Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard): Stuck in a Setup Assistant loop

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
December 12th, 2007 • 10:05 am

Yesterday, I installed Leopard in a client’s iMac G4 (1.25 Ghz). The machine is older, but definitely still within the supported range of machines for Mac OS X 10.5. (It also has 1 GB of RAM.) As far as I could tell after using Leopard for a bit on that machine, things are pretty much as fast as they were under Mac OS X 10.3.9, which was the system version that my client was using prior to the upgrade.

Everything went very smoothly with the upgrade. (Just to be on the safer side, I did an “Archive & Install” upgrade with the option to preserve user and network settings.) I then immediately installed the Mac OS X 10.5.1 upgrade, and made sure that her old Lexmark All-In-One printer still worked properly. I also made sure that Mail properly reimported all her mail and worked properly with her network settings, and everything seemed to be fine.

Then just before leaving I launched iTunes, and I was told that a newer version was available—even though the application was up-to-date under Mac OS X 10.3.9. So I guess the most recent versions of iTunes no longer support Mac OS X 10.3.9.

When I saw that, I just told my client that she could go ahead and download and install the latest version of iTunes if she wanted to. And I left her with her iMac in perfect working order.

A few hours later, I got a phone call from her. She said that she had used the Software Update command to install all the latest system updates required for her machine, which included the latest version of iTunes “and a couple of other things.” The update had required a machine restart, so she had done that, and now the computer was showing her the Setup Assistant again and she was unable to get out of the Setup Assistant.

She said she had refilled the user information in Setup Assistant, but it still wouldn’t let her go back to her regular user environment. I got her to restart the machine one more time, and again the Setup Assistant appeared, so I asked her to fill out the information again, and she did go through the various screens, and then near the end Setup Assistant just jumped back to the very beginning and started all over again. In other words, she was stuck.

She had obviously been hit by a bug, and one that I had never heard of before. I asked her to try and remember what the other updates that Software Update had installed were, but she could not remember. I suspected one of them was QuickTime, because an iTunes update by itself does not require a restart. But I didn’t know what the third update was.

I then asked her to safe-boot, i.e. to restart the machine while holding the Shift key down. She did that, and got to the login window. But as soon as she logged in, the Setup Assistant showed up again. I told her to try and fill out the information again. This time the Setup Assistant screens were different: they were the screens you get when you first install the OS on a machine with no system at all (e.g. with an “Erase & Install” upgrade). Worse still, the Setup Assistant could not even see her AirPort network connection. I still told her to try and fill out all the information manually—but again, after a few screens, Setup Assistant just jumped back to the very beginning.

Now we were really stuck. I told her that I would try and do some research online, but if I couldn’t find anything I would probably have to come back and reinstall Mac OS X 10.5 from scratch, which of course was not an encouraging prospect for her because of the additional expense involved in me having to come back and work on her machine some more.

Fortunately, once I got off the phone, I went to the Apple Discussions forums and did a search for “keeps relaunching Setup Assistant,” and I soon found a number of discussion threads about the exact same problem. The discussions seemed to indicate that some kind of “keychain update” was involved. Great, I thought, Apple has just released a small system update for Mac OS X 10.5 and it’s buggy. But then I checked in System Update on my machine and was told that my Mac OS X 10.5.1 system was up-to-date, so that wasn’t what actually happened. I still did not know what the third update that my client had tried to install was.

The really good news, however, was that I also quickly found an article on Apple’s web site about the Setup Assistant problem. It’s a technical note titled “Mac OS X 10.5: Setup Assistant appears after every restart.” It’s dated November 14, which is around the time the Mac OS X 10.5.1 update came out. I don’t know if it’s related to Mac OS X 10.5.1 itself or if it can affect any version of Mac OS X 10.5. It certainly did not occur after I installed Mac OS X 10.5.1 on my client’s machine, but only when she attempted to install the latest iTunes and QuickTime and some other software update.

The good news was that the Apple tech note described exactly the problem that my client was experiencing, and appeared to provide a solution, which was to safe-boot (as I had initially suggested), but not to log in (which had not solved the problem for us), and just hit the “Restart” button in the login window instead.

I got back on the phone with my client and told her to do exactly just that. She did, and strangely enough, instead of getting an immediate restart of the machine, she actually saw the Installer window for the three updates that she had installed earlier on reappear on her screen. It looked as if the installation of the updates had somehow been interrupted, and now they were resuming. She had a progress bar starting at around 50% for the iTunes update, and then the installation proceeded. It installed QuickTime as well, and then eventually the screen went blue and the iMac actually restarted.

And after that everything was fine!

So the Apple tech note actually did provide a solution (albeit a rather non-intuitive one), and I don’t have to reinstall Mac OS X 10.5 from scratch after all. Phew!

The relief is not just for my client, who will save time and money and has her machine back. It is also for me, because of course, even though it was her decision to upgrade to Mac OS X 10.5, I somehow felt a bit responsible that things had not gone smoothly. It’s not my fault if Mac OS X 10.5 has bugs, of course, but it is my job to be aware of these bugs and have workarounds or solutions for them. So I am glad that I was eventually able to find the solution and fix her problem over the phone without having to travel back to her place and do more work on her machine.

And this way goes the ordinary life of a regular Mac tech support person…

4 Responses to “Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard): Stuck in a Setup Assistant loop”

  1. jade_c says:

    This post totally saved me!

    I had the same problem some five minutes ago. I was all about to reinstall the os from scratch (painful, but not that, since this imac’s just about two weeks old). good thing i thought about googling on my old powerbook first, before doing the silly tiger installation, then leopard upgrade, and probably wipe out the HD while at it.

    anyway, it think the cause of this was that i got impatient when i was told to restart the computer after updating quicktime (via software update). heh, i thought it frooze there a whee bit too long to seem like normal restarting that i reached behind to turn off the machine. and when i started it again, i kept getting the setup assistant.

    bah, after having been using macs for more than three years, i should have known better. surprisingly, it’s the first time i actually interrupted a post-update restart (urm, was in a hurry to get it done, so i can get my antibiotics down in time heh).

    but again, thanks! your solution saved me a lot of time and effort. :D

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Glad it helped. That’s kind of why I wrote the blog post in the first place. Apple’s site is not always very search-friendly.

    I am not sure you caused this with your impatience. Of course, it’s best to let things run their course, even if they seem stuck. (Apple clearly has to make progress on the visual feedback front when it comes to helping users get a sense of how long things are going to take.) But as far as I know, the client who experienced the problem did not do anything out of the ordinary, and she still ended up being stuck in the Setup Assistant loop.

    And the fact that there is a tech note about the problem also suggests that it is a “known issue” and not a rare thing caused by abnormal user behaviour.

  3. erich.wh.hayek says:

    Hi Pierre,
    thanks for this fantastic write up. It demonstrates an excellent service and support attitude. If you agree, I will use it in my company as show case.
    PS: it also helped me to sort out an issue with a mac in my family

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    Erich: Sure, go ahead. Just make sure I am fully credited :).

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