What to do when your Mac won’t turn on

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Every once in a while Mac users will find that their computer doesn’t turn on. Sometimes your computer shows no signs of life, sometimes the fans will spin or the screen might come on, sometimes you get a big question mark icon, and sometimes you will see the Apple logo and maybe a progress bar that never finishes loading.

While the following solutions will get most stuck Macs unstuck, sometimes it’s simply going to take a more serious plan of attack. So try these steps on your own first.

Check your power

Even if your computer starts up partially, you could have a power issue. Perhaps you aren’t getting enough power or there is a flaky connection.

  1. Momentarily unplug your power cable or adapter from both ends (from the computer and from the wall).
  2. Check that the wall outlet has power. Try plugging in a lamp or something else that makes it easy to tell when the socket is working properly.
  3. If you have a MacBook with a MagSafe charger, make sure that nothing is in the power port on your Mac. The magnets have a tendency to pick up staples and other small pieces of metal, preventing the connector from seating properly. Use a toothpick or something non-metal to gently scrape out any debris.
  4. If you have a MacBook, make sure that your power adapter is rated to supply enough power to your computer. There is no problem with using a charger that is rated with a higher wattage than required. Generally, the charger will work even if the power is too low because the battery kicks in to compensate. However, if your battery is not working properly an insufficient charger that once worked may suddenly stop working.
  5. If you have a MacBook, try borrowing a charger from someone else to see if it’s your charger that’s the problem. Though rare, the chargers themselves sometimes go bad. If it turns out that you do need a replacement and have a model with MagSafe, please make sure you get a genuine Apple charger. I have seen many people ruin their computers or batteries using third-party MagSafe chargers. If your computer uses USB-C, third-party chargers are okay as long as they are from a trusted brand such as Aukey, Anker, Belkin, RAVpower, Nektek, or UGREEN. Just make sure that they supply the recommended watts.
Make sure your screen brightness isn’t all the way down

This one is simple but easy to overlook. If you accidentally turned the brightness of your screen all the way down you may just need to turn it back up again. If you have an Apple keyboard, on the top row you will see a small sun and a large sun. Usually it’s above the 1 and 2 keys. Press the larger sun several times to see if it makes a difference.

Reset the PRAM / NVRAM

The terms PRAM and NVRAM are used interchangeably. Their function is the same but different models will have one or the other. This is a particular type of RAM (memory) that holds information about your screen settings, startup settings, and much more.

Apple Silicon Macs (most Macs introduced in 2020 and later) run a check on startup to make sure the NVRAM is okay. If it isn’t, your computer fixes the problem automatically so there is no need to reset it yourself.

To reset it on an Intel Mac (most Macs introduced in 2020 and earlier):

  1. Turn your computer completely off. If it’s frozen, press and hold the power button for about 10 seconds to force it off.
  2. Press and release the power button.
  3. Immediately (within about half a second of releasing the power button) hold these four keys on your keyboard simultaneously: Command, Option, P, R. Do not release them.
  4. Continue holding those four keys until you hear the startup chime twice, until you see the Apple logo appear on the screen twice, or for 20 seconds, whichever happens first. The way your Mac responds will be different depending on your specific model and software version.
  5. Release the keys and wait to see if your computer starts up.
Reset the SMC

The SMC (System Management Controller) contains information about controlling the fans, power management, and other hardware components. Occasionally this gets corrupted and needs to be reset.

Apple Silicon Macs run a self-diagnostic and will reset the SMC when needed automatically.

For Intel Macs, there are many different ways to reset the SMC, depending on the specific model.

Often when people say “MacBook” they mean the whole portable Mac lineup: MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro. Below I am careful to make a distinction because some instructions only apply to one model or another. When I say MacBook below I mean just the MacBook and not the MacBook Pro or MacBook Air.

Desktop Macs (iMac, Mac Mini, Mac Pro):

  1. Unplug the power cable and leave it unplugged for 15 seconds then plug it back in
  2. Wait 5 seconds then press the power button

Portable Macs with a T2 chip (2018 models and later)

  1. Turn the computer off. Press and hold the power button if your computer is frozen to force it.
  2. Press and hold the power button for 10 seconds and then release the button
  3. Wait a few seconds and then press the power button momentarily to turn the computer on

Portable Macs with a non-removable battery and no T2 chip (MacBook Pro and MacBook Air 2017 and earlier, MacBook 2009 and later):

  1. Connect your computer to power
  2. Turn your computer off. Press and hold the power button if your computer is frozen to force it.
  3. Press and hold these three keys with your left hand simultaneously, all on the left side of your keyboard: Shift, Control, Option.
  4. While continuing to hold those three keys with your left hand, press and hold the power button with your right hand and hold all four keys for 10 seconds. Your computer may react or it may do nothing. Either is normal.
  5. Release all of those keys and then press the power button briefly to turn your computer on.

