Mac and iPad help: 50 solutions to try

25th Dec 2012 | 12:00

Mac and iPad help: 50 solutions to try

Trouble with your new Mac or iPad? Here are the fixes you need

Anyone who uses a Mac or an iOS device such as an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch will know that they are, for the most part, a joy to use. This realisation often comes as a pleasant surprise to people who have switched from using Windows, or another mobile operating system.

But there can be few people who haven't had the odd glitch or hiccup with their prized possession either. As good as Apple is, not everything works perfectly the whole time: such a device has yet to be invented.

Whether you can't seem to connect to a wireless network, your Mac is getting slower or won't start up, or there's something that annoys you about your workflow, everyone has an issue from time to time.

The good news is that the vast majority of these problems are easily solved, sometimes by performing the classic switching off and on again, but more often by performing a little housekeeping, changing a setting or modifying the way you approach things.

With our guide to solving the most commonly encountered problems, you too can take control of your Mac or iOS device, and maybe even save yourself a trip to the Genius Bar.

Get up to speed on slowdowns

1. Clear out the clutter

iTunes chooser

It's easy to practice bad file management, but leaving tons of data lying around will quickly fill up a hard drive, especially if it consists of thousands of large pictures and music files.

You can copy your iTunes and iPhoto libraries to external hard drives to free up space, from the Pictures and Music folders inside your Home directory. When booting either app, hold the Option key to bring up the chooser window, and select the library's new location.

2. Only run what you need

Applications use resources and memory even when they are hidden or in the background. Some, like music or video production apps, use lots of RAM just by being open. It's bad practice to leave lots of apps open if you're not using them, so try to be economical.

If you're finished with an app, quit it. You should find that this makes the system snappier, and other apps more responsive, especially on older Macs.

3. Upgrade your OS

upgrade OS

Older systems such as OS X 10.5 Leopard can be sluggish and if your Mac hasn't been updated, it will feel slow. Most recent Intel Macs can be upgraded as far as OS X 10.6, which is much snappier, and perhaps 10.7 or 10.8 if the Mac is newer.

A clean install will fix any unexplained problems but make doubly sure that you have full backups of all your data. If in doubt, do an upgrade rather than a clean install.

4. Restart periodically

OS X is designed to be left running for long periods of time, and will perform maintenance on itself as it runs. Some people rarely restart their Macs, choosing instead to put them to sleep.

However, if you find you are having problems with things like peripherals not being recognised or wireless connectivity not working, a restart will very often fix the problem since it forces your Mac to re-load drivers and re-establish connections with external equipment.

5. Keep an eye on Time Machine

time machine

Time Machine is an excellent backup system that can really save your bacon in an emergency. If left switched on, it will perform back-ups at hourly intervals. However, this can sometimes interfere if you are doing resource-intensive work like video or music creation or gaming.

You can choose to back up manually, which is good if you are conscienscious about backing up, or use a free app such as TimeMachineScheduler to alter the schedule to something slightly less intensive, like six hours.

Two essential speed-up tips

login items

1. Fit more memory

Macs now ship with a sensible amount of RAM but they still prefer more than the standard allocation. Open the System Profiler from your Applications > Utilities folder and under the RAM tab, see how much you have installed, as well as how many free slots you have.

This will vary by model. 2GB is a bare minimum for any recent Mac OS, and 4 or 8GB is preferable if you run music, video or design apps. Third party RAM is cheap and easy to fit to all but the most recent Unibody Mac portables.

2. Check your Login Items

When you install some apps, printers and other peripherals, they can place "helper" apps into your startup folder. Go to System Preferences > Accounts and under your user account, look at the Login Items section.

If there is anything there you don't need, click the minus arrow to remove it, which should speed up login and general performance. You can always reinstall the app if you decide later that you need the login item.

Top 3 troubleshooting utilities

OnyX Free


OnyX is an excellent free app that delves under the hood of your Mac and performs clean-ups and repairs. Among its solutions are rebuilding databases to restore links between file types and applications, cleaning out all sorts of caches and logs, and customising the way the Finder behaves in ways that Apple doesn't normally allow. You can also tweak Safari, iTunes, Mail and QuickTime. As ever, have a current Time Machine backup before fiddling with your system.

Cocktail $19 (£12)


Cocktail is a slick and inexpensive app that lets you tweak, optimize and customise your Mac and the way it works. Splitting its tools into five categories (disks, system, files, network and interface), it helps you to run maintenance scripts, clear out caches and other clutter, alter the behaviour and appearance of the Finder and other apps.

It also optimises virtual memory usage, changing Time Machine settings and configuring file sharing settings with ease.

