Essential Mac Maintenance: Get set up

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Prepare for emergencies

Many people take elaborate precautions to prepare for earthquakes, tornados, or hurricanes, but never give a second thought to preparing for computer catastrophes. Here are a few simple steps that can help you survive mishaps both major and minor (see “Your Emergency Kit”).

What do you need to have around in case of a Mac meltdown? Here’s a good start: a bootable hard drive (or your OS X Install disc), lists of your most important settings and information, and a log that documents any problems you’ve been having.
Your Emergency Kit: What do you need to have around in case of a Mac meltdown? Here’s a good start: a bootable hard drive (or your OS X Install disc), lists of your most important settings and information, and a log that documents any problems you’ve been having.
Create a Troubleshooting Account If you ever have a problem with your Mac—for example, a program that won’t behave or an account that won’t let you log in—there’s a good chance the problem is with your user account rather than with the OS itself. The easiest way to find out is to see whether the problem goes away when you log in to a different account—one with fresh settings and without third-party add-ons and system hacks. This pristine account can also come in handy if you need to perform maintenance or repairs, or if your own account won’t let you log in at all. But you need to create a troubleshooting account before trouble happens.

To do so, open the Accounts preference pane. If you see a locked-padlock icon, click on it and enter your administrator password. Click on the plus sign (+), and then choose Administrator from the New Account pop-up menu in the sheet that appears. Give the account an obvious name and short name (I use Troubleshooting Account and trouble, respectively) and a password you’ll remember. When you’re done, click on Create Account.

This account should remain unused. The next time you experience a problem, log in to it. If everything works fine there, you’ll know to start your troubleshooting efforts in your user folder (specifically, in your user folder/Library). For help, see our Leopard troubleshooting guide.

Keep a Bootable Emergency Disk on Hand In case you experience a problem so severe that your Mac won’t even start up, your Mac OS X Install disc—either the one that came with your Mac or the one you bought to upgrade to Leopard—includes a copy of Apple’s Disk Utility that can be used to perform some basic disk repairs. In dire circumstances, you can use this disc to reinstall OS X.

But what if you’d rather use a program that offers more-comprehensive repair features, such as Alsoft’s $100 DiskWarrior 4.1 ( ) or Micromat’s $98 upcoming TechTool Pro 5? Or what if you’ve got a MacBook Air and don’t want to carry its big, bulky optical drive with you at all times? In either case, you need a bootable hard drive. You can use a separate internal drive—not another partition of your boot drive—or an external FireWire or USB drive. Install OS X onto it so you’ll be able to boot from it, and then install all the troubleshooting utilities you think you might need.

Safely Store Your Software Discs Although more and more people are keeping off-site backups, few do the same with software-installation discs, which are often worth thousands of dollars. The fact is, you probably don’t need to keep your software discs close at hand, so instead, keep them safe. I recommend storing these discs—as well as physical copies of software you’ve downloaded from the Web—separate from your Mac. You might keep them at work, at home, at a friend or relative’s house, or in a safety deposit box.

Chances are, you’ll need the original software disc only if your Mac is having problems or, worse, is stolen or damaged. But if you want to keep a particular disc handy, use Disk Utility or Roxio’s $80 Toast 9 to make a copy, and then store the copy near your computer. At the very least, invest in a media-rated fireproof safe and keep your discs in it.

Ensure That You’re Insured No matter how prepared you are, accidents happen—laptops get dropped, coffee gets spilled, computers get stolen, and natural disasters strike. Check your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance to see what—and how much—coverage it provides for your computer and peripherals. If that coverage isn’t sufficient, consider insurance specifically for your computer. For example, Safeware provides policies that cover your computer, your peripherals, and even your software and personal data against theft, accidental damage, and power incidents.

You might also consider an AppleCare Protection Plan (price varies by Mac model). This extends the warranty on your computer—as well as any display, AirPort hardware (including a Time Capsule), Apple-installed RAM, and MacBook Air SuperDrive purchased with the computer—by an additional two years. But note that AppleCare is a service warranty, not insurance. It covers only technical support and manufacturing problems that require repair.

Keep Good Records If you ever upgrade your hard drive, switch to a different Mac, or re-install OS X, you’ll probably need to re-enter software licenses and registration numbers. Similarly, if you ever need to contact technical support, or if your Mac or its accessories are ever stolen, you’ll need serial numbers and detailed information about the equipment.

One of the simplest precautions you can take is to keep detailed records of all this information. I recommend creating a simple spreadsheet or text document that lists each piece of software and hardware you own, along with its model or version number, serial or registration number, specifications and features (in the case of a computer), and date of purchase. Alternatively, utilities such as Agile Web Solutions’ $30 1Password ( ), Gabriele de Simone’s $9 Steel ( ), and Markus Mehlau’s free Pastor ( ) offer convenient features for storing such information.

Apple also provides two helpful forms you can print and fill out: a “My Mac Cheat Sheet” for your Mac’s vitals and e-mail and Internet configurations, and an “Email Settings Cheat Sheet” for detailed e-mail account settings.

However you choose to track this information, be sure to print it or, at the very least, store the data files elsewhere. Do not store any of it on your computer because you won’t be able to access it if your Mac goes kaput (or missing).

Finally, document any problems you experience. If your Mac starts misbehaving, note the date, the time, and what you were doing when it started acting up. If the problem is reproducible, write down the steps that cause it. This data will help immensely if you end up having to call Apple or another vendor for support, or if you visit an Apple Store Genius Bar.

Don’t Forget Basic Security Making sure your computer is protected from nefarious forces is important, too. For details about using Leopard’s firewall to protect yourself, see “Close the ports”. For tips on making secure passwords, see “Fix password glitches”. And for other security tips, see “Lock it up”.

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