diagnostics
Imagine a user reports a networking issue, such as a webpage not loading despite being connected to their Wi-Fi network. In that case, consider using the Wireless Diagnostics app. Wireless Diagnostics is an app preinstalled on every Mac and, when used, attempts to detect abnormalities with the configuration of macOS that may impact its networking capabilities. Wireless Diagnostics is not a one-stop solution. However, it is a great starting point when troubleshooting those frustrating network-related issues.
Related reading: Use Wireless Diagnostics on your Mac (Apple)
Built-in apps to help diagnose
Suppose forcing an app to quit didn’t resolve the user’s problem or you need to further investigate another issue. In those situations, macOS has three great apps preinstalled that can be valuable reference points when attempting to diagnose and troubleshoot an issue.
- Disk Utility: Checks for and fixes issues with the storage drive, including corrupted files, problems with external devices or problems with disk booting.
- Console: Provides logs and reports of system activity to aid in troubleshooting. Error messages and system faults can be identified here. Reports provided by Console include crash reports, spin reports, log reports, diagnostic reports, Mac analytics data and system.log.
- Activity Monitor: Displays CPU, network and other activity, and can help identify the source when the Mac is responding slowly or not at all.
Check disk space
Many issues can occur due to insufficient disk space. Traditional best practice is for a Mac to have some amount of its disk space unused to allow for macOS to run properly. 10% is often spitballed as that number as an easy recommendation but it’s not the rule. macOS has a built-in storage visualization tool within System Settings. Users can check their Mac's disk space by launching System Settings | General | Storage. From there, click on any information icon to the right of a storage category to review or delete files.
One of the best tricks Apple technicians have when trying to troubleshoot a Mac is being able to reinstall a fresh copy of macOS without losing any user data. Reinstalling macOS can solve a wide range of issues and is a great step to take when you believe the problem is macOS related.
While reinstalling macOS should protect a user’s data, it is always best practice to ensure the user has a backup of their data before conducting any troubleshooting. Ideally, the user will have a backup of their data either to a Time Machine drive or a cloud solution like Backblaze from Jamf Marketplace.
Related reading: How to reinstall macOS (Apple)
Erase and restore
When all other resources have been exhausted and the priority is on resolution rather than investigation, then it may be time to erase and restore the Mac. An erase and restore is the most invasive troubleshooting technique. Removing a user’s data and reinstalling macOS is a serious process and should be a matter of last resort. The idea behind erasing the user's Mac is to remove any possible customized configurations. If the problem still exists even after a full erase and fresh reinstallation of macOS with a fresh user account, the issue may likely be hardware related.
It is imperative that prior to ever erasing a user’s Mac, you verify they have a backup by following the same advice in the Reinstall macOS section. In the event that the erasure and reinstallation of macOS appears to resolve the user’s issue, restore the user’s data from their backup. Restoring from a Time Machine backup can also restore the issue along with it. In those situations, set the user back up with a new user account and restore their files via a cloud solution if possible.
Erase and reinstall macOS (Apple)
There's a lot here, I know. Troubleshooting can sometimes be as easy as a simple reboot. Other times it can be a lengthy process to identify an issue's root cause. While the order of these tips is intended to be listed in a way that is logical for the troubleshooting process, sometimes you may need to change up the order based on clues provided by the user, computer, issue and MDM like Jamf Pro. It’s always best practice to perform troubleshooting steps in the order of least invasive to most invasive in terms of impact on user data. While your goal is to get the user’s computer back up and running, they won’t be too happy if all their data is gone without their consent.
Of course, there is always more to learn. Jamf and Apple have many additional resources to help you continue learning. Apple has an excellent IT certification program called the Apple Certified IT Professional. The training content is complimentary, while there's a cost for the certification exam. The Jamf 100 Course is a fantastic way to learn more about the tools and features of macOS and Jamf Pro! The content is again free, and if you're interested, you can take the Jamf Certified Associate Exam to validate your skills.
Don’t forget that the official Apple Support webpage can be your best friend in providing resolutions for some of the most common issues you may come across. Not long ago, I wrote a piece on all the ways Jamf helps Apple admins learn, so if you’re looking for more Jamf-related resources, go check that out!
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