MacBooks with a battery that is removable without using a screwdriver (MacBook 2007 and earlier, but not MacBook Pro or MacBook Air):

  • Remove the battery
  • Press and hold the power button for 5 seconds
  • Reinsert the battery and turn the computer back on
Start up in Safe Mode

Safe mode is a special startup mode where your computer runs some maintenance scripts and skips loading any software that is not vital.

  1. With the computer off, press and release the power button.
  2. As soon as you release the power button press and continue holding the Shift key on your keyboard until you see the Apple logo on your screen. When you see the Apple logo you can release the keyboard.
  3. Wait for the computer to start up. Because it goes through a lot of maintenance this startup process will take longer than normal. Give it as much as half an hour.
  4. If the computer starts up, go ahead and restart it by clicking the Apple menu > Restart and see if everything goes back to normal. You do not want to leave your computer in Safe Mode because it will run much more slowly and some things may not function properly.
Run Apple Diagnostics

Apple has a built-in diagnostic mode that will scan your computer hardware for some common problems. While this test won’t find everything that could be a problem, it can find many things.

Before starting Apple Diagnostics, connect your computer to power and disconnect all unnecessary peripherals such as printers, hard drives, etc.

Intel Mac:

  1. Turn the computer off
  2. Press and release the power button
  3. Immediately (within about half a second) press and hold the D key on your keyboard
  4. Continue holding the D key until something appears on the screen

Apple Silicon Mac:

  1. Turn the computer off
  2. Press the power button to turn your computer on, but do not release the button right away. Continue holding the power button until you see the Options menu.
  3. When you see icons on the screen ignore them. Hold the Command key on your keyboard and press the D key.

After Apple Diagnostics starts allow it to run a full test. If any errors appear you may need to check with Apple or another support pro such as myself to interpret the results.

If Apple Diagnostics warns you that your hard drive is failing you should turn the computer off right away and get it repaired before trying to continue. This is where your Time Machine backup may come in handy.

Reinstall macOS

Sometimes reinstalling the OS helps, especially if the problem started during a system update or upgrade. This doesn’t wipe out any information like your settings, files, or applications. It simply replaces the system software part of your computer with a new copy. All of your personal stuff is stored in a separate section that does not get touched.

The first step is to get into Apple Recovery. This process is different depending on your Mac.

If you have an Apple Silicon Mac:

  1. With the computer off, press and hold the power button until you see the Options menu. Then you can release the power button.
  2. Click the gear icon then click the word “Continue” just below it.
  3. Skip over the next section “If you have an Intel Mac” and go to “Using Recovery Mode”

If you have an Intel Mac there are two different types of Apple Recovery. You can either run Recovery mode for your currently installed system software or you can run Recovery for the latest system software that your Mac supports. If your startup problem began because you were in the middle of running an upgrade to the newest version of the system software I recommend trying the latter first. This makes sure that it tries upgrading to the new version again rather than just installing the old version.

  1. With the computer off press and release the power button
  2. The moment you release the power button press and hold either Command+R (if you want to try reinstalling the system software version you were on) or Command+Option+R (if you want to try reinstalling the newest version of the system software that your Mac supports). Continue holding those keys until you see something on the screen.
  3. Continue on with the steps below

Using Recovery Mode

  1. As Recovery is starting up, answer any questions asked such as your Wi-Fi password, user login password, language, etc.
  2. Once you see the Recovery Tools such as Reinstall macOS, check to make sure that you are connected to Wi-Fi using the Wi-Fi icon in the upper right corner of your screen.
  3. Click the option to “Reinstall macOS” and then click “Continue”
  4. Follow the prompts, agree to the terms of service, and when asked where you want to install macOS, choose your internal or “boot” drive and click “Continue”. Unless you have changed the name of your drive it is usually called “Macintosh HD”.
Restore from your Time Machine backup

If you have Time Machine configured to include your System files you may be able to use it to roll your computer back to a working state.

This process is a bit involved, and you may want to double check to make sure that your backup drive is working properly since this process erases your whole computer.

The first step is to get into Apple Recovery. This process is different depending on your Mac.

If you have an Apple Silicon Mac:

  1. With the computer off, press and hold the power button until you see the Options menu. Then you can release the power button.
  2. Click the gear icon then click the word “Continue” just below it.
  3. Skip over the next section “If you have an Intel Mac” and go to “Using Recovery Mode”

If you have an Intel Mac:

  1. With the computer off press and release the power button
  2. The moment you release the power button press and hold either Command+R. Continue holding those keys until you see something on the screen.
  3. Continue on with the steps below

Using Recovery Mode

  1. As Recovery is starting up, answer any questions asked such as your Wi-Fi password, user login password, language, etc.
  2. Once you see the Recovery Tools such as Reinstall macOS, check to make sure that you are connected to Wi-Fi using the WiFi icon in the upper right corner of your screen.
  3. Click the option to “Restore from Backup” and then click “Continue” and follow the prompts. You will be provided with a list of dates and times you can restore from.

Further help

If you are an existing customer who needs help with this or if you have other questions, or if you are in San Francisco and interested in becoming a client I invite you to book an appointment with me. Otherwise, you may wish to contact Apple Support or to find a local Apple consultant.

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