How to Ask for Tech Support So You Get Good Answers Quickly

Need help with something? On occasion, we all need tech support. Speaking as the people who are sometimes on the other end of those requests for help, we have some suggestions on how to get the support you need as quickly as possible.

For instance, think about what we have to do if we receive an email message along the lines of “I keep getting a note that my backups aren’t working.” All we can tell from that message is that something may be wrong with the user’s backups. But without knowing what app they’re using and what the specific error is, we can’t even begin to recommend a solution. We’ll have to go back and forth to figure out what we need to learn to address the problem. By the end of the (possibly lengthy) process, the user and we may be quite frustrated.

So here’s a simple set of steps you can use to get to the heart of a troubleshooting problem whenever you’re communicating with tech support.

  1. Describe your setup as it relates to the problem. Whenever possible, be specific about what apps you’re using and include screenshots or videos. In our example above, this might involve saying, “I back up with Time Machine to an external hard drive. It has been working fine, but now I’m getting this error.” (Obviously, if you’re talking on the phone, it might not be possible to share a screenshot, but you can read it to the support rep.)
  2. Next, explain how you’ve tried to resolve the problem so tech support doesn’t automatically tell you to repeat the same actions. (They may anyway, just to confirm that you did everything properly, but it’s still a help.) You might say, “I clicked OK and let Time Machine try again, but I got the error on the next backup too. Then I launched Disk Utility, selected my Time Machine drive, and clicked First Aid.”
  3. Finally, explain what happened (or failed to happen) when you took the actions in the previous step. For instance, “First Aid also reported an error.”
  4. At this point, you may need to repeat Step 2 and 3 for each thing you tried, but you’ve given the support person enough for them to start recommending other courses of action. (In this case, we’d have you erase the drive using Disk Utility and see if that eliminated the error. Even if it did, we’d recommend that you get a new backup drive since you don’t want to depend on a potentially flaky drive for important backup data.)

The steps are a little different if you’re trying and failing to figure out how to accomplish some task. Try this script:

  1. I want to _____. State what you’re trying to achieve, and as before, make sure to say what apps you’re using. For instance, “I’m using Preview to read a PDF, and I want to print it with four pages per sheet of paper to avoid wasting hundreds of pieces of paper.”
  2. I tried ____. As before, explain what you’ve already attempted, as in: “In Preview’s Print dialog, I tried choosing 4 from the Copies Per Page menu.”
  3. What happened was _____. Finally, explain what happened after what you tried, and why it was wrong. “That caused me to get four copies of the same page in the preview, rather than four different pages.”
  4. Again, you may need to repeat Steps 2 and 3 for everything you tried, but in this case, we have all we need to explain that you need to click the Preview menu in the middle of the Print dialog, choose Layout, and then choose 4 from the Pages Per Sheet menu.

One last thing. It’s always important to explain your overall goal, rather than just ask a specific question. In the example above, for instance, saying that your goal was to reduce paper usage was helpful because we could then suggest that you select the Two-Sided checkbox near the top to print on both sides of the paper, cutting your paper usage in half.

So next time you need to contact tech support, make sure to use these tips, and you’ll likely get better support and a faster resolution to your problem.

 

(Featured image by Christina Morillo from Pexels)

What to Do If You Run out of iCloud Storage Space

By default, Apple gives every iCloud user 5 GB of storage space. That disappears quickly, given how it’s shared between iCloud Mail, iCloud Drive, iCloud Photos, Messages, and iCloud-enabled apps.

Apple will, of course, sell you more iCloud space. $0.99 per month gets you 50 GB, $2.99 per month provides 200 GB, and for $9.99 per month, you can use a whopping 2 TB. The latter two plans can even be shared with others in your Family Sharing group.

As we’ve noted elsewhere, using iCloud Photos almost certainly requires you to pay for extra storage. But if you’re paying $2.99 per month and nudge up against the 200 GB limit, you may not be enthused about increasing your payment to $9.99 per month when you’re unlikely to need anywhere near 2 TB.

That said, you don’t want to run out of storage space. Email to your iCloud email address will be rejected, photos won’t upload from your iPhone, and app data will fail to sync. Happily, Apple alerts you when you’re running low on space, before things get bad.

It’s often easy to recover space that’s not being used in a helpful way. First, check how much space you have and how much you’re using. In macOS 10.14 Mojave, look at the graph at the bottom of System Preferences > iCloud. In 10.15 Catalina, the graph is in System Preferences > Apple ID > iCloud. In iOS, you’ll find a similar graph at Settings > Your Name > iCloud.

Then, to clear space, work through these five approaches.

1. Remove Unnecessary iCloud Device Backups

The biggest win comes from deleting iCloud device backups for devices you no longer use. It’s common for these to stick around, so if you recently upgraded from an iPhone X to an iPhone 11 Pro, the iPhone X backup is probably still consuming gigabytes.

