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How to fix a Mac that won't start

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How to fix a Mac that won't start

If you’re here to find out how to fix a Mac that won’t start, we’ve got your back. Most of us have come to take for granted that our Mac, iPhone, or iPad just sort of… work. So, when things go wrong, such as a Mac not starting up, we're more likely to be caught out. Luckily, there’s almost nothing that can go wrong that hasn't gone wrong for several other people at some point in the past, which means that in most cases, there’s going to be a fix.

Especially when you utilize your Mac or MacBook for productivity or creative work, you need it in top shape and ready to perform whatever task we demand of it. Therefore, knowing how to fix a Mac that won’t start, preferably without help from an expert who will charge you a few hundred dollars, is a skill that will come in handy and save you some money.

That’s what we’re here for. We gathered some of the most common fixes you can try if your Mac refuses to start or boot. Obviously, there will be some extreme cases in which you’ll require professional help, and there are plenty of authorised service centres ready and able to provide it, as well as the Genius Bars at Apple Stores. But, most of the time, it’s a simple issue with a simple fix.

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Fix a Mac that won't start

Mac folder with question mark: what does it mean?

If your Mac starts up to a Mac folder with a question mark, it could mean one of two things: (1) your startup disk is no longer working because either you previously started your Mac from a different disk or your hard drive has failed, or (2) there’s no working operating system installed. 

It’s a scary thing, turning on your Mac only to find a solitary folder with a question mark on a solid black background. But, worry not. As long as it’s not a hard drive that’s stopped working completely, there might be a way to get your Mac back to the way it was.

Step 1: Press and hold the power button for 10 seconds to turn your Mac off.

Step 2: Turn on your Mac, and hold Command (⌘) + R. This takes you to macOS Recovery.

Step 3: Select Disk Utility, press continue and find your startup disk in the sidebar.

Step 4: Click “First Aid” and hit Run. This should prompt your Mac to find errors and repair them.

If Disk Utility did not find or could not repair all the errors, you might have to reformat the disk, reinstall the macOS or restore a backup using the Time Machine.

However, if you can’t perform this repair because Disk Utility just isn’t seeing your startup disk, you might have to take it to a Mac expert to get serviced.

How to fix a Mac that won't start

The Mac doesn't start, but hangs at a blue or grey screen

Persistent blue or grey screens when you boot up your Mac tend to be caused by a peripheral. Power off the Mac. Disconnect everything except the power and the keyboard and mouse (if external), and now restart.

If the Mac starts up normally, it's a problem with a peripheral. To find out which one is at fault, reattach them one by one and start up each time, until the problem reoccurs.

Once you've found the culprit, Google the problem and the name of the peripheral to find out what others have done to fix it. If the Mac won't boot with all peripherals disconnected, try booting in Safe Mode by holding down the Shift key when you restart.

Occasionally, doing that then restarting fixes the problem. If not, boot into the Recovery partition and follow the steps in the problem above.

Understanding startup tones

When you turn on your Mac you should hear a tone. The type of tone can change depending on any problems your Mac might be experiencing, so they are a good way of figuring out what's preventing your Mac to properly start.

One tone repeating every five seconds

This means there's no RAM installed in the Mac, so install some!

Three successive tones and a five second pause, repeating on a loop

This means the RAM has failed an integrity check; replace it.

One long tone while holding the power button

An EFI ROM update is in progress on pre-2012 Macs.

Three long tones, three short tones, and then three more long tones

Mac is in EFI ROM recovery mode.

What to do if your Mac won't start up at all

First of all, check that the Mac is connected to a power supply, and that the power cable is secure. Then you should check that the power socket is switched on and working. (Test it with a lamp!)

Next, eliminate the possibility that it's a display problem. Is there a startup chime? Can you hear the fan? Is the sleep LED lit? Does the caps lock key light up when you press it? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, it may be a problem with the display.

If it's an external monitor, check its connection. If that's okay, try connecting a different display. If the answer to all of those questions is no, try resetting the system management controller (SMC). Shut down, press (left side) Shift+Options+Ctrl, and press the power button to start up. Still no joy? Get thee to a Genius Bar.