Washington Apple Pi

A Community of Apple iPad, iPhone and Mac Users

The Mysterious Case of the Blinking Question Mark or File Folder

© Pat Fauquet

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

Mac owners occasionally complain about blinking disks with question marks or blinking file folders when they start up their computers. There are two different scenarios when their icons appear, and each has its own solution.

In the first case, each time the computer starts up, the question mark appears and flashes for a few seconds, then disappears. The cause of this symptom is that there is no hard drive selected in the "Startup" control panel. Remember that "selected" on the Macintosh means that an icon is darker than the other.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 1 shows the new version of the "Startup Disk" control panel from Mac OS 9.1. Figure 2 shows the control panel from earlier versions of the operating system. Notice in Figure 1 there are three different ways the icon my look. Macintosh HD is dark because it is selected. "Capture 9.3" is "grayed out." This shows that while the system software can "see" that disk, it does not contain a System Folder." Courtney's stuff 9.3" and "X Macintosh X HD" are available, but not selected.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows the older Startup Disk control panel. The exact condition of the icons has changed as the control panel has been updated. In earlier versions all hard drives showed, whether they had a system folder or not. In later versions drives without System Folders are "grayed out."

To solve the problem, click on a disk to highlight it, then close the control panel. The next time you start up the computer, it will use the System Folder on the selected disk to start the computer.

The other situation that we occasionally see is a flashing disk or folder that does not disappear after a short time. This behavior can mean several things, but all fixes necessitate using a CD or floppy disk that contains system software to restart the computer. All newer Macintoshes are sold with a "Restore" CD. Use this disk if you have not upgraded your system software. If you have upgraded, use your most recent OS CD.

Put the CD in the CD ROM drive then restart your computer with the "C" key held down until you see the Mac OS startup screen. Since you are starting up from a CD which is much slower than a hard drive, this will take longer than usual. When you can see the hard drive and the CD on the desktop. Open the computer's hard drive. Locate the System Folder. It should have the Mac OS icon on it. If it does not, then the System Folder is called "unblessed" It must have the Mac OS icon on it to function as a start up folder. Simply opening the folder, then closing it will often restore this icon. Try it.

Figure 3

Figure 3

If it worked, you now should run Disk First Aid before restarting your computer. It is located in the Utilities folder of the CD. Double click the CD icon to open it, then look for Disk First Aid. Open it. Figure 3 shows the Disk First Aid window. Click on the hard drive to be examined. and then click on the "Verify" button. If a problem is found, then click the "Repair" button.

Sometimes the problem is more serious and simply re-blessing the System Folder and running Disk First Aid will not fix the problem. Each Macintosh is sold with an Emergency Handbook. If you cannot locate your, look on the latest Washington Apple Pi Pi Fillings CD. In it you will find instructions about using the "System Restore CD." It will help you do a clean installation of your System Folder. If you do not feel confident about the process and your computer is still under warranty, call the Apple Technical support line. If your machine is out of warranty or if you would rather have someone else do it, remember the Washington Apple Pi Tuesday Night Clinics.