Diskwarrior $99.95 (£63)


DiskWarrior repairs and replaces corrupted directories on your Mac and thus fixes some problems that are not addressed by similar apps. It's the software that you use when your drive has gone into decline and may be about to die, and can also fix problems that Apple's own Disk Utility cannot.

As well as disk repair it is also able in may cases to restore files and folders that had seemed corrupted or lost, and so can be invaluable in some situations.

Boot failure fixes

1. Don't panic over kernel panics

Kernel panics are those heart-sinking occasions where your Mac's screen goes black and becomes totally unresponsive. Luckily, they are rare these days.

However some apps can occasionally trigger them, such as virtualisation apps where you run Windows or another OS inside OS X. Be aware of this, and always maintain backups.

2. Shut down properly

Never switch a Mac's power off at the mains or disconnect the plug before powering it down. This will seriously fry the system, if you are unlucky. Laptops will fall back on battery power, and you can invest in a surge-protected power adaptor if you are worried about power spikes.

3. Disconnect peripherals properly

Eject peripherals

Always eject external drives using the mouse, never yank them out of the socket. USB peripherals are quite resilient but FireWire drives, if improperly disconnected, can cause problems, especially on older versions of OS X. If a drive refuses to eject, try dragging its icon to the Trash.

4. Listen out for strange noises

A hard drive that is about to expire will often emit a disconcerting grinding or clicking noise. If you hear anything vaguely like this, take precautions and back up all your data immediately and replace the drive. This is easy to do in many Mac models, and inexpensive to have done by a Mac specialist.

Five symptoms of startup issues

startup issues

1. No signs of life?

If your Mac refuses to start up at all, with no lights or power, your power supply or more seriously, the Mac's logic board, may have died. These are hardware problems that will require an Apple centre to fix them. If your Mac is covered by AppleCare, this should be free.

2. Grinding the gears

If your Mac's hard drive makes clicking or grinding noises when it tries to start up, something is wrong and you should back up data and have it replaced immediately. If your fans blow on high constantly, it's also time for a trip to the Mac doctor.

3. Nothing to see

If your Mac sounds like it's starting up but nothing appears on the screen, flash the video RAM and PRAM by holding the Command, Option, P and R keys together during startup until you hear the startup chime a second time. This resets the display and should hopefully cause the screen to show up again.

4. Where's the system?

If your Mac displays a flashing question mark icon and will go no further during startup, try holding the Option key during next boot and choosing the installed system. If this doesn't work, boot from a system DVD and perform disk repair or reinstall.

5. Bluetooth woes

Oddly, some Mac models don't seem to like being booted up when Bluetooth peripherals are active, especially Apple wireless keyboards and Magic Trackpads. Boot times can slow considerably. Consider switching off Bluetooth peripherals during startup and back on again afterwards.

Four alternative booting options


1. Use a disc

On any Mac that has an optical drive you can boot from a system DVD or a specialised diagnostic and repair disk such as those from TechTool or Diskwarrior. This will bypass the installed system, and allow the program to analyse and try to repair any software faults, or diagnose hardware faults.

2. Use a flash drive

It's possible to install some flavours of OS X including 10.7 on a USB thumb drive. There are plenty of instructions online, and it's a good way to boot up and run diagnostics if your internal drive has died. It's not a long term solution to using a Mac day to day though.

3. Use an external hard drive

OS X can be installed on an external USB2 or FireWire hard drive and holding the Option key during startup will let you select it. If the drive is large, it's a good way to use OS X normally even if your internal drive has died, until you can get it replaced.

4. Boot from a network

If you are on an office or campus network that has been properly configured, it's possible to boot your Mac from an image stored elsewhere on the network. Hold down Option during startup to select the remote drive. However, this requires a very fast network and some setup beforehand in order to work efficiently.

Six ways to get your Mac going again

1. Reset the memory

All kinds of startup strangeness can be remedied by zapping the PRAM, which involves holding the Command, Option, P and R keys together during startup until you hear the startup chime twice. It clears out all parameters and forces the Mac to re-examine its own hardware and connected devices, which often solves problems.

2. Use Programmer

The Programmer button is a very last resort, and resets all sorts of fundamental parameters to do with the way your Mac behaves. It sometimes works if zapping PRAM isn't helping, and your Mac won't even power up. The process is different for specific Mac models so consult Apple's support website to find yours.

3. Boot from a DVD

Insert the system DVD that came with your Mac and hold the C key down during booting. It will take a bit longer than normal but once you have booted you should be able to run Disk Repair to hopefully solve any problems. If you have OS X 10.7 or later, you can use Internet Recovery to restore a system online.

