7 Mac Startup Options Every OS X User Should Know
Apple has a reputation for making products that “just work,” but many Mac users may still need to occasionally troubleshoot their desktop or laptop. Thankfully, there are a number of startup options that are available on recent Macs to aid in both troubleshooting and system management. Here’s a look at seven essential Mac startup options that every macOS user should know.
Starting with the release of macOS Lion in 2011, Macs have offered a Recovery Mode that users can access to diagnose hardware issues, restore Time Machine backups, manage hard drives, and even reinstall macOS itself. To use Recovery Mode, reboot or start your Mac and hold the Command and R keys simultaneously on your keyboard as you see the iconic white Apple logo against a black screen. Keep holding as your Mac boots, which may take a few moments depending on its specific configuration. You can let go of the keys when you see a screen similar to the screenshot below.
Recovery Mode is possible thanks to the installation of a hidden recovery partition on your Mac’s hard drive and allows the user to perform the aforementioned tasks without needing a macOS DVD or USB installer. To perform recovery tasks on older versions of macOS, such as OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, users needed to boot from the install DVD.
A recovery partition will be created by default on new macOS installations and upgrades, but not every Mac configuration is supported, including RAID system drives. Further, if your Mac’s drive lacks a recovery partition for any reason, you may still be able to access macOS recovery tools via macOS Internet Recovery, which loads the recovery information directly from Apple’s servers. To use this feature, you’ll need an active Internet connection and a Mac introduced after the public availability of OS X Lion, which includes the Mid-2011 MacBook Air and up.
Most Mac users will probably only ever use the single drive that came with their system. But for those who want to use multiple internal drives or partitions, Windows via Boot Camp, or boot to external drives, you’ll need to use the Mac’s built-in Startup Manager. Simply reboot your Mac and hold the Option key on your keyboard as soon as you see the Mac’s startup Apple logo. After a few moments, you’ll see all of the bootable devices appear on your screen accompanied by their corresponding icons and volume names.
The Mac Startup Manager will update as needed, so if you add or remove bootable drives or devices on your Mac, the list will automatically display the current options. You can use your mouse, trackpad, or keyboard to select the desired drive, and either click on its upward arrow button or press Return once you’ve made your selection. As long as the Mac is compatible with the operating system contained on the selected drive, your Mac will continue booting the designated operating system.
Examples of when you may need to use the Mac Startup Manager include booting to your Windows Boot Camp partition, booting to a complete cloned backup of your system drive, or reinstalling macOS from a DVD or USB drive.
The Mac Startup Manager works great if you have a number of boot options from which to choose, but your Mac also recognizes a few additional startup keys that direct it to boot immediately from a specific source. These keys include holding the C key during boot to boot directly from an inserted CD, DVD, or bootable USB drive on older versions of macOS, and holding the N key to perform a NetBoot to a compatible network server.
If you’ve ever worked in the Windows world, you may be familiar with Windows Safe Mode, which starts the operating system with the bare minimum level of drivers and software to help you isolate the cause of a software issue or conflict. macOS offers a similar mode called Safe Mode. Just as with its Windows counterpart, macOS Safe Mode should be used to help troubleshoot issues that may be caused by corrupt or incompatible software, or to help isolate software issues from hardware failures. To use it, press and hold the Shift key on your keyboard as soon as you see the Apple logo. Keep holding Shift until you see a gray progress bar appear beneath the Apple boot logo.
When triggered, Safe Mode will force a check of your startup volume’s integrity, load only the minimum required macOS kernel extensions, disable all user fonts, clear font caches, and disable all startup and login items. All of these tasks equate to a significantly longer boot time compared to the default “normal” macOS boot process, so don’t panic if your Mac takes longer than usual to boot.
Once you reach the usual macOS login screen or desktop, you’ll notice the words “Safe Boot” in red letters in the menu bar. You’ll also likely notice slower overall system and graphics performance, as macOS is using default drivers to help you track down your software or driver issue. You won’t want to use Safe Mode day-to-day, of course, as many common and useful functions are not available in this mode, but it is an essential step in troubleshooting your Mac. When you’re ready to return to “normal” mode, just reboot your Mac without holding down the Shift key.
Your Mac’s parameter random-access memory (PRAM) stores important information such as the type and identity of your macOS system drive, the presence of any other internal drives, the number and type of connected devices, screen resolution, and speaker volume. If your Mac isn’t acting as expected, a PRAM reset is usually the first and easiest troubleshooting step to try. You’ll also want to make sure you perform a PRAM reset after you replace your Mac’s hard drive, unless you like waiting five minutes for the system to boot while it searches in vain for the old missing disk.
To reset PRAM, shut down your Mac and find the Command, Option, P, and R keys on your keyboard. You’re going to need to power your Mac up and then press and hold all four keys simultaneously as soon as you see the Apple logo. It’s a little tricky at first, and you may miss it on the first attempt, but just keep rebooting your Mac until you’re comfortable contorting your fingers to reach all four keys at the same time.
