That doesn’t look good at all: Instead of the familiar starter chime that Apple brought back with macOS Big Sur – nothing. Instead of the apple in the middle of the screen, under which a progress bar gradually fills – nothing. Or did your squirming desktop or laptop still chime, but then not much came up, at best a confusing symbol like a blinking question mark? In any case, the Apple Mac will no longer start. What can you do about it and save your system, the programs, and, above all, your personal data? In this article, will explain exactly what to do if your Mac won’t turn on.
Macs are very reliable but are only computers and therefore they are not 100 percent immune to failures, which are sometimes expressed in a refused start process. It can have many causes, so before you come up with any solution, you must understand the root problem and determine its cause.
Fortunately, there are enough measures available for diagnosis and treatment for any Mac-related Issues. We have divided this guide into ten steps that gradually lead to the goal: A working Mac with all the necessary data. The measures apply equally to a number of operating system versions, including the current macOS 11 Big Sur. One of the other menus can differ slightly from version to version. This advisory refers to Macs with Intel processors and the Apple Silicon Macs.
Step 1: Check If Your Mac Is Turning On At All
Sounds trite at first, but the reason your Mac won’t start could simply be because it won’t turn on in the first place. If you press the power button, do not hear a start-up gong (for Macs older than 2016) and no fan, or if there is no light on the monitor or the components, then this is probably the case. If you don’t hear a start chime, it can also mean that you muted the computer, connected headphones, or switched off the loudspeakers when you last used it. You may not have activated the gong at all. There can be several symptoms of silence.
In the specific situation, it is not easy to find the cause, it does not have to be hidden in the software or specifically in the start routine. Apple has its own support document in case the Mac does not turn on and essentially gives four pieces of advice.
First of all, you should check the power supply (has someone unplugged the Mac? Is the power strip possibly used also switched on?), If available, use a different cable, unplug any peripherals such as printers or USB hubs (of course not the monitor on the Mac Mini or Mac Pro) and if new hardware has recently been installed – such as a new memory stick or a hard drive, (as it was possible with older devices) – check whether these components are still installed correctly or, if necessary, remove them and retrieve the old components. If none of this helps, you should try to reset the SMC. We explain how to do this in step 7.
Step 2: No Video Signal – Or Just A Distorted One
If the Mac turns on but does not display a picture, then you probably have a problem with the monitor. If something is displayed, but you cannot log into your Mac, go to step 3. If you suspect problems with your Mac’s display, you can again get help from an Apple support document. In this case, Apple advises:
- Check the power supply of the (external) monitor
- Make sure that all cables are plugged in correctly
- Make sure the monitor is compatible with the Mac
- Remove any extenders or switches between your Mac and your monitor
- Unplug the video cable (between the Mac and the monitor) and plug it in again
- If you have switched several monitors in a row (daisy chain), unplug them all and only plug one back in for the time being
- If possible, try a different cable or, better still, a different interface – such as DVI instead of VGA
If none of this helps, the document advises deleting the PRAM or starting the system in secure mode.
Step 3: Run Disk Utility in Recovery Mode
So the Mac turns on and everything is fine with the monitor – why does it still not boot? There can still be many reasons for this, in this step we would like to rule out that our problems relate to the hard drive or, if necessary, fix them. For this we need the disk utility – and so that it can not only make a diagnosis but also repair any problems it finds, we have to boot from an external disk.
Respectively its own partition, which is separated from the system partition. Since OS X 10.7, the rescue partition on board the Mac has been mostly invisible. If we start from this partition, we can then use the hard disk service program from there.
Before restarting, we first have to confirm that the Mac is really off. If a light is still glowing somewhere or a gray screen still shines, we press the on/off button for five seconds to turn the Mac off again. Then we hold down the Cmd and R keys on the keyboard and turn the Mac back on.
If this boot process works, it leads to a screen that shows us some OS X utilities. Click the Disk Utility. Then click on the symbol of your hard drive in the list on the left and then on “First Aid” and “Run” or “Check” (Apple has done a little overhaul of the Disk Utility from version 10.11) Then just wait and let the tool fix a possible error.
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Step 4: Safe System Start
The secure system start tests the functionality of the Mac during startup and leaves system components and, above all, third-party extensions unexecuted. In many cases, this method helps to eliminate the limiting factor – such as a problematic extension. At the same time, a large number of cache files are also deleted, which also eliminates problems.
After a safe system start, a completely normal boot process can then take place. You can trigger a safe start if you hold down the Shift or Shift key during the boot process. If that brings your bitching Mac to life, this process may take a while as the system does some checking routines.
If you want to know what your computer is doing, don’t just press the Shift key at startup, but also CMD and V, you then enter into the so-called verbose mode, which shows on the screen during startup. As a layman, you will hardly get any valuable information from it, but it looks pretty cool…
When the safe system start (with or without Verbose) is successful, simply restart your Mac as normal. If that solves the problem: Congratulations! If not, please read on.
Step 5: FSCK – File System Consistency Check
Unless it’s your own Mac you’re trying to fix in the sweat of your brow and growing worry, Step 5 is straight out of fun, almost even more so than the Verbose Boot. Because the File System Consistency Check feels really geeky.
You have to do this if your Mac has a system prior to macOS 10.14 Mojave, such as macOS 10.13 High Sierra: First, turn the Mac off and then on again while holding down the CMD and S keys. The “S” stands for single-user mode, in which you can now start. You can loosen the handle when white text appears on a black screen. Now wait until a command line appears and type:
In single-user mode, however, the US keyboard layout is loaded – and the letters are now arranged differently. The following will appear on your screen:
With which you tell your Mac to please run the File System Consistency Check (fsck), the command -f means that you want it to do so in spite of the so-called journaling of the hard disk. Note: On older Macs, the command “fsck -y” was entered.
