There are two types of people: those who’ve lost data and those who will. So perhaps the most important step you can take is to accept the fact that problems are inevitable – and make sure your safety net is in place.
Leopard’s built-in backup system, Time Machine, makes it very easy to keep copies of your work. We use Time Machine to automatically back up personal data.
But we also create a bootable clone – an exact copy of the hard drive – using Shirt Pocket’s $28 (£14) SuperDuper 2.5 (www.shirt-pocket.com), and update it each day. If your Mac’s hard drive ever bites the dust, you can boot off the clone and be up and running in no time. (With SuperDuper, you can even keep the clone and your Time Machine backups on the same external drive.)
In addition, we keep a backup in a different location, in case disaster strikes the office. For more information about how and why you might combine Time Machine with other backup methods, see macworld.com/3429. If you don’t use Leopard, see macworld.com/2596 for help developing a backup plan.
How often? How much work can you afford to lose? An hour’s worth? A day’s? Back up accordingly. (If you use Time Machine, it will take care of scheduling backups for you.)
Keep software up to date
Why suffer from bugs that have already been fixed or security issues that have already been patched? Software vendors regularly release product updates that contain new features or quash problems and incompatibilities.
Schedule Apple Updates Keeping OS X and other Apple software up to date is easy. Choose Software Update from the Apple menu, and this built-in utility will open and check Apple’s servers to see whether any new software is available. Alternatively, tell Software Update to check for updates automatically: Open the Software Update preference pane, click on the Scheduled Check tab, and select the Check For Updates option. Software Update can check daily, weekly, or monthly and, if you like, automatically download any updates.
Keep other software current Many third-party programs – Microsoft Office, for example – have a similar feature that automatically checks for new versions and lets you know when one is available. You’ll often find this feature in a program’s preferences window (typically accessed through the program name: Preferences menu).
If you have lots of third-party programs that don’t check automatically, take advantage of sites such as VersionTracker.com or MacUpdate.com, that maintain a free list of software updates. A membership with either site ($50 [£25] per year for VersionTracker, or $40 [£20] per year for MacUpdate) buys you regular email alerts about updated programs, plus software that can track updates for the programs installed on your Mac and even download the updates for you.
One caveat. On rare occasions, an update will introduce bugs or incompatibilities. So some people prefer to wait a few days before installing new versions of software – especially OS X updates.
How often? Set Software Update, and any other automated utilities, to check for updates daily or weekly. If you’re checking manually, do so every few weeks.
Monitor hard-drive health
A hard drive is an amazing collection of technologies: a few small platters, motors, and sensors can store gigabytes of data very reliably. But the technology isn’t perfect. You need to give your drives periodic checkups.
Check your directory Files are written to and erased from your hard drive by the thousands, or even the tens of thousands, each day. Over time, the directory – data on your drive that keeps track of exactly where each file is stored – can become fragmented, which means that it’s split into sections across the drive. This may not only impair performance, but also damage the directory and make it inaccurate. Checking the directory periodically, and optimising or repairing it when necessary, is one of the best ways to avoid problems.
Apple’s Disk Utility can do basic directory maintenance. Launch the utility and select your hard drive in the list on the left. Click on the First Aid tab and then on Verify Disk. If Disk Utility tells you the volume needs to be repaired, you’ll have to boot from your OS X Install disc. If you don’t have that disc or another bootable OS X volume handy, you can also use Safe Mode or single-user mode at startup (see support.apple.com/kb/TS1417).
A more thorough option is to use DiskWarrior, which creates a new, optimised directory. DiskWarrior requires that you reboot from the DiskWarrior CD, or from a different hard drive containing the program, to repair your startup disk.
Watch your hardware Of course, if your hard drive’s hardware is failing, the best directory in the world won’t matter. Today’s hard drives include Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology (SMART). This feature monitors a slew of performance indicators inside your drive and then determines whether the drive is operating normally.
The problem with SMART is that you need special software in order to easily see a drive’s status. Disk Utility displays each disk’s SMART status at the bottom of the window, but opening Disk Utility just to monitor SMART status is a hassle. An easier approach is to use a utility that alerts you if a drive’s status changes. Commercial disk utilities such as DiskWarrior, TechTool Pro, and Prosoft’s £68.95 Drive Genius 2 (www.prosofteng.com) provide such automatic monitoring. Core Code’s free SMARTReporter 2.3.7 (www.corecode.at) also works well.
How often? Check your hard drive’s directory once a month and repair as needed. Use a utility to set up automatic SMART monitoring.
Restart your Mac
Mac OS X is so stable that most people can go weeks or months without having to restart their Macs, although as you’ll see from our Green feature this isn’t advisable if you want to save energy. Although this is convenient, it has drawbacks. For one, the more programs you launch and quit, the more OS X’s virtual-memory system has to swap data to and from the hard drive. In addition, some programs have memory leaks that cause them to use more and more memory over time. The result is that your Mac may seem slower after it’s been running for a few days or weeks.
The solution is to periodically restart your Mac. This frees up RAM, purges virtual-memory swap files, and regenerates some cache files. Alternatively, simply shut down at night, or when you know you won’t be using your Mac for a while. That approach conserves energy, too. (You can even use OS X’s Energy Saver preference pane to schedule automatic shutdowns and startups.)
How often? If you must leave it on, restart your Mac every week or two, or whenever you experience slowdowns.
Check hard-drive space
Today’s hard drives hold more stuff than ever, but we also seem to find more and more stuff to store on them. And if your hard drive gets too full, performance can suffer. What’s worse, if OS X tries to save user data or virtual-memory files to your hard drive and can’t find enough free space, you can lose data.
