'Tweaking' utilities roundup

You read about them on message boards and Web sites, in chat rooms and email: Someone’s Mac is having problems, and a helpful soul writes, “Download XYZ and clean your caches.” Or a user wants to know how to tweak a specific setting in Mac OS X, and several people chime in with suggestions for obscurely named utilities such as Onyx, DoktorKleanor, and TinkerTool. There are many of these software titles out there for Mac OS X, but they all have one thing in common: They offer ways to access settings and features of Mac OS X that aren’t easily available via the standard interfaces—System Preferences, applications, and various preferences dialogs. These utilities also tend to let you perform several “maintenance” tasks that may or may not be effective (that’s the topic for another article). As a group, I call these software titles “tweaking” utilities because they help you tweak your Mac’s features and performance.

Over the past couple years, I’ve seen more and more of these tweaking utilities crop up, many of them very similar to others on the market. Since I’m often asked which ones I recommend, I decided it was time to check out as many as I could to see if any stand out.

Caveats and cautions

Before I get into my discussion of the various tweaking utilities, I want to make something clear: With few exceptions, these utilities simply run Terminal (shell) commands in the background. In other words, few do any “magic” of their own; instead, they provide a graphical user interface (GUI) for Mac OS X features and settings that would otherwise be available only to those proficient with Terminal and Unix shells. The most obvious (and transparent) example of this is the utility maintain1 ; clicking a button in this utility actually opens a Terminal window to run the corresponding Unix command—often something as basic as

top
or
ps
—and then display the results.

Now, some “purists” feel that such utilities are a scourge upon the earth, since, in their minds, these utilities keep people from actually learning about Unix and the shell. I happen to live in the real world, where most of the people who use these utilities would never, ever, ever pick up a book on Unix. Their Unix skills are limited to copying a command from a Web site, pasting it into Terminal, and pressing the Return key—and they’re perfectly OK with being such Terminal neophytes. For these users, tweaking utilities provide easy access to those features OS X has hidden beneath the surface.

That said, the concomitant risk of these utilities is that some of them place dangerous tools in the hands of inexperienced users. (The fact that many tweaking utilities require your admin-level username and password to run should be a big red flag.) Although these apps can perform benign actions such as enabling the Dock’s hidden options, they can also do more serious things such as deleting virtual memory swap files, deleting preferences files, and munging low-level network settings. One wrong click and you could find your computer working very differently—or not working at all. So an emphatic word of caution: If you use one of these utilities, click only those buttons you understand; don’t click wildly because the various options sound interesting or because you’re intensely curious as to `what they do.

On another safety-related note, before using one of these utilities, make sure you have the latest version—and be sure that version is compatible with the version of Mac OS X installed on your Mac. When using a utility that makes modifications to the OS, compatibility is especially important.

Tweaker table

When I first started looking at the various tweaking utilities, I downloaded each one that I found and jotted down what each did. This approach turned out to be, shall we say, less than ideal: I found far more titles than I expected, many of which provide scores of features. (It appears that for at least some vendors, there’s a race going on to see who can include the most tweaks in their software.) So when my table quickly grew beyond what could be legibly represented in my notebook, and I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to give a qualitative narrative about each title, I turned to an Excel spreadsheet. When all was said and done, I ended up with 30 current utilities—a dozen or so others are no longer supported—and over 400 possible “tweaks”!

Because the Web isn’t an ideal medium for presenting such a large table, we’ve included below a summary of the included utilities; we’ve made the original available for download as an Excel spreadsheet and an OmniOutliner 3 document. (If you have OmniOutliner, I recommend downloading that version, as it’s easier to read.) The full table lists every task I found could be performed by any of these various utilities, along with which utilities can perform each task.

Version Last updated Price Compatibility Universal Binary Comments Recommended
AppleJack 1.4.2 1/4/06 free 10.2 or higher Runs in single-user mode at startup. x
Cache Out X 4.7.2 3/11/06 donation 10.2.3 or higher
Clean Caches 3.0 1/6/06 free ? No app; runs via Mac OS X Installer — useful for ARD/NetBoot.
Cocktail 3.7.1 3/7/06 $15 10.4 (older versions available for older versions of Mac OS X) X Includes Automator workflows and “droplets” for common functions.
Cronathon 1.6 4/1/03 donation 10.1.5 or higher
DoktorKleanor 1.0 9/14/05 free 10.4 (older versions available for older versions of Mac OS X) Shell (Terminal) script that asks questions about problems and then performs appropriate actions.
Fix Permissions 2.5 1/6/06 free ? No app; runs via Mac OS X Installer — useful for ARD/NetBoot.
Font Finagler 0.5.3 5/11/05 $10 10.2 or higher Excellent for fixing font cache problems; more thorough than most other utilities. x
Mac HelpMate .99m 2/14/06 basic, free; advanced features, subscription 10.3 or higher Inoperable in my testing.
Mac Pilot 2.0.3 2/13/06 $10 10.4 or higher
Macaroni 2.0.7 3/7/06 $9 10.2 or higher x Can run tasks on a schedule. x
MacJanitor 1.3 5/24/05 free 10.3 or higher
MainMenu 1.5.3 2/1/06 free 10.3 or higher Runs from menu bar.
maintain1 7.74 3/13/06 $20 10.4 or higher x Runs shell scripts in Terminal; allows you to edit scripts.
Maintenance 3.3 3/12/06 free 10.4 or higher? Uses Tiger’s Automator.
Maintidget 1.1 3/15/06 free 10.4 or higher Dashboard widget.
Monolingual 1.3.2 2/3/06 free 10.3.9 or higher
MultiService 1.0 11/3/05 free 10.4 to 10.4.3 Combination of vendor’s other utilities: FinderQuit, LSR, CaptureThat, YACMU.
OnyX 1.6.9 3/23/06 donation 10.4 (older versions are available for older versions of Mac OS X) Excellent help files that describe all functions. x
rootMachine 1.9.1 2/25/06 5 euro 10.4.2 or higher (for 10.3, use sterMachine) x Includes “Emergency Station” feature to fix common problems.
System Optimizer X 4.7.4 8/29/05 $12 10.2 or higher
Tiger Cache Cleaner 3.1.1 3/13/06 $9 10.4 (older versions are available for older versions of Mac OS X). x Most options hidden in menus x
TinkerTool 3.6.1 8/27/05 free 10.1 or higher Includes only user-level tweaks. x
TinkerTool System 1.5 1/24/06 7 euro 10.2.3 or higher x Includes system-level/risky tweaks; displays report of “cleaning” before deleting. x
Tweak Freak 2.1 11/23/04 donation 10.4 (older versions are available for older versions of Mac OS X) Can run custom scripts.
ultimateTask 1.5 2/23/06 donation 10.4.2 or higher x
UpdateWasher 1.13 2/19/06 free 10.4 or higher x
Xupport 3.2 3/12/06 $19.90 10.3.9 or higher x
Yasu 1.3.6 3/1/06 free 10.4 (older versions are available for older versions of Mac OS X) x
Youpi Optimizer 2.0.1 3/20/06 free 10.2 or higher