Navigate to Settings > Your Name > iCloud > Manage Storage > Backups to see what you have. If you find backups for a previous iPhone or iPad, tap it and then tap Delete Backup.

2. Delete Unnecessary Data from iOS Apps

While you’re in the iCloud Storage screen (the leftmost screenshot above), look through the other apps at the top of the list. The Photos app will likely be using the most storage, but all you can do to minimize its space usage is delete unnecessary screenshots, duplicate photos, and accidental videos from Photos. That will likely require lots of manual effort.

However, some other apps—think about third-party camera or video apps—may be using space unnecessarily. Investigate any apps reporting a lot of usage in the iCloud Storage screen, and if possible, clear out the unnecessary data.

Finally, consider Messages. If you regularly trade photos and videos in chats, it could be another place you can save significant space. In the iCloud Storage screen, tap Messages > Top Conversations to see which conversations are the largest. Tap one to switch to Messages, tap the person’s avatar at the top of the conversation, tap the Info button, scroll down to see the photos, and tap See All Photos. Tap Select, tap photos you have no desire to keep within that Messages conversation, and then tap Delete at the bottom-right of the screen.

3. Avoid Backing Up Apps with Massive iCloud Data Stores

If one of your apps is storing a lot of data that you don’t want to delete, but that you don’t care if it were to be lost, you can prevent it from being backed up by iCloud Backup and reduce the size of your backups.

To find such apps, navigate to Settings > Your Name > iCloud > Manage Storage > Backups and tap the name of the device you’re on. That screen shows which apps consume the most space in your backup. Tap the toggle switch next to an app to stop backing it up and delete its data from your backup.

4. Scan for and Delete Large Files in iCloud Drive

It’s hard to know if you’re likely to be using lots of space in iCloud Drive—it all depends on what iCloud-savvy apps you use and if you store other files in iCloud Drive via the Mac’s Finder or the Files app in iOS.

There’s no need to guess, however, thanks to free Mac apps that help you identify especially large files and folders. Our favorites are GrandPerspective and OmniDiskSweeper. GrandPerspective uses a graphical view so you can see at a glance where your space is going, whereas OmniDiskSweeper opts for a classic text-based approach that gives you hard numbers. In GrandPerspective, choose File > Scan Folder and select iCloud Drive in the sidebar of the Open dialog. For OmniDiskSweeper, choose File > Size Folder.

Whichever app you use, it’s easy to select large files or folders and click Delete (GrandPerspective) or Trash (OmniDiskSweeper). You may have to set an option in GrandPerspective > Preferences to enable deletions if its Delete button is disabled.

5. Delete Old Email from iCloud Mail

All the email you store at iCloud counts against your free space, so it can be worth clearing out unwanted old messages (and their large attachments). To delete individual messages using Apple’s Mail, just select them and click the Trash button in the toolbar. Some messages are much bigger than others, however, and to find them, choose View > Sort By > Size. That puts the largest messages at the top.

Of course, deleting messages normally just moves them to the Trash mailbox; to reclaim the space they occupy on iCloud, choose Mailbox > Erase Deleted Items > AccountName. Once you do that, the messages are gone for good.

If you want to remove an entire mailbox and its contents, select it in the sidebar and choose Mailbox > Delete Mailbox. That deletes all of its messages immediately and can’t be undone.

When you put all these space-clearing techniques together, you’ll likely be able to clear enough cruft that you won’t have to pay Apple for more iCloud storage space. But if you’re uncomfortable deleting such data, there’s no shame in upgrading to a larger iCloud storage plan.

(Featured image by stokpic from Pixabay)

Make Sure to Test Your Backup System with Occasional Restores

Did you know that the word for the irrational fear of Friday the 13th is paraskevidekatriaphobia? Neither did we, but what that supposedly unlucky day is good for—whenever it rolls around—is reminding us to test our backup systems. If something does go wrong, backups can save your bacon, but only if they’re actually working. So on Friday the 13th this month, take a few minutes to make sure you can restore files from Time Machine, see if you can boot from your bootable duplicate, and generally verify that your data really is being backed up successfully. And if you’ve already missed the 13th, today is a fine day to make up for it with a quick test.

(Featured image by Adam Engst)

Make a Backup before Upgrading to Catalina or iOS 13!

Confession time. If there’s one topic we can’t stop talking about, it’s backups. Backups are essential, since no one can guarantee that your Mac or iPhone won’t be lost or stolen, be caught in a flood from a broken pipe, or just fail silently. It happens.

You should have a good backup strategy that ensures backups happen regularly, but it’s not paranoid to make double extra sure when you’re doing something that’s more likely to cause problems than everyday activity. And by that we’re thinking about upgrading to a major new operating system, such as macOS 10.15 Catalina or iOS 13.

