The MacBook Pro has universal USB ports

How the Mac's system information helps with problems

Christian Möller

Inquisitive people usually want to know exactly what is hidden in their Mac. The System Information utility can help, but sometimes it helps with real problems.

EnlargeA look inside - system information
© cristovao31, Fotolia.com

Knowledge is power! If you know more about your Mac, you are more powerful, especially when it comes to solving problems with hardware components or locating troublemakers in the system. Apple provides some helpful tools, one of which we want to take a closer look at.

System information

A powerful tool is called system information. You can find the app directly in the Utilities folder, but you can also start it from the apple menu. To do this, click on the first entry in the Apple menu “About this Mac”. A small dialog appears, at the bottom there is a "System report" button. A click on it starts system information.

EnlargeThe System Information program can be found in the Utilities folder. It is a powerful tool for looking into the depths of the Mac.

The main window is divided into two parts. On the left you will find a sidebar with the information categories and their sub-items. The detailed information on the respectively clicked sub-item then appears on the right. Basically, the following applies: The information that appears here is all "read-only", i.e. only information. You can't change anything here, but you get a look into the deepest depths of the Mac hardware and the system.

Check hardware

Memory management

You can also access the memory management introduced with Sierra via the System Information app. This is actually a stand-alone tool that you use to clean up the hard drive. Among other things, you can optimize the storage management of iTunes and Mail here and search for large files. You open the subroutine via "Window / Memory Management". You can find out more about this tool in this article.

Under "Window" you will also find the "Network Utility" program, which enables professionals to test a network and the network interfaces.

If you start system information for the first time, the top item "Hardware" is selected and the hardware overview is displayed. Here you can find the basic information about the Mac you are using. These can become important if you have to contact Apple support due to problems. The support staff usually asks for the model name and the model identification. With this information, Apple support can already find out the year of manufacture and the original hardware equipment.

EnlargeSystem information can also be started via the “About this Mac” info dialog in the Apple menu. Click on “System Report”.

TIP Most programs have certain minimum hardware requirements. Before buying expensive software, for example, you should inquire about the hardware of your Mac in order to avoid nasty surprises. The software manufacturers often state the requirements based on the processor type and minimum memory configuration. You can also read this information in the hardware overview.

You can also find out the serial number of your Mac here. This is permanently stored in a memory chip on the motherboard of the Mac and it can be very important for Apple support. You can use it to find out, for example, whether your Mac is eligible for a particular hardware repair or replacement program from Apple. The serial number can be used to find out exactly whether your Macbook is affected by the error.

EnlargeThe serial number of a Mac is particularly important when the computer needs to be repaired.

Hard drive - often a source of problems

Mass storage devices are often a rich source of various problems. Sometimes these problems even arise during the manufacture of drives. Time and again there are recall or replacement campaigns for hard disks that are already equipped with potential errors at the factory. That is why it is good to know from which manufacturer the disk in the Mac comes and which model it is exactly. You can find this information here.

Magnetic hard drives have a limited shelf life due to their difficult mechanics. An integrated monitoring system with the abbreviation "S.M.A.R.T" detects mechanical or electrical problems in the hard disk in certain cases and reports them to the system. When the Mac starts up, the system queries the S.M.A.R.T status and saves the results. System information provides information on whether the S.M.A.R.T status has been checked. If problems were found, they will be noted here.

EnlargeThe manufacturer of the internal hard drive and its exact designation can be read here. The S.M.A.R.T status indicates problems with the disk.

TIP If you hear unusual noises from your hard drive, for example repeated cracking, hissing or scratching, you should first check the S.M.A.R.T status here. If error messages are displayed at this point or the check has failed, you should copy all data to another data carrier as quickly as possible and have the hard disk replaced. You can also find additional information on an SSD here, such as whether it supports the TRIM function.

Graphics chips - that's behind the cryptic names

The entry "Graphics / Monitors" is interesting if, for example, you want to buy a graphically complex game, but you are unsure whether your Mac can cope with the graphics requirements of the game.

Graphics memory is an important parameter. As a rule, this works independently of the main memory. It acts as a buffer for everything you see on the screen. Every single pixel is stored in the graphics memory.

EnlargeOn Macs with two graphics chips, you can see exactly which of the two processors is currently in use. This can be recognized by the chip under which the display is shown.

3D applications

It becomes significantly more time-consuming when complex 3D applications come into play, because the 3D acceleration of the system also uses the graphics memory. This is where the mathematical equivalents for 3D objects, textures and even small mini-programs for the so-called shader units of the graphics chip are stored. The shaders create graphic effects such as reflections, reflections, refractions or simulate surface materials such as metal, stone or wood.

The following rule of thumb applies: the more complex a 3D application or game, the more graphics memory it needs. You can find the information under “VRAM” (abbreviation for Video RAM).