After the check, your computer will either say “The volume [name of the Mac ‘] appears to be OK” or – what you actually didn’t want to read, especially not in the volume – “FILE SYSTEM WAS MODIFIED”. In the first case, you can simply type “reboot” in the command line and press the Enter key. When restarting, please do not hold any key down. In the second case, run the check again, you don’t even have to type the command again. It is sufficient to press the arrow up key, the command appears again, you only have to confirm it with the enter key. You will either succeed on the second, third, or further attempt. Or not.
With macOS 10.14 Mojave, Apple changed the procedure. The single-user mode still exists, but it can now only be reached via the rescue partition, a basic system that is invisible in normal operation and that can help with many problems, see also step 9 Mac cmd-R to start macOS recovery.
In the Utilities window, you will find Disk Utility, which will help you find the volume that you intend to repair. Click on it and select “File> Activate” from the menu. Now you can start the Terminal program and enter UNIX commands in it, for example, those for the file consistency check.
Step 6: Reset NVRAM
In the times of the PowerPC, the first question from experts when there were problems was usually “PRAM already reset?”. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, resetting PRAM wasn’t a panacea. This memory, which can cause problems, is correctly called NVRAM in the times of Intel Macs. And yes, it can be reset.
The name of the memory refers to certain sections of the main memory that hold certain parameters even when the device is switched off, such as the screen resolution or the selected volume – this is why even a correctly booting Mac does not hear a start-up gong if you last switched off the sound. Apple Silicon Macs no longer have NVRAM and no SMC either (see the next point).
As always, resetting the NVRAM is not necessarily promising, but it does not hurt either. So it’s appropriate here. If you have learned the piano or another instrument that requires special manual dexterity, you now have an advantage. Everyone else has to twist a little while booting or ask for a third helping hand. Because when you start the Mac you have to hold down the Cmd, Alt, P, and R keys at the same time. And of course, then press the power button.
The Mac may then start normally and show a progress bar. But it can happen that the boot process aborts before it is completely filled, then resetting the NVRAM did not help. But we still have a few arrows in our quiver.
Step 7: Reset The SMC
Now we have come to the point where we have to reset the System Management Controller (SMC) of the Intel Mac if anything should help at all – almost a last resort before completely rebuilding the Mac. This measure is a little more complicated, Apple has provided detailed instructions for it, for Macbooks and for desktops. For the latter, it reads quite simply: unplug the power supply, wait 15 seconds, plug it in again, wait five seconds, switch it on again.
With Macbooks, however, things get complicated because the trick is simply not to provide the computer with any power source for a short period of time. Unplugging the Macbook’s power supply does not help. This is the appropriate measure for older Macbooks where you can still remove the battery. When the power supply is completely gone, you press the power button for five seconds, then reinstall the battery and plug in the power supply. Then hopefully the old machine will boot.
With newer Macs, however, the battery can no longer be removed. Apple’s procedure for clearing the SMC then looks like this:
- Turn off your Mac
- Plug the power supply unit (Magsafe or USB-C) into the Mac and the socket
- Press the Shift, Ctrl and Alt keys on the internal keyboard, then press the power button
- Release all buttons, press the power button again.
Step 8: Target Disk Mode
Still not working At least now it is time for the data recovery before we really have to set up the system again. In case you’re a notorious backup denier, this step is your final straw to access your data. You didn’t fix the Mac with it, but we’ll deal with that later.
Essentially, the Target Disk mode means that you can connect your (defective) Mac to another (healthy) Mac and mount the hard drive of the broken computer as an external volume on the working one. This means that, under certain circumstances, your data can be saved at the last minute. That’s how it works:
- Connect the two computers with a Thunderbolt or Firewire cable
- Turn off your (defective) Mac
- Restart it while holding down the T key
- Even after the startup chime has sounded, hold the handle and wait until nothing but the Thunderbolt (or Firewire) icon appears on the screen.
On your healthy Mac (or that of a colleague or friend) you will now see the icon of your hard drive. Now drag the data you still need onto another external storage medium. You can also clone the entire hard drive using Disk Utility, for example. Does the computer not even boot in target disk mode anymore? Geez! Go to step 10.
Step 8.5: Diagnostic Mode
Whether there are any hardware problems on the Mac that also prevent it from starting can be determined in the so-called diagnostic mode. The Mac will then go through a component check and the best message you can get is “There are no problems”.
Macs from mid-2013 can be started in diagnostic mode by pressing the D key, which usually takes around five minutes. With older Macs (until mid-2013) the procedure looks the same at first, but after selecting the language, the user still has to press the “T” key.
Step 9: Set Up The System Again
Well then. There is not much left but to set up the system again. To do this, look again at step 3, the recovery mode. After the successful start in this, you also have the option of reinstalling the system, the rescue partition is there for that. The process is actually self-explanatory. Instead of the rescue partition, you can also reinstall the system from a bootable external medium. That’s Simply It!
Step 10: Off To The Genius Bar
Now we have to learn Greek because we are at the end of our Latin. The figurative “Greek”, however, is specifically the Genius Bar in the nearest Apple Store. You should bring your Mac there now and make an appointment via Apple’s website. The Genius will tell you what to fix and what is hopelessly lost – including a quote.
In the worst-case scenario, the Apple Store will take back your e-waste and sell you a new computer. But it doesn’t have to come that far, replacing a hard drive / SSD or a logic board is usually cheaper than buying a new device. Apple support page.