Six Steps For Troubleshooting Instability, Crashes and Freezes In Lion

17 Jan 2012

My primary home machine as of this writing is a 2008 model MacBook Pro, and every since I have upgraded it to MacOS X Lion, I've have had nothing but problems with it. I held of on upgrading until iOS 5 came-out, which then needed Lion for iCloud support. I gave in and ended-up spending several months troubleshooting various problems to get my machine back into a usable state.

This blog post is not the end-all authorative information about how to fix instability problems in Lion, it is however a quick guide of things to check if you are an experienced Unix/MacOS user. I don't outline the steps down to the actions you must perform, it's just an overview on what you should check. There are no guarantees that any of this will fix your problems, and you should have an expert do this for you if any of this stuff is unfamilliar to you.

Out of all of the things I read about people having problems with Lion, the culprit in at least 95% of the situations was old software interferring with Lion. Given that I have taken my machine from Leopard, to Snow Leopard, to Lion, there were bound to be problems leftover from old software.

The most important thing I have learned in this process is that Lion is not an operating system you want to upgrade to because it has a lot of massive changes in it. Do everything you can to only use Lion from a clean install. I can't stress this enough. You will spend much less time getting your machine back to a usable state by doing a clean install than you would having to troubleshoot this stuff. In hindsight I'm still at least a little bit glad I didn't because I learned a lot in the process, and getting Lion usable again has been a frustrating but somewhat rewarding experience.

Now that I've got all of that out of the way, here are some of the steps you should do in order to figure out why your machine keeps locking up:

1. Review Log Files

This is the quickest and most valuable step in figuring out what is going on. If you're lucky, there will be all kind of different traces of badness happening including kernel panics. Google for anything suspicious you see in log files, and fix it if possible.

2. Make Sure Your Hardware Is In Good Working Order

You could actually have some sort of hardware problem that is making Lion crash. Maybe you have RAM that is not working correctly, a problem with your video card, etc. Make sure your hardware is not an issue.

3. Repair Disk & Disk Permissions

This is a pretty good thing to do in general when you are having system problems. It doesn't take long to run, and it will almost always find something wrong, especially if you are experencing crashes.

3. Update/Uninstall Always Running Applications and Daemons

Are you running up to date software for everything that runs at startup? Some suspects would include software like Little Snitch and Dropbox. This sort of software almost never updates itself automatically, so make sure you are running the latest versions of programs that run at start-up or as daemon processes.

4. Update Frequently Used Applications

What programs do you usually have open when you experience a lock-up/crash? You should probably make sure they are all the latest versions. Run them one at a time and see which one causes Lion to crash.

For me, during troubleshooting I narrowed it down to Google Chrome. I instead ran Firefox for awhile and the crashes went away. Eventually I switched Chrome to the dev channel and it seemed to be stable, but I had already done a bunch of other stuff in the process so no idea if that was actually the fix or not.

5. Remove old Kernel Extensions

This one is kind of nasty and you could end-up really hosing your system. Be very careful while doing this. I ended-up finding a very old Cisco VPN extension from 2007, and well as some library called "Soundflower" or something like that which was also incredibly out of date.

6. Do A Clean Install Of Lion

If you've done all of the steps above and are still having problems, I would suggest a clean install of Lion. If you continue to have problems even after a clean install, you likely have a hardware problem.

Honestly I've had an almost finished blog post in my drafts folder with a lot of bile and hate for Lion for at least a month or two after seemingly wasting so much time trying to figure out what the problem was. However after running through all of these steps several times to make sure I didn't miss anything, my old MacBook Pro from 2008 is stable again!

I can't exactly point my finger at Apple for the problems I've had as I would say they were likely the fault of old software. I have certainly not been that happy with them as of late, though.