Skip to content
Thoughtful, detailed coverage of everything Apple for 34 years
and the TidBITS Content Network for Apple professionals

Conflict Catcher 3

Casady & Greene’s major upgrade of Conflict Catcher moves the previously shadowy task of system extension management to front and center. No longer content with being just an indispensable aid in ferreting out incompatible system components, Conflict Catcher 3 offers enhanced features, easy control via the menubar, and much more.

Duct Tape and Baling Wire — In earlier days, system extensions were the exception rather than the rule. Many Macintosh owners didn’t use any at all, and a power user might have had half a dozen icons appearing at startup. Many extensions (or INITs, as they were called before System 7) offered quaint functionality like the Talking Moose, a Moire-patterned screensaver, or giving the Eject Disk command a sound best not described. Other extensions were more serious in scope, offering utilities or enhancements to the Mac’s interface. However, the precedent was clear: to add a capability to a Macintosh, you patch the system.

Today, Apple’s own System 7.5 can pile on dozens of startup files to enhance its core System and Finder. Fax modem and CD-ROM drivers, networking software, applications (like Microsoft’s Office suite) and a high percentage of shareware utilities add patches to the System. These days it is not unusual to watch a Mac’s startup screen fill with icons until it looks like a Pinto with too many Garfield dolls on the back window.

Hanging so many baubles on the System and Finder tree raises the risk of apparently unrelated system tweaks colliding in a grinding crash. For Power Mac users, system patches can be obstacles to realizing the full speed potential of their new hardware since many do not include PowerPC native code.

At their most basic level of functionality, extension managers like Conflict Catcher, Apple’s Extension Manager, and Now Utilities’ Now Startup Manager allow the user to selectively activate subsets of their system additions. By doing so, savvy users can tailor their working environment to a specific task, thus saving precious RAM and gaining speed.

Perhaps the greatest value of this type of control is when things go wrong. When repeatable crashes occur, the ability to selectively disable subsets of system additions is the most direct way of determining which (if any) startup files are responsible.

Cagey Conflict Catching — As in previous versions, Conflict Catcher handles the simple but extremely tedious task of testing all possible combinations of startup files until an offender (or an offending combination) is identified. It does this by restarting your Mac with half of the previous startup file set disabled, and then asking you if the problem still exists. This process is repeated until the offending startup files are isolated or startup file conflicts are ruled out.

Conflict Catcher 3 (CC3) adds three new features to slash this potentially arduous "restart and check" chore. The Intuition feature allows you to tell CC3 what you suspect is causing the problem and have it tested first. Should your intuition fail, CC3 can then begin a general test by targeting the most recently added startup files (which CC3 automatically tracks). For users with critical time constraints, these two enhancements can be priceless. CC3 has also gained the ability to scan startup files for damaged resources, and the capability to save an in-progress conflict testing session is a welcome option. Conflict detection is almost always a time-intensive process; this feature improves the possibility of detecting the source of intermittent startup conflicts.

Sometimes a crash occurs because several startup files require loading in a specific order relative to each other. This version of Conflict Catcher improves its ability to explore and exploit the reordering effect by automatically creating a link between two picky startup files to guarantee the desired loading sequence.

Past versions of Conflict Catcher relied exclusively on its ability to discover conflicts through the process of partial-set testing. Though that capability is still present, CC3 now ships with four pre-defined sets describing known incompatibilities. Files listed in these Incompatible Linked sets are not allowed to load in tandem. The sets describe competing Apple Menu and font utilities, as well as mutually-redundant screensavers and sound utilities. For example, the standard installation of CC3 disabled several components of the Now Utilities 5.0 suite on a Mac running System 7.5.1 because they duplicated user interface features (such as an hierarchical Apple Menu). Like all Linked Sets, these factory presets can be altered by the user (do so at your own risk – better to work on a copy). Other factory preset Linked Groups automatically manage Grouped sets (which can be either all on or all off, such as the GX suite) and Forced Order (e.g. RAM Doubler and its debugger-level patch).