4. Use fsck

If you are confident with trying out a bit of UNIX, hold down the Command and S keys during bootup to boot into Single User mode. From there you can type "fsck-fy" to verify and repair drives at a low level Type "reboot" when done and your Mac will hopefully boot as normal.

5. Restore from Time Machine backup

If you have a current and full Time Machine backup and then experience a serious system problem, you can insert your system DVD and boot from it. Then you should go to the options menu, and choose Restore from Time Machine Backup with your backup drive connected. This will restore a version of the working system.

6. Reinstall the system

If things have gone really bad with your Mac and you have no backup, then booting from a system DVD or using Internet Recovery will let you wipe and restore a fresh system onto your hard drive. This is pretty much a last resort and will wipe any existing data off your Mac, but will bring the machine back to life if the problem was with software and not hardware.

Top five startup key commands

1. Hold the mouse button during startup to eject a CD

This nifty little trick will force your Mac to spit out any CDs that, for whatever reason, may not be possible to eject using the Finder.

2. Hold down Shift during startup

This action will boot up the Mac into 'Safe Mode' and will temporarily disable login items, which can very often help with troublesome starts.

3. Hold down T during startup

Holding T forces your Mac to go into FireWire target mode, essentially making it operate as a hard drive only. Connect another Mac to copy files to or from it.

4. Hold the Option key at startup

This invokes the Startup Manager, which scans all available drives and networks for bootable systems. Select one and you will boot from it.

5. Press Command and R during startup

This puts Macs running OS X 10.7 into Lion Recovery mode, which will then let you boot from a temporary system to analyse, repair or reinstall the system.

Top ten general annoyances, fixed!

1. I can't find the file I downloaded!

Safari prefs

By default, Safari places downloaded files into the Downloads folder inside your Home directory. Place a shortcut to this on your Desktop or in the Dock. You can change the default download location in Safari's Preferences, General section.

2. My iPhone keeps autocorrecting when I don't want it to


Autocorrect in iOS can be useful but if you type unusual names or words a lot, it can be annoying as it tries to correct them. You can "teach" it by rejecting the suggestions for a word multiple times, or turn autocorrection off altogether in the Settings > General > Keyboard section. Of course this works in reverse too - turn it on if you'd prefer iOS to try to correct your spelling.

3. My Mac always opens a specific app when I log in

login items

Certain apps like Skype have an option during installation to always open the app at login. To stop it happening, go to System Preferences and then the Accounts section. Under your user account, click on Login Items and remove any that you don't want. It won't delete the app, just stop it launching at login.

4. My iPhone flashes up a window showing wireless networks

Ask to join

This can be irritating, especially since most wireless networks use passwords that you don't have access to. To stop it happening, go to Settings > Wi-Fi and set the 'Ask to join networks' button to Off. It will still join any networks it has a password for, but will no longer flash up a list when you unlock it in public. Re-enable this if you like to scan for networks.

5. I find it hard work typing long emails on my iPad


The iOS keyboard is better on the iPad than smaller devices thanks to bigger screen space, but it's still not great for extended periods of typing. In iOS 5, you can tap and hold the button at the bottom right and choose to split and undock the keyboard, separating it into two smaller ones. You can also pair Apple's Bluetooth keyboard with your iPad and type on it.

6. My Word documents keep opening in the wrong application

OS X uses a system of file associations to link file types with their creator apps. Occasionally the database gets corrupted and this link can be lost. Find a file and select File > Get Info. Then in the 'Open With' section, choose the correct app. Click the 'Change All' button to force all files of that type to associate with the app you have selected. Apps like OnyX can also rebuild the Launch Services Database to fix these issues.

7. My phone battery runs down too quickly

Auto brightness

Part of the problem with having such a capable phone is that you will use it a lot, and this drains the battery faster than it would for a more basic phone. There are steps you can take to preserve battery life, though some do restrict functionality. Turning off Siri, disabling location services, setting a lower screen brightness and disabling 3G will all save battery. Also try switching push notifications and push email fetching off.

8. Family members use my Mac, but often change the settings


Make sure you are the Administrator - you probably will be and can check this in the Accounts preference pane. Set up a new user and make its permissions either standard, managed or guest. These have decreasing levels of access to your system, so people won't see or change settings, and the settings can be managed. Enable Fast User Switching to be able to flip between accounts without logging out.

9. I don't have enough screen space for what I want to do

Screen res

Screens are a fixed size but go to System Preferences > Displays and make sure your monitor is running at maximum resolution. You can also add a second monitor to most Macs, and recent models will drive large screens you can designate as the main screen. In Mac OS X 10.8, if you have an Apple TV you'll be able to mirror your display to your HDTV using AirPlay.

