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7 Mac Startup Options Every OS X User Should Know

Posted by Jim Tanous on October 16, 2019
iMac Boot Render

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.

Recovery Mode

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.

Startup Manager

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.

Safe Mode

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.
OS X Safe Boot
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.
OS X Safe Boot Login
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.

Reset PRAM

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 CommandOptionP, 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.

Verbose Mode

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.
Mac Verbose Mode
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.

Summary

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 /]

21 thoughts on “7 Mac Startup Options Every OS X User Should Know”

Timothy says:
Please my MacBook Pro has a flashing question mark folder and I have tried all the options, from Command+R,Command+Alt+P+R, holding down the Alt/option button but none is working on my Mac. It keeps returning to flashing question mark folder screen. Please!!! What is the solution?
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Moonyhill says:
To prevent more issues occurring when starting Mac computer, you can stop some programs from running at Mac startup .
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.
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Milly says:
Hello my Mac has a flashing question mark folder and I tried: command+r,command+alt+P+R and all of it and it stays a flashing question mark folder?
Could you please help?
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drax says:
hi there!
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.
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Xiveve66 says:
I wonder if someone can help me.
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.
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Get Real says:
There really are a lot of pointless, kind of condescending statements on this page. We don’t need to hear about how user-friendly a Mac is or how even sometimes, it needs fixing, or how concerned with design they are, or assuming the reader should only ever need to use a single disk. It’s just a computer, with a design similar to all the others. Obviously a reader is here because they need to perform one of these tasks. Macs aren’t special in that regard.
The author should stick to the basics and not go on about unimportant facets or make assumptions about the reader.
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TekRevue says:
Many of our topics are primarily addressed to a novice audience, which is concerned not just with what to do, but why and how it works. In that context, there’s nothing too superfluous in this article’s content.
The commenter should realize their level of understanding, comfort with computers, and personal expectations for online content do not apply to all readers.
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poikkeus says:
This is one of the easiest and most user-friendly treatment of this subject – good stuff!
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Yasmine Washington says:
great helpful!
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Lyn Bowker says:
H E L P 😉 Total nitwit that I am, several months back I did something dreadful to my iMac & it’s never forgiven me.
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 🙂
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TekRevue says:
Hi Lyn,
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.
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Lyn Bowker says:
Hi and thank you!
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 🙂
Kind regards
Lyn Bowker
Sydney
Maria Elena Black says:
Please help. On startup, My screen suddenly started to look like you image of your “safe mode”, except it does not say “safe mode”. How do I get it to start up with my normal desktop?
Thanks!
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Eric Streff says:
I have tried every command there is but I still have an issue with my MBP Retina 15 (mid 2012) randomly shutting down, with a freeze-like blackscreen, and key lights still in. Then after holding power button to force shutdown, I hear a chime but I rarely see the startup apple, if at all. Then randomly it will work for a few days, hours or minutes, then repeat… HELP!
Thank you in advance
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canexpat says:
Your MBP Retina has a faulty logic board and is probably covered under an extended warranty program.
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DC says:
Apple Hardware Test continues to appear on start-up. On running the test all appears fine/no errors, then restart, Apple Hardware Test appears again… Should I re-install the OS in recovery mode?
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TekRevue says:
Have you tried a PRAM reset (holding Command-Option-P-R at boot)? That will reset the startup volume, and let you narrow down the problem.
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DC says:
This seems to take me to recovery mode rather than resetting the PRAM, perhaps I’m pressing the keys wrong but I doubt it…
TekRevue says:
Well, Recovery Mode is triggered by Command-R, so it’s possible that you’re either pressing the wrong keys (Control instead of Option, for example) or that your keyboard isn’t detecting or transmitting your key presses correctly. Do you have another keyboard you can test with? Any USB keyboard should work, although if it’s a Windows keyboard, your “Option” key will be labeled as “Alt” and “Command” will likely be the Windows key.
DC says:
So I successfully started up both by reseting the PRAM, and a soft boot (shiftt on start-up). Made sure I have a current backup of everything. However, I’m still getting Apple Hardware Test on restart. Do you recommend re-installing the OS? Or take it for a diagnosis?
dede says:
my macbook pro is in safe mode but i can get out of it?
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Mohawkpoint says:
I am trying to boot up a brand new mini Mac, but it is stuck on the Transfer Information to this Mac screen saying “Looking for other sources . . . “. I have turned it off and then back on, hoping to get a new start up menu. No luck. Suggestions?
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TekRevue says:
That screen is part of OS X’s Migration Assistant, and is only necessary if you are upgrading from another Mac (or PC, depending on Windows version) and want to automatically transfer your data. Did you intend to launch Migration Assistant? If so, how is your other Mac or PC connected?
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mohawkpoint says:
I have a Time Capsule wifi connection, but I am happy to not restore to my new mini and access what I want later, if that is possible. Trouble is I can’t get out of this screen. I have a usb keyboard and mouse hooked up, but hope to switch over to my apple blue tooth ones.
