If you’ve ever seen your screen turn gray and display a message saying you need to restart your computer (in several languages), you’ve seen a kernel panic. These can be caused by software or hardware malfunctions, and it’s usually easy to figure out what type of malfunction by simply booting your computer off a known good installation of Mac OS X on an external drive.

In our tech rooms, we actually boot computers over the network using NetBoot. If the kernel panics persist while booted over the network or a known good external drive, you have yourself a hardware problem.

This case is a 17-inch MacBook Pro (with silver keys) that displayed the kernel panic screen while booted off the network. The first troubleshooting step is almost always to swap out the RAM. This time, RAM was not the culprit. Apple’s service manuals suggest running their diagnostic software at this point, but it did not come up with any defects.

If you’ve ever used Apple Hardware Test on a computer that doesn’t boot up, then you understand how underpowered and inaccurate these tools can be. What’s available to service providers is only slightly more powerful than Apple Hardware Test, but generally is equally unhelpful.

Kernel panics are tough to pin down, so the best approach is always to strip a machine down to a minimal configuration inside, and add parts back one by one. If the problem persists with the minimal configuration, it’s time to order a logic board. In this case, I added back the hard drive, optical drive, and AirPort card before the problem resurfaced. A known good AirPort card resolved the issue, and the customer was back in business in less than twenty four hours.

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