Help with a Mac whose apps all go non-responsive?
November 18, 2009 10:50 AM   Subscribe

Once a week or so, all the applications running on my Mac go into "not responding" mode, one after another. The only way I can recover is to turn off the Mac using the power button. Any ideas?

It always happens the same way - a usually well-behaved app, say Mail, stops responding - just shows a spinning beach ball. I force quit, but the app doesn't disappear. The beach ball keeps spinning. Then I switch to another app and it starts spinning. And so on. At that point, here's a screenshot showing what I see when I try to force quit.

This is on a MacPro (the big desktop tower), just a few months old, running 10.5.8. As you can see from the screenshot, there aren't any strange apps being run.

Anyone seen this before, or have suggestions for how to prevent this from happening? It's a really bummer when it occurs.
posted by mark7570 to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm guessing it's probably Adobe related. It's pretty much the only unstable software that regularly runs on macs. Is there a pdf, or shockwave, or flash files in the emails?
posted by BigCalm at 11:05 AM on November 18, 2009

Do you have any external firewire or USB hard drives attached? I've seen this kind of behavior occur when there's a failing HD attached to the system. If so, the next time this occurs, start unplugging each of your HDs to see if the machine "comes back" (in actuality, it's simply being allowed to execute the processes you've told it to because you've removed the malfunctioning hardware that's causing the uninterruptible process (-U) behind which all the other processes are stacking up).

On the few occasions I've seen this, the HD in question is more broken than not, so it was easier to identify the cause. In your case, one of your HDs might be just on verge of having a failed component (drive, controller, etc.) and so the problem is more intermittent.
posted by at 11:24 AM on November 18, 2009

You'll need to look at the activity monitor to see if anything strange is running. The UI level lists like that one you post don't show anything interesting. is probably right in that is is most likely a hardware issue of some sort, not software.
posted by chairface at 11:39 AM on November 18, 2009

I've seen the same thing that describes, and I've also seen it happen when a connection to a networked drive goes funny. The drive itself may be perfectly fine, but if the network is acting up then my Mac will hang. Are you connected to any networks when this happens?
posted by lekvar at 11:48 AM on November 18, 2009

Not on a network (other than general Internet access), and no external drives connected. The only thing close to a drive that's connected is a Bootcamp partition... I don't guess that would cause it, would it?
posted by mark7570 at 11:52 AM on November 18, 2009

If it's only a few months old you ought to have the Snow Leopard disk or qualify for the $10 upgrade. That might help, unless you have a pressing reason not to move to an OS that contained a shit-ton of bug fixes and behind-the-scenes improvements over Leopard.
posted by caution live frogs at 12:21 PM on November 18, 2009

It's a Mac Pro. Do you have multiple HDs in the case? Are they configured as a RAID in any way? If so, are they a mirrored RAID and is that mirror still intact? (Disk Utility will tell you.). Also, each drive should have a SMART status, which can also be seen in Disk Utility. If one or more of your HDs has a SMART status that is anything other than "Verified", then that could be causing this kind of problem. And if you do have a HD that's actually failing it's S.M.A.R.T. test, for the love His Noodleyness, make sure you have a backup and then replace the HD.

You should try to determine, if at all possible, if there's any correlation between actions on your computer and the lockups. Is there something in particular that seems to cause the problem to happen? Does the problem occur regularly or very intermittently?

I've seen bad or marginal RAM modules cause this kind of behavior. You might install iStat Menus to watch your computer's RAM usage....and if you notice, for instance, that the lockups seem to happen when your computer gets low on "free" RAM, this could be an indicator of a faulty RAM module.

It's also possible that it's a software problem. Without more information about your system, it's impossible for us to tell. After awhile, an experienced technician can spend some time with a Mac and just "know" that it's not behaving normally, after which he or she will begin to narrow down what's causing the problem by doing things like flushing application, system, and font caches, or deleting (to force generation of new ones) preference files. I'm not recommending you start to do this (yet), but offer it as an example of how gnarly some of these problems can be. Sometimes they are only solvable by a complete reinstallation of the operating system, but that's usually reserved as a last resort.
posted by at 8:22 PM on November 18, 2009

One thing worth trying:

After you've rebooted from one of these crashes, open the Console application (in Applications/Utilities) and dig around in the console messages, the System log, and the CrashReporter logs. If this is being caused by an unstable piece of software, you'll likely see a bunch of warning messages coming from one particular app.

Another thing worth trying:

While the computer is locked up, try relaunching the Finder (either inside the Force Quit window, or option-right-click on the Finder icon in the Dock and select "Relaunch".) Or open a terminal window and try "killall Dock". This isn't a longterm solution but can sometimes get things unstalled without requiring you to go through a full reboot of the machine.

(I just went through the same debugging process on my machine, ironically enough after upgrading to Snow Leopard... it turned out to be a stupid memory leak in a bit of applescript I had running in the background, which would eventually cause the whole system to lock up exactly the way yours does. If you've installed any system extensions, new preference panes or the like, I'd check those over pretty thoroughly and try running without them for a while.)
posted by ook at 8:31 AM on November 19, 2009

Awesome help - thanks, everyone! (Bug is still unresolved but I have much more to work with now. Thx.)
posted by mark7570 at 12:42 PM on November 19, 2009

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