The reason is simple. As much as Apple tests the heck out of these upgrades, so many files are in play that all it takes is one unexpected glitch to render the entire Mac or iPhone non-functional. Wouldn’t you like to be able to revert instantly if something does go wrong?

Mac Backups before Upgrading

On the Mac side, most people should be using Time Machine. It ensures that you can not only restore your entire drive if necessary, but also easily recover a previous version of a corrupted file. The other advantage of having Time Machine backups (and a bootable duplicate, discussed next) is that you can use either to migrate all your apps, data, and settings back to a new installation of macOS, should that become necessary.

As useful as Time Machine is, a bootable duplicate made with SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner is the best insurance right before you upgrade to Catalina. If an installation goes south, you can also boot from your duplicate and get back to work right away.

Finally, although it’s not directly related to backing up before upgrading, we always recommend an offsite backup made via an Internet backup service like Backblaze. This is because a fire or flood would likely destroy your backup drive along with your Mac.

So please, back up your Mac before something goes wrong. It’s fast, easy, and inexpensive to get started, and we’re happy to help.

iOS Backups before Upgrading

Although upgrade-related problems are less common with iPhones and iPads, they can still happen. It’s more likely that you’d drop your little friend accidentally while juggling groceries or forget it after your workout at the gym, but regardless, a backup ensures that you don’t lose precious photos if you’re not using iCloud Photos or My Photo Stream, and backups make migrating to a new device like a fancy new iPhone as painless as possible.

With iOS, though, you don’t need extra software or hardware to make a backup. Apple provides two ways of backing up your iPhone or iPad: iTunes and iCloud. We generally recommend backing up to iCloud if your backups will fit in the free 5 GB of space Apple provides or if you’re already paying for more iCloud space. If you’re not a fan of the cloud or don’t have space, there’s nothing wrong with iTunes backups, though they’re a bit fussier to set up and manage.

There’s also no harm in using both, with iCloud for nightly automatic backups and iTunes for an extra backup just before upgrading to iOS 13 or to a new iPhone or iPad. A second backup can be useful—we’ve seen situations where an iPhone would refuse to restore its files from iTunes but would from iCloud.

To back up to iCloud, go to Settings > Your Name > iCloud > iCloud Backup, turn the switch on, and tap Back Up Now. For backups to happen automatically in the future, you must have sufficient space in your iCloud account (you can buy more), and your device must be on a Wi-Fi network, connected to power, and have its screen locked.

To back up to iTunes, connect your device to your Mac via a Lightning-to-USB cable, launch iTunes, and click the device icon to the right of the media menu.

Then, in the Backups section, click the Back Up Now button. If you’re prompted to encrypt your backups, we encourage you to agree since otherwise your backup won’t include passwords, Health information, or HomeKit data. For automatic backups via iTunes, select This Computer. After that, every time you plug into your Mac, it will back up.

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that we’re not talking about how to restore if something goes wrong during an upgrade. That’s because it’s impossible to predict exactly what might happen or what state your device will end up in. So if you’re unfortunate enough to have such problems—or to have some other catastrophic failure—get in touch and we’ll be happy to help.

(Featured image based on an original by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash)

Back Up Before Upgrading to Mojave or iOS 12!

Poll a room of Apple experts about the one topic they can’t stop talking about and many will launch into frustrated rants about how too few people back up. Backups are always important since you can never predict when your Mac or iPhone will be lost or stolen, melt in a fire, or just break. But one time when backups are especially important is before you upgrade to a major new operating system. If you’re thinking “What could go wrong?” the answer is, “Lots, and wouldn’t you like to be able to revert instantly if something does?”

Mac Backups

On the Mac side, there are plenty of ways to back up, and a bootable duplicate made with SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner is the best insurance right before you upgrade to macOS 10.14 Mojave. More generally, backing up with Time Machine ensures that you can not only restore your entire drive if necessary, but also easily recover a previous version of a corrupted file. Finally, since a fire or flood would likely destroy your backup drive along with your Mac, we always recommend an offsite backup made via an Internet backup service like Backblaze.

What happens if you don’t back up and your Mac gets damaged such that you can’t access important data? That’s when things get expensive, and if you have a 2018 MacBook Pro, you have even fewer options.

Historically, it was relatively easy to remove a drive from a broken Mac and recover the data from it. Data recovery got harder with solid-state storage, and even more so with the introduction of the first MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, thanks to Apple’s new T2 encryption chip, which encrypts data on the drive. To simplify last-ditch data recovery, Apple put a special port on the MacBook Pro’s logic board and provided a custom recovery tool for Apple Authorized Service Providers. With the 2018 MacBook Pro, however, Apple removed that port, so only data recovery specialists like DriveSavers can recover data from such damaged machines, and only then if they have the user’s password.