In Your Face — In the past, extension managers were added to the system and forgotten until their ability to control sets was needed. Conflict Catcher 3 boldly (and optionally) tucks a new icon for itself on the menubar to the left of the Help menu. From this drop-down menu you can open an About box, the Conflict Catcher 3 Control Panel, or directly select a startup file set to be used when you next restart. Such convenient access makes for increased and consistent use of Conflict Catcher. As in previous versions, a hot key can be assigned to any set so that holding it during startup loads that set: multiple users of the same machine can easily start up with the "personality" of their choosing. Finally, CC3 now displays the name of the active set in a small tag at the top of the Mac’s startup screen.

Preferences — The preferences interface has undergone a major overhaul in an attempt to accommodate a sea of choices and new features in a clean and logical manner.

General Preferences controls CC3’s own System patching, Startup Disk volume selection, system heap protection, crash response, and level of detail in system resource reports. Power Macintosh users will find the report option useful for identifying system resources using non-native code. (Non-native system extensions can drastically slow down aspects of a Power Macintosh’s performance.)

File Preferences permits control of other types of system extensions such as Chooser devices, dynamically loaded library files, and components. Network managers and RAM disk users will benefit from CC3’s ability to load extensions via aliases to the actual startup files. This permits the distribution of small collections of aliases to networked users which point to a server-based set of extensions; it also reduces the portion of the RAM Disk allocated to system enhancements.

Folders Preferences lets Conflict Catcher examine the contents of various folders within the System Folder for startup files. These can include the Fonts, Startup Items, Shutdown Items, Apple Menu Items, and Control Strip Modules folders.

Several Preference panels deal with cosmetic features. Users can now assign colors to the various flavors of startup files in a manner similar to the System 7 Labels feature. Startup icon control offers some innovative and useful possibilities, including displaying the names of startup files as they load and using small icons.

Finally, a Security Panel permits password protection of any of the Preference settings, a potential boon to network or lab administrators.

Portable Smarts — Previously Conflict Catcher offered PowerBook users the advantage of loading system extensions into RAM Disk from an alias. This limits the frequency of hard disk spin-ups when running on battery. CC3 improves upon this feature by automatically sensing four PowerBook conditions (battery powered, AC powered, docked, not docked) and loading user-specified custom sets accordingly. For Duo users, CC3 can distinguish between different docks and respond with a set tailored for that configuration.

The Proof’s in the Pudding — After living with Conflict Catcher 3 for a month of daily, intensive Mac use, no adverse consequences have emerged. With the noted exception of the Now Utilities suite, startup sets carried over from a previous version of Conflict Catcher perfectly. Adapting to CC3’s disabling of those Now Utilities 5.0 modules was easy with System 7.5.1, and (for those with a taste for reckless reinstallation) re-installing the disenfranchised Now Utilities components produced no reproducible problems.

The presence of the Conflict Catcher menu feels like a real advantage. The ease with which sets can be toggled makes transitions between working sets a fearless effort. The net effect is the feeling of having more Mac with less hassle.

The User’s Manual has evolved to an attractive, ring-bound, 138-page document full of screenshots and practical suggestions. The manual includes a candid overview of non-startup file software problems which Conflict Catcher does not handle, including problems involving virtual memory, 32-bit addressing, and the Modern Memory Manager. There is also a reference section dealing with corrupted application preferences, replacing the System and Finder, virus myths, and basic hardware problems. Online help is available via Balloon Help for every component of the interface, although no Apple Guide is included.

A time-limited, fully-functional demo version is available on most commercial online services and from: conflict-catcher-301-demo.hqx

Special Offer — Conflict Catcher has earned a place as part of special offer from Apple. Users purchasing the floppy version of System 7.5 between 01-May-95 and 31-Jul-95 will receive a coupon redeemable for either a watch or Conflict Catcher 3. Given that System 7.5 now includes a menubar clock, in my opinion CC3 is a far more useful choice.

Conflict Catcher 3 requires System 7.0 or later on a Mac Plus or greater and is System 7.5 savvy. Conflict Catcher 3 has a suggested retail price of U.S. $99.95, and site licenses are available. Conflict Catcher II will continue to be sold for the benefit of users of System 6.0.5 or later.

Casady & Greene — 800/359-4920 — 408/484-9228
408/484-9218 (fax) — <[email protected]>

Subscribe today so you don’t miss any TidBITS articles!

Every week you’ll get tech tips, in-depth reviews, and insightful news analysis for discerning Apple users. For over 33 years, we’ve published professional, member-supported tech journalism that makes you smarter.

Registration confirmation will be emailed to you.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA. The Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.