The little hardware glossary

SERIAL NUMBER Every Mac has a unique serial number. It is permanently stored in a chip on the motherboard during manufacture. The serial number can be used to determine when the Mac was produced and with which components it was originally shipped. Many external devices, such as USB devices, also usually have a serial number.
USB is the abbreviation for "Universal Serial Bus". Since the first iMac in 1998, Apple has been using USB ports for most external peripherals such as mouse, keyboard, printer, etc. USB is now available in the third generation. The generations differ mainly in the maximum transmission speed.
FIREWIRE In addition to USB, Apple has introduced a second connection. Firewire is faster than USB 1 and 2 and works with lower latency. Many external mass storage devices use Firewire, but also devices such as audio interfaces. Apple has been replacing Firewire with Thunderbolt since 2011.
THUNDERBOLT Developed by Intel together with Apple, Thunderbolt is currently the fastest and most universal connection. It is based on the PCI Express protocol, so devices that are normally only installed internally can also be connected externally. These include audio / video interfaces, Ethernet, USB or Firewire adapters, right up to optical connections such as Fiber Channel. The latest version, Thunderbolt 3, uses USB-C as a connector.
MBIT / S, GBIT / S are abbreviations for the transmission speeds. 1 Mbit / s corresponds to one million bits per second. At 1 GBit / s it is a billion bits per second.

Some Macs even have two built-in graphics chips, a discrete chip that has its own graphics memory and a graphics chip that is permanently integrated in the CPU. The latter shares the graphics memory with the main memory of the system. The Mac automatically switches the graphics chip depending on the requirements of the program currently running. Programs that require a lot of graphics performance are then assigned the faster chip. Simple applications such as Office or a web browser have to make do with the integrated, less powerful graphics chip. The advantage: It saves a lot of electricity!

TIP Under "Graphics / Monitors", two graphics chips appear on some Macs and you can see which of the two is currently active. This can be seen from the graphics chip under which the connected monitor appears. In Macbooks, this is the internal display that appears with the designation "Color LCD".

USB

Not only information about the internal components of the Mac is interesting, sometimes external devices such as hard drives, printers, audio interfaces or other hardware cause inexplicable phenomena. Here, too, system information provides detailed information. Regardless of whether Firewire, Thunderbolt or USB, all connected and switched-on devices appear here.

Usually the USB port is the most interesting because many devices are often connected here, which can influence each other under certain circumstances. For example, if you connect a fast USB 3 hard drive and you are wondering why it still takes forever to copy a large file to the external drive, it may be because it is only addressed via USB version 1 or 2 . For example, because the USB hub to which the disk is connected does not support the fast USB 3 standard.

EnlargeThe speed and power consumption of USB devices can be important in tracking down problems with the USB port.

In order to track down such problems, you will find a so-called “device tree” under the item “USB”. All USB devices are listed here hierarchically, including USB hubs, a mouse or a keyboard. The speed at which a USB device is connected can also be read here. A mouse is usually connected with USB version 1 because it does not need a high data rate. Here, under “Speed”, “up to 12 Mbit / s” appears. With USB-2 devices this is already 480 Mbit / s, a USB-3 hard drive theoretically transmits up to 5 Gbit / s. USB 3.1 is the most modern USB version, here up to 10 Gbit / s are possible via the USB-C interface. This is how you can track down problems with USB cabling. A USB 3 hard drive should therefore be operated directly on one of the integrated USB ports and not via a hub.

Internal USB devices

If you take a closer look at the USB device tree, you will see that entries appear here even if no external USB device is connected at all. This is because Apple connects some internal components via USB, because it is easier and the components are cheaper to manufacture than if you had to develop your own interface for them. A good example of this is the Facetime camera, which is known to be permanently installed in the display of a Macbook or iMac.

Another cause of interference can be related to the maximum current strength. Many USB devices draw their supply voltage directly from the Mac via the USB port. But there are limits here when it comes to the strength of the current. The USB standard specifies: A device that is directly connected to a native USB 2.0 port may use a maximum of 500 milliamps (mA). With a USB 3.0 port it is up to 900 milliamps. If this value is exceeded, OS X displays an error message and the USB device cannot be used.

Save your profile and send it to Apple

System information also offers the option of saving all information in a file in the "File / Save ..." menu. This is useful, for example, if you cannot solve hardware or software problems yourself and would like to provide Apple Support with information about the system you are using.
But be careful: You use it to transmit all information, including which programs and extensions are installed. That is not always desired.

If the device is not connected directly to a USB port on the Mac, but via a hub, the error message can also appear if less than 500 milliamperes are drawn. This is the case, for example, with the two USB ports on the Apple USB keyboard. You have to share the 500 mA and therefore only deliver 250 mA each. This shouldn't be a problem for a USB mouse, as it doesn't require a lot of power. But not all USB memory sticks or hard drives can be operated on the keyboard's USB ports. In that case, you should plug them directly into one of the Mac's built-in USB ports. System information provides information on how many milliamperes a USB bus can be loaded with and how much current the connected devices use. Potential sources of error can thus be identified quickly.