A Mac tech support handbook

It's easy when you know the answer

5 essential tools for mac tech support

I’ve put together an essential foundation document for Mac users who may sometimes try to help support friends and family.

In this report, you’ll learn:

  • The three ‘R’s’
  • Essential startup keys
  • Using Disk Utility
  • 6+ utilities you should install
  • How to create a bootable USB drive
  • Recommended kit
  • Further reading

The three R’s of tech support:

You should have permanent recall of these three troubleshooting steps:


This is sometimes all it takes. 


Still having problems? Restart the Mac holding down Command-R to enter Disk Recovery mode. Launch Disk Utility in this mode and Fix Permissions on your drive. You can also run Disk Utility in normal mode.


Enter Disk Recovery mode (Command-R) to run Disk Utility to Verify and Repair your Disk, or to reinstall the OS.

Essential startup options

Hold down these keys to access critical help.


Startup from a bootable CD, DVD or USB drive (or N to launch from a network server, if available).


Launches a Mac in Safe Boot mode, it will check the integrity of your startup volume and will launch with the minimum OS X extensions it needs, no user fonts, startup or login items. Graphics and system performance will be slower.

Command, Option, P and R:

Power up your Mac and hold these keys as soon as you hear the startup chime. Keep the keys depressed until you hear a second chime. Release them and the Mac should boot as normal, though now its PRAM data will have been reset. You will need to reenter some passwords (so get a note of these first), but this command should eradicate many inconsistencies.


Launches your Mac in Recovery Mode and you get to access OS X utilities: Restore from Time Machine, Reinstall OS X, Apple support and Disk Utility.


Launches Apple’s hardware test to uncover any hardware problems on the Mac.


Allows you to choose which bootable device to launch Mac from.


Verbose Mode will show you what’s happening during startup and may help identify a Mac problem. Command-S launches Single User Mode, a text-based UI for advanced users.

Get to know these keyboard commands – zapping the PRAM, Recovery Mode and Hardware Test are invaluable.

Using Disk Utility

The Disk Utility app (Applications>Utilities) is Apple’s Swiss Army knife for most problems. If the Mac you are working with is running slowly, seems to be missing data or even if you’ve just upgraded the system, you should launch Disk Utility and “Verify Disk Permissions” and/or “Verify Disk”.

If problems are found with Disk Permissions you can fix these using this app, but you cannot fix the startup disk. For this, you’ll need to start in Recovery Mode (Command-R). Lots more information on Disk Utility here.

Essential utilities

There’s life beyond Disk Utility, of course. It makes sense to familiarize yourself with these apps – not only will they enable you to keep your own system in good shape, but if you are attempting to troubleshoot another person’s Mac, these tools may provide considerable help.

Onyx (free)

Incredibly useful (and powerful) system maintenance utility.

Gemini (free)

An excellent solution that helps identify duplicate files on your Mac

OmniDiskSweeper utility (free)

Find forgotten files and folders that may take up space.

SuperDuper ($28)

Always maintain a current clone copy of your Mac.

Disk Warrior ($100)

The ultimate emergency tool.

AppCleaner (donation)

A fast and effective unused app deletion tool that safely eradicates space-consuming app resources.

Glance at these 11 applications and this short collection of dull-seeming apps many users may need.

Bootable USB drive

You can create a bootable USB drives (you need at least 8GB) of OS X Yosemite following these instructions from OS X Daily. Once you have created the drive, you’ll be able to launch any Mac from this drive, enabling you to troubleshoot the system.

That’s fine if you want to launch in Yosemite, but you can create drives for older OS X versions, too (just to keep bases covered), so long as you (or a friend) have previously downloaded them from the App Store.

  • Open the App Store.
  • Enter your Apple ID and Password and Sign In.
  • Select Purchases and look for the previous OS version download (eg. OS X Mavericks).
  • Click Download and follow these instructions.

I’ve linked to other reports, as this task requires an article of its own – however, there’s nothing more useful than a bootable disk when troubleshooting Macs.

Recommended kit

Always have access to a wired keyboard and mouse in case of Bluetooth problems.

Keep a high-capacity portable hard drive to create on-the-fly backups – encourage people you help to get their own drives and invest in regular system backups using Carbon Copy Cloner.

Apple's AirPort Time Capsule is both a Wi-Fi basestation and network storage drive that will automatically keep backups of your system – though it isn’t infallible.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short guide. It should offer all the basic information you need to troubleshoot many Mac problems.

Further reading

Read OS X Daily and explore Apple support.

Google+? If you use social media and happen to be a Google+ user, why not join AppleHolic's Kool Aid Corner community and join the conversation as we pursue the spirit of the New Model Apple?

Got a story? Drop me a line via Twitter or in comments below and let me know. I'd like it if you chose to follow me

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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