Utility software

Excerpt: Getting your Mac ready for OS X 10.5

Editor’s Note: The following article is an excerpt from the just-released Take Control of Upgrading to Leopard: Early-Bird Edition, a $10 electronic book available for download from TidBits Publishing. The 60-page ebook walks readers through evaluating if their current Macs will run Leopard well, how to make a useful backup, and more. It comes with a free update to the full ebook that provides complete details of the Leopard installation process, to be released as soon as Leopard becomes available.

Over time, most computers accumulate clutter, including outdated software, forgotten downloads, and files you no longer need. Not only can this clutter slow down your Mac and make it harder to find things, it can cause problems when you perform a major upgrade—incompatibilities may show up, or you may run out of disk space, for example.

In this excerpt, I suggest that you install some software updates and delete files you don’t need anymore. Because you’ll be making so many changes, you shouldn’t perform these steps until after you’ve made a complete backup. After you’ve cleaned up your Mac, restarted, and verified that everything is working properly, you should update your backup so that it’ll be closer to the state of your disk when you upgrade to Leopard.

(The suggestions in this section largely come from my book Take Control of Maintaining Your Mac, which Macworld excerpted last year. The full book, however, contains many more helpful hints, including a complete regimen of simple maintenance tasks you can perform daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly to keep your computer running smoothly.)

Update third-party software

Every major upgrade to Mac OS X results in software compatibility problems, where some applications work poorly or don’t launch at all. Even in the best cases, most of us will have to update a few programs to get them to work correctly under Leopard. If history is any indication, some incompatible programs won’t be updated right away, and a few might never be. But many developers work hard to ensure that their software is ready for a new version of Mac OS X, and “Leopard-compatible” software updates have already begun appearing .

Given the choice, you’re usually better off upgrading third-party software before you install a new version of Mac OS X. In cases where low-level incompatibilities exist, especially with things like drivers, preference panes, kernel extensions, and startup items, you can save yourself grief by preventing, rather than fixing, the problem. This is especially important for owners of Intel-based Macs, who stand to gain both bug fixes and performance improvements by upgrading to Universal Binary versions of their applications.

Happily, almost every major application (and a good percentage of minor ones) has a software update feature. Unhappily, they don’t all work the same way. Some check for updates on a schedule, while others don’t—and of those that do, not all have this feature turned on initially. Some programs can download and install new versions of themselves automatically, while others simply download a disk image and expect you to open it and run the installer yourself; still others do nothing but open a Web page with links to updates you can download.

In each of the applications you use frequently, look for a Check for Updates command (the wording may vary). Such commands usually appear in the application menu (the one bearing the application’s name), the Help menu, or the Preferences dialog. If you can’t find such a command, look for update information on the developer’s Web site.

In some applications, such as Transmit (left), the Check for Updates command appears in the application menu—the one with the same name as the application. In others, such as Adobe Reader (right), it appears in the Help menu. Wording may also differ between apps.

While you’re at it, check each application’s Preferences dialog for a checkbox that enables scheduled updates, and if you can choose how often to check, choose the most frequent option. That way, even if an update isn’t available right now, you’ll be informed as soon as the next update becomes available and you launch the application.

Tip Don’t forget to check for updates of preference panes, menu extras, plug-ins, Dashboard widgets, and other system enhancements. These types of software frequently lack an automatic update feature.

As soon as you install Leopard, and likely for several weeks thereafter, you’ll check for additional updates. But the more you do now, the easier things will be then.

Tip: Another way to check for the latest software is to subscribe to VersionTracker Pro. This service includes software that runs on your Mac and alerts you when updates to any of your installed software become available, at which time you can download and install them with a couple of clicks. VersionTracker Pro monitors up to three Macs for an annual fee of $50.

De-Clutter your hard disk

Over time, your disk accumulates obsolete, extraneous, or otherwise useless files, sometimes referred to as “cruft”—hacker slang for digital detritus. These files do nothing but take up space, and clearing them out every so often is a good idea. By removing cruft, you can increase the amount of disk space available for Leopard and reduce the chance of software conflicts.

This step may not apply to you if you have a brand-new Mac, but even a few months of use can generate a surprising amount of cruft.

Determining which files you need and which can go may be a nontrivial undertaking. Some files (“The Great American Novel.doc” or “Take Control of Upgrading to Leopard.pdf”) are obviously important, and some (caches, old downloads, and so on) are obviously disposable. In between you may find thousands of files that you can’t identify and that may or may not have some value.

My advice is to take your time, skipping over any files that you’re not absolutely sure are trashable. Because you’re doing this for your own convenience, you shouldn’t be too ruthless. In particular—with a few exceptions I’ll mention shortly—you should be circumspect about deleting things in /Library, and almost never delete anything in /System.