Keep holding the keys until your Mac reboots itself and you see the Apple logo appear and disappear a second time. At this point, you can release the keys and your Mac should boot as normal. Note that settings such as resolution and system speaker volume will be set to defaults, so don’t be startled if your Mac’s sound effects are a bit louder on the second boot.
There’s a whole lot going on when your Mac boots, but Apple, always concerned about design and user experience, hides the details behind the familiar light gray boot screen. This makes booting your Mac a simple and pleasant experience, but can also hamper troubleshooting efforts.
To see what’s really happening during your Mac’s boot process, you’ll want to enable Verbose Mode, which lets you see the messy details during boot in order to identify any drivers, kernel extensions, or other issues that are causing your Mac grief. To use Verbose Mode, reboot your Mac and press and hold the Command and V keys simultaneously as soon as you see the Apple logo on startup.
You’ll soon see quickly moving rows of text instead of the gray boot screen, and you or a tech support rep will be able to see exactly what is causing the issue you’re attempting to troubleshoot. You can also enter UNIX commands into this, just like a standard Command Terminal. If you aren’t familiar with your system’s Terminal, however, it’s highly, highly recommended that you leave this to the professionals.
To exit Verbose Mode, type “reboot,” (no comma) and press the Return key.
Single User Mode
Related to Verbose Mode, Single User Mode also shows you the full details of your Mac’s boot process. But instead of finishing the boot and bringing you to the default macOS login GUI, it gives you a text terminal that can be used for everything from advanced troubleshooting to hard drive repair.
Related to Verbose Mode, Single User Mode also shows you the full details of your Mac’s boot process. But instead of taking place at the beginning of startup, you enter it after booting your Mac in Safe Mode. Single User Mode is a way to enter UNIX commands related to your Mac’s startup from the Safe Mode desktop rather than the pre-startup screen.
To get started, boot your Mac in Safe Mode by holding down the Shift key at startup. Log in to your Mac normally, and you should see the macOS Utilities app open.
Select Disk Utility and press Continue. Then, from the Disk Utility sidebar, select the volume that you’re using and choose File > Mount from the Menu bar at the top of the screen. Enter your admin password when prompted. Next, quit Disk Utility and choose Terminal from the macOS Utilities menu in the Menu bar. From there, you can enter UNIX commands just like in Verbose Mode. When you’re finished, restart your Mac.
This method is a replacement for the original method, which involved holding down Commands and S when rebooting your Mac.
Enable Target Disk Mode
Target Disk Mode is a very useful feature exclusive to Macs that, in effect, lets you turn your Mac into an unnecessarily complex external drive. While in Target Disk Mode, you can connect your Mac to another Mac via FireWire or Thunderbolt and see the contents of the Mac’s drive mounted on the second Mac as if the drive were an external FireWire or Thunderbolt device. This not only lets you easily access data on a Mac’s hard drive, but it also lets you use one Mac’s hardware to boot another Mac’s operating system and data.
To use Target Disk Mode, reboot your Mac and hold down the T key as soon as you see the Apple logo. Keep holding until you see a white FireWire or Thunderbolt logo appear on the screen (depending on your Mac’s hardware capabilities). You can now directly connect your Mac to another Mac with a FireWire or Thunderbolt cable and access the first Mac’s drive. When you’re done, unmount the first Mac’s drive from the second Mac in macOS and press and hold the first Mac’s power button until the system powers off.
It’s important to read over the description of each Mac startup option to ensure that you understand its use and purpose. Once you’re familiar with these options, however, just use the table below as a handy guide in case you forget the specific keys necessary for each option.
[table id=11 /]
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22 thoughts on “7 Mac Startup Options Every OS X User Should Know”
Go to “System Preferences > Users & Groups > Login Items” on your iMac or MacBook. Then hit certain item and click on the “-” button beneath the list box. (optional: if you cannot fix with method above, you can search some program to manage the login items, like FonePaw MacMaster, CCleaner, Dr.Cleaner, etc.) When you start the Mac, it may run faster.
Could you please help?
each and every bit of detail is never too much. as you are patient enough to go into every detail while trying to answer to people who are stuck or trying to figure out, whether they are on at a novice stage or at an advanced stage, you sir are doing great. and people like me highly appreciate your intentions, which is to help others.
As for people who are trying to give you a push back are either emotionally at a baby stage or they are trying to slow down all that you are doing. people can be moronic sometimes and want others to fall back as they laugh even though they have nothing to do with situation.
So, i hope you do great and find pleasure in all you do. and i hope haters words don’t unbalance your spirit.
Best of Luck.