A few notes about the full table:

  • Many of these utilities require that you’ve installed the Mac OS X BSD subsystem files. These files are installed by default (and are pre-installed on all current Macs), but some users manually decide to not install them when installing Mac OS X.
  • If some of the feature descriptions don’t make sense to you, don’t worry—that generally means you don’t want to be using those features.
  • If a feature description includes a question mark (?), it means I’m not sure exactly what that feature does and the developer has provided inadequate information about it.
  • There are a few utilities not included in the table; this is either because they wouldn’t run or gave errors, or because they are older and no longer officially supported.

Which to use?

One look at the full table and it’s easy to get overwhelmed—there are 30 different utilities and no two provide the same features or interface! So, assuming you need such a utility, which do you choose? If you have a specific setting you need to change, then you can use any of the titles that can make such a change. If not, here’s a summary of a few of my favorites. (See the full table for complete details on each title.)

  • AppleJack 1.4.2 (   ). This clever utility is designed specifically for troubleshooting and runs only in single-user mode at startup—which means that it’s still available to you if a problem you’re experiencing is preventing you from booting into Mac OS X. It can repair your hard drive using
    fsck
    , repair permissions, delete cache files, and even validate preferences files.
  • Font Finagler 0.5.3 (   ). If you’re experiencing font problems, the cause could be corrupt font caches. Font Finagler scans your drive for font cache files and then allows you to delete them. Although other utilities provide a “clean font caches” button, Font Finagler’s interface is much better; for example, it displays the name, size, and modification date of each cache file.
  • Macaroni 2.0.7 (   , March 2004 ). If you’re the type who wants to make sure Mac OS X’s Unix maintenance scripts get run regularly, Macaroni can do so automatically—even if your Mac is off or asleep when the scripts would normally be run. It can also repair permissions and remove language localization files on a regular basis.
  • OnyX 1.6.7 (   ). Among the “feature-heavy” tweaking utilities—Cocktail, Mac Pilot, Onyx, and Xupport—I like OnyX the best. Not because it has the best interface—it doesn’t—but because it offers the best Help of the bunch, clearly explaining what each setting does.
  • Tiger Cache Cleaner 3.1 (   ). Most of the utilities in the roundup can do some degree of “cleaning”—clearing out cache and temporary files that might be causing problems. However, Tiger Cache Cleaner offers the most options, and also includes the ClamAV virus scanner. Unfortunately, too many of its features are hidden in menus rather than being obviously accessible via the application’s GUI. Be sure to read the included manual.
  • TinkerTool 3.6.1 (   ) and TinkerTool System 1.5 (   ). Although TinkerTool and TinkerTool System, taken together, don’t include as many options as several of the other utilities covered here, they’re my favorite tweaking utilities overall, for a couple reasons. Most important, developer Marcel Bresink has taken much of the risk out of using such utilities by separating “safe” actions from potentially risky ones: User-level preference settings are available via TinkerTool (which can be run by any user), whereas system-level and administrative settings and actions are limited to TinkerTool System (which can be run only by an administrator). In addition, TinkerTool System finely divides its functions into topical tabs, with each tab including clear warnings, if applicable, about the function(s) therein.

Finally, an alternative to these GUI utilities is CLIX (   ), which I covered in Mac Gems back in December 2004. CLIX is basically a database of Unix shell commands, each of which can be run by double-clicking that command. Many of the features offered by the tweaking utilities covered here are available via CLIX’s shell commands. The downsides to CLIX are that its interface is fairly spartan and in many cases you’ll need to run multiple commands to accomplish what these GUI utilities offer via a single button. On the other hand, CLIX shows you the exact command to be run so you know precisely what’s going to happen—and possibly learn a bit about Unix in the process.

Do you have a favorite tweaking utility that’s not included in our roundup? Let us know in the forum thread for this article, accessible via the link below.

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