TekRevue says:
Have you tried not connecting to any network during initial boot? I don’t have a new install of OS X in front of me, so I can’t recall the exact order, but at some point during the OS X installation process it will ask you to connect to a Wi-Fi or Ethernet network. Perhaps try not connecting to anything? If you also don’t have any FireWire or USB drives connected, this should prevent Migration Assistant from looking for eligible migration sources.
mohawkpoint says:
Biggest problem now is I can’t get past this screen. I have turned it off with the power button, but every time I turn it back on this searching screen is on. I would love to start over and not use migration assistant. I didn’t know this Mac was so delicate and not idiot proof.
TekRevue says:
Sorry for the delay in getting back to you; I was out of the office.
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.
mohawkpoint says:
Yup. Tnx. That worked fine. Will access other data later!
mohawkpoint says:
Unfortunately, I am stuck on this screen. I can’t do anything to reboot. Am I missing something simple?
Adam says:
Any ideas for intermittent spinning cursers? Is there a way to get rid of the annoying spinning altogether, or minimise to a tolerable level?
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Adam says:
Some time back, a disk would not release from my iMac Superdrive. It got so frustrating that every time I pressed the icon of the disk on the desktop, the curser would go into non-stop spinning mode. I couldn’t even shut down except from the back power button. I then rang to book it into an Apple shop. The tech, over the phone, suggested I first try starting up with a particular key held down. It worked straight off, cost nothing, and saved the day. And now it has happened again. My problem is I have forgotten the keystroke that I used to correct the problem. Didn’t write it down, did I! Any help would be greatly appreciated.
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TekRevue says:
I’m not sure what you mean by “worked straight off,” but if you mean it ejected the CD, that was the C key. Just press and hold the C key on your keyboard while booting and it will force eject any inserted optical media.
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Adam says:
Thanks for that TekRevue, did the trick. I knew about the F12 key, but not as a hold-down start-up for stuck dvd’s.
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?
Adriana Miklosi says:
Hello
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
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Techhead says:
I purchased a secondhand Macbook Pro from a Buy/Swap website and it had Windows 7 installed in it. There is absolutely no trace of OSX and was given no install disk. I have no idea how to install OSX, should I just buy a new install disk or is there another way? Ive tried recovery mode and a few other ways but the more i try the more im convinced I purchased a
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Mongo Pongo says:
If you know someone else with a Mac head over to them, download Mavericks or Yosemite (both are free at the AppStore AFAIR) and install the one you chose on a 8Gb USB stick. (SECOND OPTION on this page: http://www.macworld.com/article/2056561/how-to-make-a-bootable-mavericks-install-drive.html) Plug in the stick, reboot holding ALT, choose to boot from the USB drive. When you are at the installation look for the disk utility in the menu. Chose your internal drive (the grey one) and repartition it to one partition. Exit disk utility when finished and proceed to install the OS on the newly formated drive.
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dethlyhallow says:
When your starting up the computer hold down command+R, this will bring to the recovery section of the osx, which is more than likely still on your computer. From here you can isntall a new version of OSX. If this does not work, then you still have a few options but your best bet will be to have a friend with a mac or osx download a new install from the app store, and then put that onto a 8 GB flash drive, instructions at: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201372
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Good Crossing says:
Start with command + option + r. Downloads a recovery partition from apple and boots from it. You can Install OS X from there.
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RAALA says:
What does it mean when my Mac Mini will not enter Startup Mode? It completely ignores the Alt command at startup and just sails right into a normal login. I’m losing my mind! Help! Thanks. 🙂
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TekRevue says:
What kind of keyboard are you using? If it’s a bluetooth wireless keyboard, you have to wait to hit the Alt key until you hear the startup chime, as the Bluetooth drivers don’t initialize until that point. If it’s a wired keyboard, try switching it with another keyboard, if you have one.
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RAALA says:
It’s an apple keyboard. I have a wireless keyboard I can try. I am basically trying to boot my Macbook Pro 2006, which has a broken screen, onto the Mini so I can create a Time Machine backup. It shows up on the Mini’s desktop in target disk mode. Maybe the keyboard will solve it. Thanks!
John Stan says:
When I try to use the vommands. They require some goddamn password. I typed in the admin one and yet the price of junk won’t let me get into the system. Please help!
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The Shewolf says:
your mac is probably stolen and has the EFI locked either someone enabled it manually within the OS or someone activated “find my mac” to lock it. you’re out of luck without either passwords, one is a 4 pin number the other one is wtv the user wants.
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TekRevue says:
The Shewolf’s answer is possible, but it could also be the result of a firmware password. John, do you know if your Mac has FileVault enabled? FileVault 2 uses a firmware password at boot, which is not necessarily the same as your OS X admin account password.
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yead says:
No, I know what is going on. It happened to me too. In fact the terminal is just asking you your password. But you don’t have any. it seems that the terminal doesn’t recognize the password “”. Since this time i have a password of two caracters
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oliverpowell says:
Mac users may face sudden slowdown or the complete breakdown in using their Mac system. However, I’ll prefer using third party utilities that strinkingly increases and boost your Mac OS X speed to the highest level. I’d recommend using Stellar Phoenix Utilities that works best with all the latest Mac OS.
http://www.stellarinfo.com
Thanks for this nice article though.
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