10. My iPhone's memory is completely full

About phone

Taking high resolution pictures and videos can quickly fill up an 8 or even 16GB phone. Connect your phone to your Mac using its charging cable, then open iPhoto or Image Capture and choose to import the images. They can then be deleted from the phone. If you are using Photo Stream, they should all also be available to access in the cloud.

Four ways to solve connection issues

iPad wifi

1. My iPad keeps joining the wrong Wi-Fi network

Go into Settings > Wi-Fi and locate the network that has been joined by mistake. Tap the blue arrow to the right and then select Forget This Network. All passwords for the network will be forgotten and the iPad will no longer join it automatically.

2. My wireless password is correct but it isn't working

Double-check that the password is exactly right, that noughts are noughts and not the letter o, and that you're not confusing, 1, and l for example. If you're absolutely sure you're right, try restarting the iPad and entering it again, which sometimes forces a refresh.

3. My iPad 3G is interfering with my hi-fi speakers

All cellular signal does this, and can make an annoying clicking sound. Wi-Fi doesn't do it though. So when at home, disable the cellular connection on your iPad and use Wi-Fi only, which should stop the interference. Moving further away from the speakers also lessens the effect if you need 3G kept on.

4. My iPad is not 3G so I can't use it away from a network

If you have an iPhone or another smartphone and your calling plan allows it, you can enable the Personal Hotspot feature on your phone. This shares its cellular connection to a mini wireless network, with password. Join this network from your iPad and hey presto, it's online.

Three storage solutions

1. I can't fit all my music and podcasts onto my iPad

Use the iTunes Match service. Activate it from your Mac for £25 per year and it uploads and matches the contents of your iTunes library to the cloud. Then activate iTunes Match on your iPad or iPhone and you can see and play songs wirelessly without having to store it all on your iPad.

2. My iPad is filling up with high-res video I've shot with the camera

Connect your iPad to your Mac using its USB cable and then open the Image Capture application, located inside the Utilities folder on your Mac. Drag and drop pictures and videos from the iPad to a folder on your Mac, choosing if you wish to delete them from the iPad at the same time.

3. My free iCloud storage is filling up. How can I clear some space?

You could pay for more, but here's another idea. Go into Settings > iCloud > Storage and Backup > Manage Storage > iPad and switch off backup for some apps. Choose not to back up large, free apps since they can be downloaded again.

Five tips for managing your apps

app management

1. I'm having trouble navigating all my apps on my iPad

If you have collected lots of apps on your iPad, you can easily end up with multiple pages of them to scroll through. To tidy them up into folders, tap and hold on any app until it starts to wobble and then drag it into a folder. Or drag it onto another app to create a folder containing both apps. You can then press the home button to stop the apps wobbling.

2. I can't locate an app that I definitely know is there

If you swipe right from the Home screen you will invoke the Spotlight window. Tap the first few letters of an app's name into the search field and it will appear. You can then tap on it and load the app. This is useful if you can't find an app even after scrolling through multiple pages.

3. It's a real pain managing my multiple iOS devices at once

If you have more than one iPad or other iOS device, you can go into the Settings app and find the Store section. You can then turn on automatic downloads for apps, meaning any app you buy or download for free on one device will automatically appear on the others at the same time.

4. I find that ordering apps on the iPad is really fiddly

If you connect your iPad to your Mac either wirelessly or over USB and open iTunes, you can go into the Apps section under the iPad in iTunes and manually drag your apps into a specific order. This is much quicker than doing it by hand on the iPad itself, which can take time.

5. My iPad was lost or broken! Can I transfer the data to a new one?

In Settings > iCloud, make sure iCloud backup is switched on. If your iPad is lost, broken or stolen, you will be able to restore all its settings and data back out of the cloud onto a new iPad.

Top two media tips


1. Recording with the iPad's mic doesn't sound great

There are a number of specialised microphones around that work well with iOS devices. Companies such as IK Multimedia produce high-quality mics that can plug directly into your iPad to offer studio quality recording for apps like GarageBand and others. Or you might want to consider the Alesis StudioDock for a really top-end iPad music-making solution.

2. Can I compose pictures on the iPad camera?

In the Camera app, still image camera section, click on Options. You can choose to turn on a grid that should allow you to frame and compose your shots more accurately by giving you reference points to work with. You can also edit pictures in iPhoto for iOS, or Photoshop for iOS amongst others.

Four hints for smarter browsing

1. How do I make better use of tabs?

If you tap and hold on the title bar of any tab in Safari, you can move it right or left. It's easy to re-order tabs in this way, and clicking the plus icon to the right of the address bar opens a new blank tab. Tapping and holding on any hyperlink gives you the option to open it in a background tab.

