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I am running Snow Leopard. It is up to date. Every few days, I get the "Spinning Wheel of Death."

  • I can't do anything except hold down the power button to shut off my MacBook Pro.
  • I've even tried a kill -9 -1 from a root shell that was already opened. It just hangs.
  • The Spin Control app just says "Sampling" on a few of the apps but is unresponsive.

Do I have any other options to shut down my laptop? I don't like to just power it off.

Update: I have no idea which app is doing this. At the moment it appears random. My fan does not spin up. Maybe it's a networking thing?

Update: Dead again. This time I had X11 running and no matter what app I switched to, I got that app's menu bar and the X11 screen. I ping and the Internet doesn't respond. My Apple router is working because I'm streaming Pandora over WiFi. I turn off the wifi and I'm still screwed. I try to power off and it won't shutdowm because X11 is running. If course, I can't kill it. Press and hold... boom. This is not how an OS is supposed to work!

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every few days? ouch! Is there any specific application that causes it? Which OS are you running? Is it up to date? –  JT.WK Feb 9 '10 at 0:12
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Thats "Spinning, Technocolor Pizza of Death", please. –  dmckee Feb 9 '10 at 0:36
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@dmckee Also known affectionally as the beachball. –  waiwai933 Feb 9 '10 at 0:58
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Can you identify what app is running when it happens, or is it random? Is it accompanied by an increase in fan speed, additional heat, etc.? –  user3463 Feb 9 '10 at 13:15
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obligatory Family Guy reference: youtube.com/watch?v=zqKM3SCEmAw –  Jeff Atwood Feb 12 '10 at 10:02

15 Answers 15

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The beachball appears automatically when an app stops responding, and the one thing certain to cause that is disk I/O starvation. The VM system is trying to page in part of the app, and can't. The window server (which puts up the beachball) is already in RAM, and so isn't affected.

Install MenuMeters. It'll show you CPU, Net, RAM, and disk usage. I find it indispensable for figuring out which of those four limited resources is the cause of almost any slowdown.

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istat menus (islayer.com/apps/istatmenus) is another good app along the same lines as MenuMeters. Any tool that shows you system diagnostics will be helpful troubleshooting this kind of issue. –  Scottie Feb 12 '10 at 11:15
    
I installed istatmenus. –  anon Feb 17 '10 at 6:06

Can you do a hard drive scan, to rule that out?

I have little OSX experience but I know both Win7, Vista, and XP have major conniption fits if there are are serious underlying I/O problems on the hard drive. Any sort of blocking errors in hard drive data transfers cause the system to just go AWOL no matter what you do, very much like what you're describing.

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If you're hearing any kind of "clicking" noise physically coming from the hard drive, then Jeff's probably bang-on and your HDD is about to fail. I had this happen to an old iBook a couple of years back... beachballing, programs hanging/crashing, and a clicking hard drive. One day, the damn thing just wouldn't turn on and I was left with a pretty white paperweight. –  Scottie Feb 12 '10 at 10:08
    
Use disk utility to check the drive for errors as well as checking permissions. Second, (actually, should be the first things to do) get Carbon Copy Cloner and a good external drive and backup your data to a bootable external disk. –  Bart Silverstrim Feb 12 '10 at 11:19
    
+1, the disk definitely needs to be checked, but I doubt that's it: if it's a disk issue, the trouble should be there most of the time, not "every few days". –  Charles Stewart Feb 12 '10 at 13:27
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@Charles: a failing disk can definitely be sporadic like this. It's like some memory issues...things can get WEIRD when they're going. Could also be temp related, where the failure is subtle enough that only when stressed is it coming out. He can try reseating cables to see if they're loose... –  Bart Silverstrim Feb 12 '10 at 13:44
    
@Charles: Plus we don't know if he only uses his Mac every few days :-) –  Bart Silverstrim Feb 12 '10 at 13:45

Run "fsck" (File System Check - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fsck)

Boot into "single-user" mode by holding down CMD-S at startup. Hold that down and eventually your Mac will boot to a command line on a black screen. Once it's booted, type

fsck -yf

and your computer will run through the check (takes a minute or two) and will eventually finish and give you a report of either "ok" or "the file system was modified". Run it a couple of times to be sure (I've had instances where it's fixed issues, I've run it again, and it's found additional issues to fix).