How much free space is enough? This is a point of frequent debate, but our general guideline is approximately 10 per cent of your hard-drive capacity or 10GB, whichever is less. If you work with programs that store large temporary files – for example, DVD-burning software generally requires free space equal to the size of the disc you’re burning – be sure to leave more room for that.
Erase extra stuff The first step is simply to get rid of things you don’t use, such as programs you never launch, movies you never watch, and music you never listen to. If you’ve got old files that you’re keeping for posterity but don’t need on hand, consider burning them to disc and removing the originals from your drive. (But be aware that optical discs can go bad over time, so you might want to re-burn them every couple of years.)
You might also have space-hogging files and folders you’re not aware of. Our favourite tools for finding them are Eriban’s free GrandPerspective 0.9.11 (grandperspectiv.sourceforge.net) and ID-Design’s $13 (£7) WhatSize 4.2 (www.id-design.com/software/whatsize). Both of these utilities scan your hard drive to find which files and folders are taking up the most space. WhatSize’s column view is better for finding the largest files and folders in each directory, while GrandPerspective’s graphical interface lets you quickly spot the largest files – or groups of files – on your drive (see ‘Find Your Biggest Files’, page 90). Once you’ve located the worst offenders, delete the unnecessary ones (but, of course, never delete something if you don’t know what it is).
Empty the Trash Your Mac’s Trash is easy to empty – just control-click on its icon in the Dock and choose Empty Trash. But some people never do, ending up with gigabytes of unwanted data on their drives. If you tend to forget, set up a repeating event in Apple’s iCal to remind you. Alternatively, check out Fastforward Software’s $20 (£10) Compost 1.9 (www.fastforwardsw.com), a utility that offers many options for processing deleted files.
Buy a bigger drive If deleting unwanted files doesn’t free up enough room, it’s time to buy a larger drive. The good news is that internal and external hard drives are relatively inexpensive these days.
How often? Clean up your hard drive every few months, or whenever it starts filling up. And don’t forget to empty the Trash occasionally.
Run only what you need
The more programs you run at once, the more RAM you use, and the harder your Mac’s processor(s) must work. If you notice things slowing down, it’s a good idea to look at the Dock and quit any open programs you aren’t actively using. However, there are probably other programs running, too.
Nix login items Your Mac probably has a several running programs that you didn’t launch yourself, and even some that you can’t see in the Dock. One way to cut down on this superfluous activity is to weed out items that launch automatically when you log in. Go to the Accounts preference pane, select your user account, and click on the Login Items tab. Glance through the list to see if there’s anything you don’t want running. Quite a few programs automatically add themselves or their support processes, so you may find items related to software you tried and discarded, or to add-ons you thought you’d uninstalled.
If you find something you don’t want, simply select it and click on the minus-sign button (–) or press your keyboard’s delete key. If you don’t recognise an item, hold the mouse cursor over its name for a few seconds. A small tooltip will appear, displaying the path to the item – and hopefully providing some context for the item’s purpose. (Deleting an item from Login Items doesn’t quit it; it just stops it launching the next time you log in. The easiest way to quit it is to log out of your account and then back in.)
Dump Dashboard widgets Many of us regularly try out new and interesting Dashboard widgets. But like programs, widgets use memory and processor cycles when running. Keep open only those you regularly use. To quit a widget, activate Dashboard (F12 by default), hold down the option key, and then click on the X that appears in the widget’s upper left corner.
How often? Weed out your Login Items list once every couple of months (do it more often if you frequently try new software). Disable unused Dashboard widgets whenever you install a new widget.
Relaunch web browsers
When it comes to programs that grab more and more memory over time, perhaps the biggest offenders are web browsers. The longer they’re running, the more RAM they demand. Eventually, they can bog down your Mac’s overall performance.
Restarting your Mac is one way to solve this problem, but before going to that extreme, try quitting and then relaunching the browser. This will often free up a surprising amount of memory, and most modern browsers can restore the windows and tabs that were open when you quit. (In Safari, choose History➝ Reopen All Windows From Last Session.)
How often? Restart your browser if it’s been open for a while and you notice your Mac slowing down.
Keep a clean machine
It’s important to keep your Mac clean – virtually and physically – for optimum performance.
Tidy your desktop OS X treats each item on your desktop as a separate window. That means every file and folder you store there uses memory and CPU resources. The more powerful your computer is, the more items your desktop can hold without noticeable effects. But eventually you’ll see more spinning beach balls and slower Finder actions.
You may find it easier to sort through lots of desktop detritus if you open the Desktop folder (your user folder/Desktop). You can then browse your desktop’s contents in list view and sort by type, date, or another attribute. File away or delete anything you can.
Keep your Mac free of muck Many people underestimate the importance of keeping the physical structures of their Macs clean. Of course you want to keep coffee, soda, and other liquids from spilling into your keyboard or on your MacBook. But other, less obvious, substances can gunk things up.
For example, crumbs from months of working lunches can eventually interfere with your keyboard’s switches, preventing certain keys from registering (not to mention that a dirty keyboard is, well, gross). Dust and pet hair can build up around your computer’s vents, and on internal components. This can shorten the life of your computer’s components, and can also cause seemingly random lockups and shutdowns when your Mac overheats.
Luckily, keeping your Mac clean doesn’t take much effort. You can use a damp cloth to wipe down your Mac’s exterior. Compressed-air canisters work well for clearing the dust from your Mac’s vents and loosening much of the junk that’s fallen into your keyboard. (Don’t use a standard vacuum. You need a special antistatic model.)
If you have a Mac Pro or older Mac tower, open it every few months to check dust build-up. Avoid eating over your keyboard or typing with sticky hands. (For more info about keeping laptops and LCDs clean, see macworld.com/3560.)
How often? Tidy up your desktop whenever you start to notice Finder slowdowns, or when you can no longer quickly find a file you’ve put there. Clean your Mac once a month or whenever necessary.