My MacBook mid2011 admin password was lost just after the highsierra upgrade. My hard drive was encrypted and I have tried all advice regarding similler cases (quiet a few actually). I’ve tried Apple support but nothing good c9me out of it on the contrary. After following their advice every attempt alternates with a ? Inside a folder or a lock. After that I wiped the disk (took it out) and created a bootable usb but I keep on having a ? Or lock… I’m really getting mad with all this by now, it’s has been more then a week and I haven’t done nothing else but trying to fix it and this is my favourite MacBook.. any suggestions will be welcome. Thanks.
The author should stick to the basics and not go on about unimportant facets or make assumptions about the reader.
The commenter should realize their level of understanding, comfort with computers, and personal expectations for online content do not apply to all readers.
I was so freaked out at the time after trying everything possible (info from Apple support site & other net places). I wish I’d found you then!!
Today I’ve decided it’s time to face it again.
WHAT I THINK I DID
At the time I think I was just trying to do some cleaning up to make my iMac faster in general.
SOMEHOW I ended up down a dark lane & & for wtv reason I ended up DE-ENCRYPTING s o m e t h I n g. Don’t ask!
Ever since then when I turn it on – after the chime – I get a blank grey screen for a few seconds followed by seriously frenetic flashing of the DANGER SIGN & the Apple icon.
1. Would you have any idea what I de-encrypted (I can vaguely remember the word permissions for some reason).
2. Would any of the start-ups you mention in your fabulous post (which I’m saving forever) work in this case do you think?
I think this was all back not long after I downloaded Mavericks.
FYIi have 2011 MacBookPro with the latest Yosemite update on it & an iPad 2 which I’ve been using fine but I miss my great big screen when I’m designing stuff. :((
I also have a Mac external hard drive I use regularly which I THINK has some backups from my iMac but it deletes old backups to make room for a new one when it get full so I’m not sure how far it goes back.
Thanks for listening! I hope you can help me get my old girl going again 🙂
Is this what you see when you try to boot your Mac?
If so, this means that the Mac can’t find the essential files it needs to boot into OS X. I’m not sure what you mean by "de-encrypt," but you could have accidentally deleted, moved, or encrypted some of these files. Your data may still be intact on the drive, but you’ll need to re-install OS X.
To do so, hold Command+R at startup to enter Recovery Mode, and then choose to "Reinstall OS X." This should restore the operating system files the Mac needs while leaving your user data intact.
If Recovery Mode doesn’t work, you could be looking at a hardware failure. In that case, you’ll likely want to visit an Apple Authorized Service Center to have the iMac’s hard drive replaced. Your data may still be recoverable in this case, but you’ll need someone to physically examine the drive to know for sure.
As you have a second Mac, a final step you could try before taking the iMac to a service center is to try to access the iMac’s drive via your MacBook Pro with Target Disk Mode. To do so, connect the iMac to your MacBook Pro with a FireWire cable (or Thunderbolt cable if your iMac has Thunderbolt) and then boot the iMac while holding the T key on your keyboard until you see a FireWire or Thunderbolt icon on the screen. If the iMac’s drive is still working, you should see it mount on your MacBook Pro, much in the same way as connecting an external hard drive to your MacBook Pro. You should then be able to open the iMac’s drive and browse the files. If you can get this far, I’d recommend copying all of your important data off the iMac’s drive to be safe before taking it for service or attempting to reinstall OS X.
Yes you’ve nailed it – that pic is what I see flashing alternately with the Apple icon.
Also yes I think I might have encrypted files. Was having some sort of brain fart that day I think.
I’ll give what you’ve said a go and report back FYI. Not sure what a FireWire or Thunderbolt cable looks like but I probably have one or the other. Will check the web for an image of them so I can identify them in my box of cables.
I’m pretty sure I tried the Recovery mode thing more then once among other things back at the time it all went pear shaped. Did a lot of research & trying before giving up.
But your suggestion re the T key etc didn’t come up anywhere as far as I can recall so I’m hopeful this will do the trick. Otherwise it’s off to the Genuis Bar which is quite an episode from where I live & lol!!! It’s a 45 min drive & they’re on the top floor of a mall so I have to get a trolley from somewhere, put my big baby in it, push it to the far end of the mall and catch the lift. They are wonderful though & it’s worth the effort when something major is going on. I LOVE Apple’s people and culture.
Thanks again for your reply, I’m following you on Twitter and will remain a loyal reader now I’ve found you 🙂
Thank you in advance
If you just hit the power button once, it will likely sleep the machine, meaning that it will resume at the same screen when you hit the power button again. To force a shutdown, press and hold the power button for about 10 seconds. That will ensure that power is cut, and when you press it again to restart it, the Mac will boot fresh again and take you through the OS X setup.
So do you have any ideas for intermittent spinning cursers? Is there a way to get rid of the annoying spinning altogether, or minimise to a tolerable level?
My Mac simply doesnt want to start up. Its loading half then it goes off and after it goes on again. But it simply can not run its OS.
What is it?? I tried the comand + R thing , also cmd alt
Thanks for this nice article though.
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