iMac G5 trouble-shooting saga

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
June 30th, 2005 • 5:00 am

Even though I’ve never owned one of these iMac G5 machines myself, I am starting to get trouble-shooting work to do for people who own one. Today I went to give a training session on Adobe Creative Suite for someone who is using one.

She had also bought a small D-Link router so that she could share her Internet connection between the two computers she has in her room. I told her to get a switch (the Internet connection is through the university network, so all she needed was a switch), but the electronics store salesman had obviously convinced her that what she needed was a router. (Really sometimes I think I should do all the shopping for my customers myself. You simply cannot trust electronics store sales people to do a proper job. But anyway…)

So I ended up installing the router and the Ethernet cables for her… At first, things worked fine on the iMac G5. The PC running Windows 98 at the other end of the room had more problems, but nothing that a proper restart wouldn’t clear. I managed to download a number of Mac OS X system updates for the iMac G5 over the Internet and they were installed properly and everything appeared to be cool.

Then we started our little training session on InDesign, etc. — and that’s when I started noticing problems. The most obvious one was that the Apple menu was missing! When I clicked on the Apple icon in the menu bar, it would become selected, but no menu would pull down. I wasn’t able to use the keyboard shortcuts for the commands in the Apple menu either. In other words, I wasn’t able to log out or restart.

I tried switching to another user to see if the problem was specific to this particular user environment, but it wasn’t. All users were affected. I tried the usual trouble-shooting steps: restarting the machine, zapping the PRAM, etc. I then tried to reapply the last system update for that machine (Mac OS X 10.3.9 Combo), even though the machine was already up-to-date. I tried three times, and three times the update caused a complete system freeze right in the middle of the process.

At that stage I started thinking that the problem might be more serious than initially thought, and might involve the hardware. I first tried to boot from the original system CD, and launched Disk Utility from within the Mac OS X installer. I tried to repair the iMac G5’s internal hard drive. The repair process identified a handful of file-related problems, and concluded by saying that one volume had been repaired and one volume couldn’t be repaired — even though I only selected one volume to repair! I ran the repair again and it found the same problems again, but then said that one volume had been successfully repaired, and that was it. I tried running the repair a third time, and it found the same problems again, and again alleged that they were successfully repaired.

After that, when I tried to boot from the hard drive, it failed. I got the grey Apple logo on the grey background with the spinning wheel, but the spinning wheel just kept going and going and nothing happened.

Time for the DiskWarrior treatment, I thought. I went to get the utility and tried booting from the DiskWarrior CD. Nada. Same grey screen with endlessly spinning wheel.

While waiting for the system to boot up, I determined through a conversation with the customer that they had recently added more RAM to the machine, so of course I started suspecting a defective RAM volume. I launched the iMac G5 from the Hardware Diagnostics CD and started the extended hardware test and went back home to fetch some tools and my full set of trouble-shooting CDs. (I hadn’t planned on having to do trouble-shooting work this morning, and neither had my trainee!)

When I came back, the hardware test was still in progress, and it looked like it might still take a while. So I just shut the machine off, opened it up, and removed the two new RAM modules and put back the original one from Apple.

The machine still wouldn’t boot up either from the hard drive or from the DiskWarrior CD. It was able to boot from the original system CD that came with the machine, and from the Hardware Diagnostics CD, but that’s it. Rather frustrating!

The next stage was to reinstall the system from the original CDs. I launched a complete “Archive and Install” from the CD, and then left for the noon break. An hour later, I phoned the customer and she told me that the rest of the installation (inserting the second CD, restarting, etc.) had worked just fine.

I directed her to try a few things over the phone. The iMac G5 was now able to boot from the hard drive just fine. The Apple menu was back. The user environments and network settings had been properly restored. Most applications appeared to be working. But then I told her to plug the machine back into the router and try to go on the Internet. She tried to launch Safari and the application launched, but didn’t open a new window. Selecting “New Window” in the “File” menu didn’t work either. The only thing that sort of worked was to switch to the Finder and click on the Safari icon in the Dock again. This would force it to open a new window, but then none of the bookmarks in the Bookmark Bar were visible. They would only appear when she rolled over them with her mouse. And then when she tried to click on them, nothing happened.

I made her try Internet Explorer (which is still installed by default in Panther), and that worked fine. But Safari would not work.

And that was that. At this point, I told her that I feel the only solution is to do a complete “Erase and Install” of the system from scratch after reformatting the hard drive. I think that this is the only way that we’ll be able to narrow down the problem. Is it hardware? software? hard drive corruption? Who knows…

She has to back up a number of things first, and she’ll get back to me when she’s ready. I also told her to go back to the electronics store and exchange the router for a switch, which is what I recommended initially. The university technicians told her she could use a router with no problems — but I do not trust the university technicians (long story). They might think that it should work, but it doesn’t mean that it will work. I have seen enough network-related weirdness in my time, especially on that university campus, to be wary of such assurances. I’d rather use a simple switch.

So next week we’ll do a complete system reinstall from scratch (which means we also have to reinstall all the third-party applications, of course) and set things up with the router, and we’ll see what happens then. I certainly hope that it’s not a defective iMac G5. (I am the one who recommended that they buy a Mac a few months back for all their arts/design work.) The hardware test didn’t detect any problems with the logic board, but of course that doesn’t necessarily mean much.

So that’s it. Instead of doing three hours of training, I did three hours of trouble-shooting — and I am not even sure that the problem is solvable yet. I hope we don’t have to send the machine for repair, but only a clean install will enable us to determine if it’s really a hardware problem.

Trouble-shooting brand new machines is not my idea of fun! And it certainly doesn’t reflect well on Apple — even if it might still turn out that the problem is related to the router and not to the iMac itself. (Of course, we also might never know for sure.)

This whole process does raise a few questions, however. The main one is: How come I was able to boot from the original system CD, but not from the DiskWarrior CD? (I tried two different DiskWarrior CDs just in case, an older one with version 3.0.1 and one with version 3.0.3, made only a few weeks ago. It didn’t work in either case.) Of course, it might be that I simply didn’t wait long enough — but I held down the “C” key for a long time, and the CD started spinning and making the usual CD reading noises — but then after a while it would just stop spinning and nothing would happen. I waited at least a couple of minutes after that. This is not normal. Either you can boot from CD, or you can’t. But why only from certain CDs?

Now that the iMac G5 is booting from its own hard drive again, I might still try to boot from the DiskWarrior CD one more time before erasing everything, to see if I can repair the directory with it. We’ll see.

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