A troubleshooter must be partly a detective in order to diagnose problems. Not all erratic computer behaviors can be traced to a single cause or symptom. When troubleshooting the Macintosh, administrators have a well-kept secret that allows them to reduce the time that it takes to identify a potential conflict or problem. It’s so simple that many Macintosh administrators simply overlook it. I’m talking about labels. In this article, allow me to walk you through one of the most beneficial, easiest, and cheapest ways to keep track of what’s on the Macs in your company. By the way, Windows can’t do this, so don’t go looking for it.

What color is your icon?
Let’s start at the beginning. Items on a Mac have an icon, just like Windows items. Macs have a System Folder, where all the important stuff exists; Windows uses the Windows folder. For all intents and purposes, the similarities stop there. In the System Folder reside more folders: Extensions (Drivers), Preferences, Fonts, Startup Items, Shutdown Items, Scripts, Control Panels, Apple Menu Items, and more. Other items in the System Folder include Finder, System, Mac OS ROM, System Resources, and Scrapbook File, among others. In the folders are more items—some folders within folders within folders. You can open some items, like the System, but you can’t open others, like the Finder. So, there’s a lot in there. So what?

Well, smarty-pants, the Mac has the ability to assign colors to icons. But before you commence your coloring, you need to choose some colors and assign names to those colors. You have seven colors from which to choose, plus the absence of color; therefore, you have eight choices. You can select any colors you wish. Let’s say you pick red, orange, bright green, dark blue, light blue, brown, and dark green. (Since it’s my article, I get to pick the colors.) You also get to label each color with a name. So, let’s name our colors—in the same order—System Items, System Extras, Utilities, Applications, Application Extras, Internet, and Data.

Now, open the Label dialog box, which you access by selecting Preferences from the Edit menu and clicking the Labels tab. To change a color, simply click on that color. To change a label, click in the Label box and type a new name.

Why have we chosen those names and colors? Because I’m a professional and I’ve done this before, without a net! Actually, I chose those colors because they’re easily identifiable, and the labels make sense to me.

Now, you’re going to open the Macintosh Hard Drive and the System Folder. What a mess! It’s time to clean up. Whether or not you know what’s in there is immaterial; you need to see things clearly. First, you have to change how you view the window contents. You have several view options, which, coincidentally, you access via the View menu. You can view the window by icons, by buttons (annoying but useful in certain circumstances), and in a list form. You want the List option because it allows your System Folder window to display its contents alphabetically in list form. Folders show up as tiny folders with arrows next to them, while files show up as, well, files.

Opening subfolders
So, you have tiny file icons, tiny folder icons, and tiny arrows. How cute. Now, use the scroll bar to move your view to the bottom of the window. You’ll want to click on the little arrow next to the bottommost folder to—STOP! Before you click, what will happen? You’ll see the contents of that folder displayed in List view. However, if you hold down the Option key BEFORE you click on that little arrow, the Mac will open all the subfolders for you automatically—exactly what you want.

With the bottommost folder and all its ensuing subfolders open, you should move up to the next folder, repeat the little Option-click on the tiny arrow, and move your way up to the top of the window. After you’ve opened all the folders and subfolders, you’ll head to the Edit menu and choose Select All to highlight all the items in this window. Now, proceed to the File menu, select the label, and choose the first label, the red one that’s named System Items.

Now, everything in the System Folder has a label of System Items and is colored red. At this point, you can change the view of the window to whatever you wish. You’ll want to repeat this step with the Utilities folder, the Internet folder, a folder for your personal files (we labeled that one Data), and the Applications folder. Here, you’ll have to do some additional work to separate the Application Extras from the actual applications. This step will help you define which main applications you use—and help you tell the difference between those files and the files that the applications need.

For example, if you install Microsoft Office 98 for the Mac, there will be roughly 4,227 items in the Microsoft Office folder alone. The only ones that you may want to be labeled as applications are Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft PowerPoint. Everything else you’ll label as Application Microsoft. So, how long does it take to label everything in the Microsoft Office folder? Usually, I can label all items in a Mac in about 30 minutes.

The question now becomes why. Haven’t figured it out yet? Here’s a tip: With the Mac, you can search for files and sort files (and folders) by labels. That means that you can search for all the files or folders that are colored red. Assume that a user calls and says that his Mac is acting funny. You’ve performed the label magic on his Mac previously, and you know that everything is where it should be. Should you ask the user to use Sherlock (Apple’s Find File/Folder application) to look for items that have a) the red label, b) another color label, or c) no label color? The answer: c. If you know that all the items in the System Folder are red and/or orange, then anything in the System Folder that has NO color must have been placed there either by an application that you did not install or by the user. Looking for what’s not labeled is an excellent way to learn quickly what has been installed and where.

Removing the unlabeled item, especially if it’s a control panel or extension (driver), usually fixes the problem. To use Sherlock for this task, choose Sherlock from the Apple menu (older Mac OS system users must select the File menu, then choose Find). After the window opens, select your hard drive and choose the option for finding items based on certain criteria. You’ll want to use the label criteria to conduct your search.

This method has additional uses. Often an application will install extensions that are necessary for that application. If you already have that item or extension installed, it may be overwritten with an older version, which results in problems. Personally, I feel that it’s the number-one problem that faces Microsoft Windows users; DLLs, drivers, and other scary Windows items are overwritten with other versions, and the administrator has a tough time trying to figure it all out. With the label trick, you’re capable of “seeing” if an item has been overwritten. When an item is overwritten, it loses its label and color and stands out like an MSCE drone at MacWorld. Remove that item and replace it with the one from your backup, and you’re up and rolling in no time. You can even teach end users to perform this procedure!

Now, I realize that Windows users HATE it when simple stuff makes life easier. But that’s the point. I may spend more for the Macs in a company, but I can teach the users to do most of the troubleshooting themselves, starting with knowing what’s on their machines. Label me a fanatic, but it works—and it works well. Hey, Windows users, are you seeing red?

Schoun Regan is the training and media specialist for Complete Mac Services , an Apple VAR, training, and consulting facility in Louisville, Kentucky that specializes in PC-to-Mac integration. He teaches throughout North America on a variety of subjects and software. Schoun has been associated with Apple and the Macintosh since 1985 and has authored many Web sites. Certified in several applications and areas, he most enjoys teaching graphics applications.

Schoun’s a regularly featured guest on 84Online, a technology-centric radio program heard in more than 30 states on Louisville’s clear-channel station 84 WHAS, and on dot.com, a TV call-in show that’s broadcast from the Louisville area. He resides in the Ohio Valley with his very tolerant wife and children.

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.