Book Review: Dr Smoke's Troubleshooting Mac OS X, Leopard Edition

By Graham K. Rogers


Troubleshooting Mac OS X Swain, Gregory E. (Dr. Smoke). Troubleshooting Mac OS X (Leopard Edition). PDF: Online only. $19.95

The last few years of Mac OS X have seen a respectable production of books that tell users, "How to" focussed on what is within the installation. Some of these also delve a little into the Unix. At the other end of the scale are technical books aimed at those who understand more of this operating system that still relies on its Unix roots, adapted as it has been.

There is a gap: what happens when it goes wrong? OS X is a stronger, safer operating system than some alternatives, but things do go awry. The worst is when a user is faced with a screen-full of white text (the Unix) or a multi-language screen suggesting a restart: Kernel Panics (KP) indicating a problem.

If the user has some experience, some judicious application of tools, will fix the problem. Some ask the people who put them onto Macs in the first place. Some will ask the shops they bought their Macs from, but these may not have enough time to analyse and devise suitable solutions. Some seek help on the Apple forums and these are a rich source of information, as long as the right person answers the query.

The forums are one motivation for Troubleshooting Mac OS X, by Gregory E. Swain known as Doctor Smoke there. He has a long history of work in the computer industry and brought that to bear in analysis of problems that appeared in the forums. He has now produced several issues of the work. The latest focuses on OS X, 10.5, Leopard, which had several changes from the previous version of OS X and introduced some new technologies.

I include a disclaimer here as I am listed in the acknowledgements: I helped with checking an earlier version. Although some of that text remains, with the update to OS X and the changes that Dr. Smoke has wrought, the book has been totally revised.

Troubleshooting OS X itself is available only in PDF format and can be downloaded from the X Lab website. The download opens into a folder with Readme, Licence agreement and the 468-page PDF.

In this format it has several strengths that a paper edition does not, particularly with links that are found throughout the text. There are three types: links to other pages or sections; links to external websites; and links to Apple help topics. Dr. Smoke guards against dead links by having all URL requests routed through a page he maintains, which is kept up to date via a database.

Troubleshooting OS X can be opened with Adobe Acrobat Reader, but it is optimised for Apple's Preview: Adobe products do not support the links to Mac Help topics. It can be opened on a Windows machine, but the links to Apple Help are not available as they are part of OS X.

Doctor Smoke suggests a methodical approach, not only to the analysis of any problem, but also to setting up the Mac and the recording of information concerning software installation and of passwords, using a small notebook: pencil and paper never forget, he says.

There are no numbered chapters, but the book has been created with easy to access sections on specific topics. The first section of the book -- some 93 pages -- deals with some of the basics, like installation, maintenance, prevention; and where one might try for help online. The initial section closes with a useful 10 pages on Security. This, like most of the parts ends with a number of useful links to other sources, additional to those links that pepper the text.

The bulk of the work is contained in an A - Z ("Airport" to "Zeroing volumes") of just over 350 pages packed with information: data, suggestions, analysis. The detailed index has a red line at this point. A new, and useful, feature is the use of a table format to make it easier to find answers. Most have Cause and Solution, but variations are "Change" and "Details"; "If you have. . ." and "Then"; "Feature" and "Details"; and "If the problem arose after installing. . ." and "Then".

The text throughout is easy to read and there are several screen shots that are used to illustrate specifics. The text provides essential links and warnings in red and, as intended, these draw the eye immediately. Other links within the text are grey [actually, these are a faint blue if you look closely].

There are four appendices: System logging; Kernel Panic Vectors for Intel based Macs; Kernel Panic Trap values for Power-PC Macs; and Spotlight Plug-ins.

Introductory sections can be read straight through, but the A - Z is best approached by picking a topic, examining advice offered and using links to widen the scope of knowledge that can be gleaned.

This is a highly-recommended, rich source of information for those who want to learn about OS X, or who need an extensive source of information on OS X.

Amended 19 Apr 2009


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