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You could also boot from the OS install disks and use Disk Utility, which allows you to check to disks from the comfort of a GUI –  Rob Cowell Feb 12 '10 at 10:20
    
Also true, though I read at one time that if the check is run from the command line it's more thorough because there are far less "in-use" OS files for it to contend with. Don't know if that's still the case or not. There are also those of us that prefer the comfort of a command line. ;) –  Scottie Feb 12 '10 at 11:02
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Running it from the command line or any running system will limit the ability of the disk check to fix issues. Booting from an external disk or disc means it can do a more thorough job of repair, as FSCK has to work with an unmounted disk in order to be effective against many types of problems. FSCK on a mounted, in use disk is A Bad Idea(tm), no matter the platform. –  Bart Silverstrim Feb 12 '10 at 13:46
    
Interesting, Bart. I wasn't aware that this was actually the case. Thanks! –  Scottie Feb 13 '10 at 7:58
    
fsck -yf checked out. –  anon Feb 17 '10 at 6:05

Hold the shift key when logging in. This should start the system with no apps loaded (a barebone, "fresh install" osx). See if it happens. If it does not, add one app at the time and see which one causes it.

It might help also to open up a terminal and check if an app is trying to get the cpu undivided attention (i.e. 100% usage); if not, note that the behaviour you're describing is often due to

  • no space on hard drive
  • failed network connection or waiting for a network connection (a-la accept() )
  • trying to swap something big (on OSX the use of swapping sucks, but that's just IMHO and anecdotal evidence for me)
  • thermal issues (again, "a friend told me that.."). Not sure on this one
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Good answer, this is what I would recommend. –  Josh K Feb 15 '10 at 3:17

Open Console.app and take a look at the logs, if there is anything abnormal - a 15megabytes file filled with the logs of just one app IS abnormal, for reference.
I had problems in the past with unpolite applications spamming the logs (hamachiX in primis), so it might be worth taking a look there.

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Jeff's probably on to something. If it's affecting all of your apps, you probably have a dying HDD or some other marginal piece of hardware. I'd take it to your nearest Genius Bar and let them take a look at it.

If it's not the HDD, take a look in the at Console.app to see if there are any log entries which correspond to the times your system is hanging.

You can also run the "sample" utility on an app which is hung. Open up the Terminal and type "man sample" for more details.

If you can track it down to a fairly consistent issue (software-based), please file a bug at http://developer.apple.com/bugreporter/ (will require a free ADC account).

One more thing - if you have a copy of your partition (usually by using the restore feature of Disk Utility), you can boot from an external drive. Try restoring your system partition to an external drive and then either use the Startup Disk pref pane or reboot holding the "Option" key to pick your external partition to boot from. If the spins stop, it's a pretty good sign that something's wrong with your internal HDD or your filesystem.

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Eliminate hardware errors first - put the system disks in and reboot holding 'd' key down. Run the extended hardware test, it will take several hours so do it overnight. It will spit out a weird code (if it finds a fault), if it had HDD in it - your hard drive's faulty. If you get this immediately clone your drive with SuperDuper or equivalent. You can use Tech Tools Deluxe if you have the Applecare - but it's not as good in my experience.

Then try running disk utility - it can do a check from a live instance of the OS, if it finds a fault you repair by using the system disks and booting from them holding down the 'c' key this time. If Disk Utility won't fix a fault, either re-install OS or use DiskWarrior (budget depending). Repair permissions while you're about it, it can't hurt.

Then check the console for errors as suggested in another post. If you narrow the problem to a single app, re-install it (use something like AppZapper to clean out the preferences).

This is a good resource http://www.macattorney.com/ts.html

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It could be a failing disk. Wouldn't hurt to run a Disk Utility check on your drive. And if you are not able to do it from within the OS, you could boot from an OS X disc and run Disk Utility from there.

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I had similar issues with my iMac a couple of months ago, where it would just bog down completely and become irresponsive. For some reason I seemed to notice a lot more often when I was running virtual machines in VMWare Fusion, so at first I associated the problem with VMWare.

The problems started occurring more often. Also, occasionally the computer would not find the disk at startup (just showing a crossed over folder icon). It would then boot if I reset it again. These problems also got more frequent with time.

Eventually, the disk stopped working altogether - it just wouldn't boot, no matter how many times I retried.

So, while I don't have any advice on how to fix your problem or even diagnose your problem, I do have a general advice: if you haven't already, make a backup immediately. Bonus tip: start by backing upp the most important files individually, then make a full disk backup. Because this sounds awfully much like an impending hard disk failure.

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First thing I'd suspect is a drive problem.

Get a good external disk that OS X can boot from, format it with HFS+, and run a clone app like Carbon Copy Cloner to dupe your drive contents to the external disk.

