Busman's Holiday
Troubleshooting My "New" Mac Mini
by Steve Wood
March 28, 2012





My Mac MiniI began writing this column yesterday from the Lion partition of my Mac Mini's hard drive. My usual, working partition, Snow Leopard, began doing strange things in the morning, so it was time for a bit of troubleshooting. Several applications were sluggish, with both Firefox and Vienna actually freezing.

My first thought, possibly because I was in the process of switching over my old 12" PowerBook from an expired, paid Norton Antivirus subscription to the free Sophos Anitvirus for Mac Home Edition, was that I had a virus. But when I booted to Lion, reason prevailed, and I first fired up Apple's Disk Utility to check the Snow Leopard partition. I didn't get very far into "Verify Disk" before I stopped that process and switched to "Repair Disk." Verify had quickly found several errors on my main partition, so fixing those items came first.

Let me digress just a bit an explain my concern that bordered on panic. I just switched over to using a mid-2010 version Mac Mini as my main computer. So far, the unit has been pretty trouble free, but it's new to me. Any irregularities in its performance make me jumpy. And, I'm coming off a seven year run of using an almost completely trouble free dual G5 tower (that toasted its motherboard in December). I'm used to everything working right, all the time.

Part of my success in using the G5 all those years is that it always had two drives with the latest two versions of Mac OS X, until Apple stopped supporting PowerPC Macs. Even though Leopard was the latest version of the Mac OS my G5 would run, I generally chose to work from the Tiger disk, simply because it ran OS 9 when needed and was more comfortable for me. When Tiger would hiccup, which it did at times, I'd boot to Leopard, run Disk Utility's repair function, and be back up and working in Tiger again in a few minutes.

In the midst of the repair of the Snow Leopard partition, Norton Antivirus (yeah, the expensive paid one which I still keep on my main Mac) wanted to restart after downloading some updates. I put that off until Disk Utility had repaired both the partition and its permissions.

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NAVBeing at least as paranoid as the next guy, I decided after the restart to stay in Lion and get some of my moneysworth from Norton by doing a system scan of the Snow Leopard part of my hard drive. A good bit of the partition's contents actually came from my old G5's Leopard drive which I cloned with Mike Bombich's Carbon Copy Cloner and then upgraded to Snow Leopard with the Mini's restore disk. It saved doing a lot of software installations, but the partition was overdue for a full scan.

While the scan was running, I snapped a screenshot of NAV in action, but when I tried to open Photoshop with Apple's undandy new Launchpad, I selected "Uninstall Photoshop" by mistake! Gasp! That got me busy installing James Thomson's DragThing and Proteron's MaxMenus on Lion. Both are old sharewares I purchased long ago that still work under Lion! They make using the Lion partition much more comfortable for me, but I still miss the scroll arrows in finder windows, and scrolling in Lion still seems backwards to me.

Anytime you do a scan of a main drive or partition of any size, it's going to be a long operation. Once I got my scan going, I went about other tasks for a time, even venturing out the the grocery, Walmart, and our local garden shop. Upon returning, Norton had found four infected files that it dispatched to the nether regions.

I rather expectantly booted back to the Snow Leopard volume, but things were still terrible! Dreamweaver locked up almost immediately. I'm not terribly pleased with Adobe's miserable efforts with Dreamweaver in CS 5.5. It isn't even 64 bit and doesn't play nice all the time, even with other CS 5.5 applications! All sorts of windowing errors occur, with the default font often changed when I launch Adobe Bridge, Photoshop, or even Apple's Dictionary.

Fearing the worst, I began wondering where my hardware check DVD was, but also realized that this box ran just fine under Lion. So with Activity Monitor on, I began to poke around, after force quitting Dreamweaver, and realized that my first problems this morning began with Firefox, which figured high on Activity Monitors list of CPU and RAM hogs.

Wow! Quitting Firefox made all the problems go away! That was great, but left me a bit snakebit about using my primary web browser. Fortunately, since switching to the Mini, I've also been using Apple's Safari browser extensively, often for researching updates for my Educators' News site. Relaunching Firefox with a whole lot of other stuff turned on didn't reproduce the exact chaos and slowdowns I experienced in the morning, but the browser itself remained a bit balky and very slow to respond.

Looking to Mozilla's support pages (in Safari), I tried shutting off some old plug-ins. So far, that seems to have gotten Firefox back up to speed and not interfering with other applications. I'd guess that some of those plug-ins were carryovers from the G5, but I really didn't investigate that one. I was happy to be back up and running once again.

Why 2 Drives?

"Why 2 Drives" was the original title for this column, but once I started writing while troubleshooting, it just didn't turn out that way.

With older Macs and earlier versions of Mac OS X and Apple's Disk Utility, one couldn't repair a partition of a drive when booted from any partition on the hard drive as I did. Having a separate drive with various drive utilities installed allows for quicker recovery from a variety of problems right up to total drive failure. It was like having a great rescue disk built into ones computer.

Fortunately, one can now boot from one partition to repair another partition on the same hard drive, along with some nifty recovery stuff Apple has now built into Lion. And of course, having ones drive regularly backed up via Time Machine or another backup program can give a good bit of peace of mind.

But given my druthers, I still prefer two separate internal drives. One of the things I liked with my old G5 setup was that I used Tiger as my working, boot drive, but stored almost all my files on a separate drive that had Leopard installed (and was occasionally backed up with Time Machine). If my disk with Tiger installed "got sick," I kept on working while booted to the Leopard drive while Disk Utility, or heaven forbid, DiskWarrior (which means you're in real trouble), worked on repairing the other drive.

Now I'm Just Flat Out Rambling

HP Slimline s5213wOne of the nicest things about newer computers with modern operating systems is that they don't seem to misbehave as often as my older Macs and PCs did. I guess I should qualify that statement as a reference to software, as the components in some new PCs are simply trash right out of the box. Wimpy power supplies seem to have become the norm with cheap PCs. I shouldn't complain, as the 220 watt original power supply that got zapped in a storm brought us our newest "free" PC, an HP Pavilion Slimline s5213w that now sports a 400 watt power supply and a dual-core Athlon X2 processor.

HP Pavilion a6500fEven worse than weak power supplies are slick looking computer setups like my daughter's HP Pavilion a6500f. Whether it was a poorly designed motherboard, or just too many card readers and ports hooked into it, the motherboard on her machine went bad just a few weeks after she and her husband bought it. It was replaced under warranty, but the new motherboard also failed a year or so later...out of warranty, of course. The fairly familiar tale of mobo failures with this model of computer did offer a ray of light for the kids, as I was able to find a posting that suggested using an Asus IPIBL-LB (Benicia-GL8E) as an alternative to the expensive and almost sure-to-fail Foxconn MCP73M01H1 (Napa-GL8E) original board. I found an almost new one on eBay that did indeed fit nicely into the Pavilion's case. It doesn't support all of the original ports and card readers, but the computer is still functioning well some 18 months after the swap.

Not every potential "fix" turns out as well as the two items above, as replacement parts can sometimes make fixing a computer with one failed part cost prohibitive. My original G5 is almost a case in point, as when I began shopping for a used motherboard and a better power supply, I ended up buying a whole, slightly faster G5 for less than the used, replacement motherboard and power supply would have cost! Strange!

It Could Have Been Shorter

This column and my troubleshooting adventure with the Mac Mini could have been a whole lot shorter. Had I realized the problem lay in some old plug-ins carried over from my G5, it would simply have been a matter of opening up Firefox's add-ons control and turning stuff off. But...then I wouldn't have had a column for today, and there were those issues Disk Utility fixed and the infected files Norton vanquished.

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