So please, back up your Mac before something goes wrong. It’s fast, easy, and inexpensive to get started, and we’re happy to help.

iOS Backups

We’ve all seen, if not experienced, a broken iPhone or iPad. They’re durable little devices, but they won’t necessarily survive a drop onto a sidewalk or into a toilet (yeah, it happens). And it’s way too easy to forget your iPhone at the gym or in a restaurant. So a backup is necessary if you don’t want to risk losing precious photos or having to set up a new device from scratch. Plus, just as with a Mac, things can go wrong during major iOS upgrades.

With iOS, though, you don’t need extra software or hardware. Apple provides two ways of backing up your iPhone or iPad, iTunes and iCloud. Neither is necessarily better or worse, and you can—and should!—use both for added safety. We’ve seen situations where an iPhone would refuse to restore its files from iTunes but would from iCloud.

To back up to iCloud, go to Settings > Your Name > iCloud > iCloud Backup, turn the switch on, and tap Back Up Now. For backups to happen automatically in the future, you must have sufficient space in your iCloud account (you get 5 GB for free and can buy more), and your device must be on a Wi-Fi network, connected to power, and have its screen locked.

To back up to iTunes, connect your device to your Mac via a Lightning-to-USB cable, launch iTunes, and click the device icon to the right of the media menu.

Then, in the Backups section, click Back Up Now. If you’re prompted to encrypt your backups, we encourage you to agree since otherwise your backup won’t include passwords, Health information, or HomeKit data. For automatic backups via iTunes, select This Computer. After that, every time you plug into your Mac, it will back up.

If you have sufficient iCloud storage, we recommend backing up automatically to iCloud because its automatic backups work well at night when you’re charging your devices. Then, make extra backups to iTunes whenever you think you might need to restore, such as when you’re getting a new iPhone or iPad, or when you’re about to upgrade to a new version of iOS.

The Three Secrets of Backup Masters

“To go forward, you must back up.” Sure, it was an advertising tagline for backup software from the 1990s, but it’s still true. When it comes to losing data, the question is not “if,” but “when.” If you store valuable information—whether personal or professional—on your Mac, or if you rely on your Mac to earn a living, you must back up regularly or risk irretrievable data loss. But backups aren’t as simple as you might think.

Happily, Apple has provided the Time Machine backup software with the Mac since 2007. Give it an external drive and it will do a good job of creating “versioned” backups, which contain multiple copies of each file as it changes over time. With versioned backups, you can restore a lost or damaged file to its most recent state, or to any previous state. That’s essential if corruption crept in unnoticed such that you had been backing up a corrupt file for some time. Time Machine also enables you to restore an entire drive as of the latest backup, which you might need to do if you have to reformat or replace your drive.

Time Machine backups, useful as they are, can’t help you in two situations:

  • If your Mac’s main drive does go south, it will likely take several hours to reformat and restore, and quite a bit longer if you have to get a new drive installed first. To keep working with minimal interruption, you need a bootable duplicate, which is an exact clone of your drive.

  • Should you be so unlucky as to experience a burglary, fire, or flood that affects your Mac, it’s likely that your Time Machine drive—and your bootable duplicate—will suffer the same fate and thus be useless as a backup. To protect against that unhappy possibility, you need an offsite backup.

To make a bootable duplicate, you need an external drive that’s as large as your Mac’s internal drive, or at least a good bit bigger than the amount of data on your drive. If you have a really large drive, you could partition it in Disk Utility and use one partition for Time Machine and the other for a bootable duplicate.

You also need backup software that can create a bootable duplicate, and the leading contenders are Carbon Copy Cloner ($39.99) and SuperDuper! ($27.95). Both are easy to set up and can update your bootable duplicate reliably on a regular schedule—nightly is best.

When it comes to offsite backups, you have two basic choices:

  • Set up two or three backup drives with Time Machine, or with Time Machine and a bootable duplicate on separate partitions, and store one of them in another location, such as your office, a relative’s house, or a safe deposit box. (If you’re storing it where someone else could access it, make sure to encrypt the Time Machine backup and use FileVault to protect the bootable duplicate’s contents.) Then, on a regular basis, swap the drives such that you’re backing up to one, and keeping another off-site.
  • Use a cloud backup service, which you can back up to and restore from over the Internet. The two leading services with good Mac apps are Backblaze and CrashPlan. Plans for both start at about $5 per month or $50 per year for one computer. These apps back up constantly in the background, so you’re always protected. Their main downside is that they’re slow in both directions, but in the event of a complete disaster, getting your data back slowly is better than not getting it back at all.

So there you have it. Use Time Machine for continual protection of your data, a bootable duplicate so you can get back to work quickly if your drive dies, and an offsite backup to protect against catastrophe. You can read a lot more about the topic in Backing Up Your Mac: A Joe On Tech Guide, or just contact us for help setting up a rock-solid backup system.

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