Then run the Disk Utility permission and data check on your internal drive. See if it can find (And repair) issues.

Keep running Disk Utility until no more errors occur.

You can try running your system off the external drive for awhile to see if you still have the lockups too, as that could narrow down the problem.

Make an appointment with an Apple Genius to have your system checked. If you have Apple's Tech Tools for your system (should have it if you had AppleCare) then you can run the disk diagnostic on that as well.

Also if it's under AppleCare you can call them for troubleshooting. Apple tech support is generally pretty good, and if you have to ship it (I know getting to an Apple Store for me is more than a little difficult) the turnaround is a day or two, not bad at all, even though I'm sure there are some who have horror stories (Aren't there always?)

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You can boot from flash: forums.macosxhints.com/archive/index.php/t-77649.html –  Charles Stewart Feb 12 '10 at 13:36
    
@Charles: you can, but for a backup (with CCC) he'd probably want a large disk, and it'll clone his current working drive. Most flash (talking about a USB stick?) is probably just big enough to make an emergency boot environment. Won't keep his data. –  Bart Silverstrim Feb 12 '10 at 13:42
    
I'll also add that disk utility will tell you the SMART status of the drive, so if the drive has reason to think it's failing, SMART will tell you. Caveat: if SMART says it's failing, the drive is failing. If SMART says the drive is healthy, the drive may be failing. –  Bart Silverstrim Feb 12 '10 at 13:47

I've experienced similar behavior (though not quite as drastic). I don't propose to have an answer, but I thought I'd ask for clarification for those who might:

Is it the case that your computer works perfectly fine for several days, you never turn it off during that time, and then starts to go haywire? And then, when you turn it off, it runs fine continuously for a few days, and then goes nuts again?

That's the behavior I noticed on mine when I started leaving it on for a week at a time. I have no trouble if I turn it off or reset it every couple of days. (And I do that naturally, not waiting for it to degrade to be unusable).

I didn't think it was clear from your original post, and I thought the information might help the troubleshooters if that was the case.

I'd have left a comment requesting clarification, but I guess I don't have the reputation to do so.

Hope that contributes something.

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The base os very robust, it's usually the GUI that hangs.

If you can manage to log out, everything should be fine again. I have a script "flogoff" that I run (from Terminal if I can still get there, otherwise via SSH) that kills my login and brings back the login screen. That usually works.

Update: Found it:

#!/bin/sh

pid=`ps auxc | grep $USER | grep loginwindow | cut -c 10-14`
sudo kill -9 $pid

Until 10.5 the kill didn't need a sudo. In 10.6 users are apparently now allowed to kill their own login.

Oh, and always, ALWAYS, keep Terminal.app open! Finder.app is just not robust enough and uses every opportunity to show the SWoD.

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We have a similar problem with a Mac in our office running Leopard. It appears that it's Firefox that crashing the OS. Turning off extensions and re-enabling them one-by-one didn't do anything, it's the main programme itself.

Also, did you do an upgrade from a previous OS version as I've seen posts that this can cause major issues - people have recommended a clean install is the way to go.

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As already suggested, get Carbon Copy Cloner, clone your boot drive and boot from there. See if it happens. If you have removable RAM modules, try removing ½ and see if you notice any difference.

Try also booting in Single User mode and without any startup items. (You can find how to do that in google).

OS X rarely does things like out of nowhere. Beachballs are usually the result of some hardware malfunction (when they occur like this, all the time) or kernel extension that may be incompatible. Do you have any External USB/Firewire audio interfaces?

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It sounds like you just want to fix the problem, and often it is just easier to fix a problem than to troubleshoot it. "Why?" is often an expensive question.

Here are some of my general just-fix-it solutions when I can't find a culprit:

  1. Log out and log back in to the user account.

  2. Restart the computer.

  3. Use Onyx to run daily/weekly/monthly maintenance scripts and check for corrupt preference files. http://www.titanium.free.fr/pgs/english/apps.html

  4. Download and run the Mac OS X Combo Updater for your current system version, i.e. If you are running 10.6.2, use the 10.6.2 updater. (I'm a new user, or I'd post a link. Try Googling: apple kb DL959)

  5. ...? (I've never had to go further.)

The combo update may sound extreme, but is actually pretty efficient. It is typically a 4-700 MB file and runs unattended for less than the time it take to eat dinner. My impression of this is that it just reinstalls system files. In my experience, it does not affect users, preferences, or installed applications.

To help in the event of a future problem so severe that it prevents getting to the GUI, install Applejack, which is a nice single-user mode problem solver: (Google: applejack mac)

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