Here are my suggestions for files you might consider deleting:

  • Your ~/Documents folder is a likely place for unneeded files (by ~/Documents, I mean look in your user folder for a Documents folder). Skim the contents of this folder and its subfolders, looking for documents and application support files you no longer need, and drag such items to the Trash.
  • If you frequently download files from Web sites or receive large e-mail attachments, look in your Web Downloads folder (Safari uses your Desktop folder by default) and your Mail Downloads folder (Mail uses ~/Library/Mail Downloads by default) for old, unneeded files you can delete.
  • Look in /Applications (and /Applications/Utilities ) for any software you’ve installed over the past year but never use. (Expired demo software, anyone?) Resist the temptation to delete Apple software that came with Mac OS X, though; although new versions of some of it may be included with your Leopard upgrade, I can’t guarantee that all of them will.
  • In /Library, /Library/Application Support, ~/Library, and ~/Library/Application Support, look for folder names matching applications you no longer use, and delete them.
  • Your /Library and ~/Library folders may contain other folders that store components of third-party utilities. Look in Application Enhancers, Bundles, Contextual Menu Items, InputManagers, and PreferencePanes for any system enhancements you no longer use, and drag them to the Trash.
  • Third-party Dashboard widgets live in ~/Library/Widgets. Any widgets you don’t use can go.
  • Applications use cache files to increase their speed and efficiency, and rebuild them automatically if necessary, so you can delete them safely:

    ◊ The contents of /Library/Caches and ~/Library/Caches, can sometimes occupy hundreds of megabytes of valuable disk space. Drag these files to the Trash.

    ◊ You can empty Safari’s cache by choosing Safari -> Empty Cache (Command-Option-E).

    ◊ Safari stores favicons (those tiny icons that appear next to a site’s URL in the address bar) separately from its main cache. To remove them, quit Safari and drag the folder ~/Library/Safari/Icons to the Trash.
  • Software that requires some component to be running in the background all the time may install folders in /Library/StartupItems. In most cases, you should leave this folder alone, but if you see anything there from software you’re sure you don’t use, delete it.

    Warning! The /Library/StartupItems folder often contains background software you need but weren’t aware you needed. For example, SOHO Notes uses an item in this folder called OpenBase; Retrospect uses a folder called RetroRun; and Now Up-to-Date & Contact uses a folder called NUDC. In short, if you’re uncertain about anything in this folder, don’t touch it.
  • Kernel extensions (files with names ending in .kext) add low-level functionality to Mac OS X. Examples include hardware drivers (for devices such as mice, trackballs, and audio interfaces), encryption tools, screen-capture software, and Parallels Desktop. These files are stored in either /Library/Extensions or /System/Library/Extensions, and you should not delete them manually unless the developer’s uninstallation instructions tell you to do so, or you are certain they must go and you have no other option.

    Any such software you no longer need can be deleted, but be very careful, especially in /System/Library/Extensions: most of these files are essential to Mac OS X, and that includes some with third-party companies in their names. If you see any obsolete items in one of these folders, you should run the installer that put them there in the first place and choose Uninstall (or follow uninstallation instructions provided by the developer).
  • Tip: Numerous programs make automatic backups of their files. This is a good thing, but over time you might accumulate dozens or hundreds of old, large backup files that do you no good. BBEdit and MYOB AccountEdge are among the known culprits. In addition, if you save iChat transcripts (in ~/Documents/iChats ), you might also wish to delete old ones. And Eudora users may want to look through ~/Documents/Eudora Folder/Attachments Folder for unneeded attachments.

    When you finish deleting files, be sure to empty the Trash (Finder -> Empty Trash) to recover the space the files previously occupied.

    If you’ve deleted everything you can live without and still need to free up a bit more room, try these options:

  • Archive seldom-used files to a CD or DVD and delete the originals from your hard drive. (These files may include things like old applications, music, and movies.) After installing Leopard and recovering the disk space used during installation, you may be able to put these files back.
  • Buy a second hard drive, or press your iPod into service as a temporary storage device. (Note that if you have a Mac Pro or Power Mac, you most likely have an empty drive bay that can accommodate an inexpensive additional internal hard drive.)
  • Tip: Uninstaller utilities

    If you prefer not to muck around in your Library folders looking for individual files to delete, consider picking up a utility that can do all the hard work for you. Uninstallers can automatically delete files associated with particular applications (such as Application Support files, startup items, caches, and preference files) without requiring you to find them all manually. Here are some examples:

  • AppZapper, $13
  • CleanApp, $10
  • Spring Cleaning, $50
  • Uninstaller, $25
  • I should also mention two utilities that don’t make any attempt to uninstall software but simply help you identify and delete large files on your drive that you may not need:

  • OmniDiskSweeper, $15
  • WhatSize, free
  • And finally, I know of one program that performs a specialized decluttering task: searching for duplicate files and folders on your disk so that you can delete them easily. It’s called Tidy Up! ($30).

    Subscribe to the Help Desk Newsletter

    Comments