2. I can't view Flash content

Apple doesn't allow Flash on iOS but paid browser apps like SkyFire and Photon from the App Store do. They work by connecting to remote servers and converting the content on the fly. It's slower than regular browsing and better with video than games, but it does work.

3. Text is too small for me to read

In the Settings > General > Accessibility tab you can switch on assistance like zooming, large text, white on black or speak selection if you struggle to read the text on webpages. Some websites permit Apple's 'Reader' function, which may appear at the right of the URL bar and provides a simplified text verson of a site.

4. Can I save online articles to read later?

If you see something online and haven't got time to read it there and then, tap the arrow next to the URL field when you're on the web page and select Add To Reading List. Then from the Bookmarks menu, Reading List section you can go back and read the pages later.

Four ways to share pictures and movies

ipad video

1. I want to quickly send someone a video clip

From the Camera Roll, tap the action arrow at the top right, then choose the video you want to share and click Share. If you Message it to someone you'll need a 3G iPad or to be sending it to someone who has iMessage. Otherwise choose to email it to them.

2. I can't share my pics across iOS devices

Once signed up to iCloud, go into Settings > Photos and switch on Photo Stream. From that point on, all new photos you take will be uploaded to iCloud when your iPad is on a wireless network, and made available to view on your other devices.

3. I want to text a photo using a third-party app

Go into your Camera Roll and tap and hold on the photo you want to share. From the small menu that appears, tap Copy. You should then be able to paste the picture into the message field, or indeed an email, in any app running on your iPad.

4. I want to share my iMovie project

Select your completed project in iMovie for iPad and then click on the Share button. The resulting window lets you upload it straight to YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo and also transfer it to iTunes. The iPad handles all compression, and you will of course need logins for these sites.

8 iPhone problems solved

1. What precautions can I take in case I lose my iPhone?

Go into Settings > General > Passcode Lock and switch on the passcode. Select the option to erase the phone after ten failed attempts if you think your phone may get lost or stolen. Also, sign up for Apple's free Find My Phone service, which allows you to locate your phone using GPS from a computer using your Apple ID, and send messages to its screen or remote wipe it.

2. Am I able to use my own ringtones on my iPhone


Go to and download an app called MakeiPhoneRingtone. This lets you turn any short audio file into an iPhone-compatible ringtone. You can then sync it to your phone and should be able to select it in the ringtones menu. Or, get Ringtonium from the iOS store and use any audio including stuff you record onto the phone as a ringtone or other alert sound.

3. How can I quickly get into my iPhone for a photo opportunity?

In iOS 5, you can access the camera from the Lock screen. To the right of the unlock slider, tap and swipe upwards. This reveals the Camera app from where you can take stills and videos. However, it does not allow access to any other part of your phone, so only pictures you have just snapped are visible. To access the phone as nomal, swipe to unlock it.

4. My contacts are not organised in the way I want them to be


Go into Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars and scroll down to the Contacts section. Here you can change things like sort and display order, meaning whether your contacts list is sorted alphabetically by first or last name. In an individual contact entry you can click Edit and add more info like assigning a specialised ringtone or text tone, embedding a URL and adding extra fields.

5. I accidentally deleted music I bought from iTunes

Go into iTunes on your phone then click the Purchased tab. Go to the Music section and you will see a list of all the music you have ever bought with your Apple ID. Any of this can be re-downloaded to your phone for free, as many times as you like. The same applies to movies and TV series. This isn't the case with music you sync from iTunes, so you have to be more diligent about backing that up.

6. My phone won't let me text a long video clip to someone


There is a time limit on video clips that can be sent by MMS. If a video is too long, the phone should give you the option of selecting a portion of it to use to send in the message. If you really have to, you could split the video over several texts using this method. A better way if you can is to email the video from the phone, since this allows a larger file size and a longer length.

7. Am I able to check email while I am on a phone call

phone call

iPhones don't allow voice signal and data to be used at the same time over a cellular connection. If you're on a Wi-Fi network however, it can be done. During the call use a headset or the speakerphone and press the Home button to put the Phone app into the background. Check email while speaking and then tap the green bar at the top to return the Phone app to the foreground.

8. My kids keep buying stuff on iTunes without permission

Go into Settings > General > Restrictions and choose to Enable Restrictions. Here you can choose to allow or disallow access to apps and the ability to install or delete apps. You can also disable Siri, changes to important settings, restrict downloaded content by rating, and lock down Game Centre. This helps make your phone less vulnerable to unauthorised activity.

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