Essential Mac Maintenance: Get set up

Setting your system up right can not only prevent problems but also make a difference if a problem arises in the future—be it a hard-drive meltdown, a natural disaster, or theft. Taking these steps when your Mac is brand new is easiest, but it’s never too late to get organized.

Make sure you have the right stuff

Illustrations by Jack Gallagher
Does your Mac have what it needs to run smoothly, safely, and efficiently? Here are some essentials:

Buy a Surge Protector or UPS You may be tempted to plug your Mac directly into a wall outlet. Don’t. Power surges and lightning strikes can pass from power lines, phone lines, or your house’s wiring to your wall outlets, and they can do significant—and permanent—damage to your computer. You need at least a quality surge protector, which acts as a sort of electrical firewall, protecting against destructive power incidents. (See How Surge Protectors Work for tips on finding a good one.) In addition, make sure that all AC-powered devices connected to your Mac, as well as phone and Internet cables, are protected—lightning and power surges can pass through any cable to zap your Mac.

A better option, especially if you have a desktop Mac, is an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). This device combines a surge protector with a battery designed to keep your computer running long enough for you to save your work and shut everything down safely if the power goes out. A UPS can also protect your computer from brownouts (sudden drops in power), erratic power, and line noise (radio-frequency and electromagnetic interference).

You need a UPS that can handle the electrical requirements of all your connected equipment. The easy way to determine the UPS size you need is to use an online wizard, such as the one provided by APC. Enter details about your setup, and the wizard will estimate your UPS needs (see “Get the Right UPS”).

To protect against power surges and lightening strikes, nothing beats an uninterruptible power supply. APC’s online Selector lets you enter the details of your system so you can estimate what size you need.
Get the Right UPS: To protect against power surges and lightening strikes, nothing beats an uninterruptible power supply. APC’s online Selector lets you enter the details of your system so you can estimate what size you need.
Two things to note: First, never connect a laser printer to one of the UPS’s battery-backup outlets; laser printers can draw a lot of power, quickly draining the UPS battery and potentially damaging it. Instead, use a non-battery-powered outlet on the UPS, or, even better, plug the printer into a separate surge protector. Second, although some UPS units provide phone, network, and cable jacks, the UPS’s noise-filtering feature may cause network problems. If you experience such issues, plug network cables into a separate surge protector.

Get Enough RAM Most Macs ship with at least 2GB of RAM these days, but some—the Mac mini, the 2.4GHz iMac, and the low-end MacBook—include only 1GB. Similarly, if you’ve got an older Mac, or if you’ve recently purchased a used model, there’s a good chance it’s got 1GB or less. This may suffice if all you do is check e-mail and browse the Web, but if you plan on running a number of programs simultaneously, working with photos and video, or playing games, you’re bound to encounter performance problems and spinning beach balls.

If you’re seeing such issues and you’re not sure whether a lack of RAM is your problem, you might try using Matt Neuburg’s free MemoryStick. This utility displays your Mac’s memory use in the Dock or on a floating meter, letting you see at a glance when you’re running short. If that’s frequently the case, it’s time to buy more. Thankfully, RAM is cheap these days—adding another GB to an iMac will cost you $50 or less—and most Macs are easy to upgrade. (Apple provides do-it-yourself instructions for most Mac models in its user guides.)

Make Sure Your RAM Works It’s a good idea to check a new Mac for hardware problems before you spend lots of time settling in. Perhaps the most important component to test is RAM—defective memory can cause problems that are maddeningly elusive to troubleshoot, such as random application crashes, system freezes, and data corruption. (This means you should also test any RAM you add to your Mac.)

Thankfully, it’s not difficult to do so, although a comprehensive test can take a while. Apple Hardware Test, included on the Mac OS X Install disc that comes with all recent Macs, has an Extended Testing option that tests your RAM. (MacBook Air owners can use Apple Hardware Test by holding down the D key at startup.)

Bad RAM can lead to many hard-to-diagnose problems. You can use Rember to test yours for trouble <em>before</em> you get tripped up.
Test Your Memory: Bad RAM can lead to many hard-to-diagnose problems. You can use Rember to test yours for trouble before you get tripped up.
I prefer the more-thorough approach provided by Tony Scaminaci’s $1.39 Memtest 4.21 ( ). This program tests every bit of your RAM modules, as many times as you choose, verifying that they correctly store and read data. (Apple’s Hardware Test does only one pass.) Doing several passes can take a day or more, but if your RAM checks out, it’s probably not going to give you problems. (Most “bad” RAM is bad from the start, so if it’s good in the beginning, chances are it will work well for a long, long time.) The hitch is that you have to run Memtest from the command line, either at startup or with Terminal. (For details, see “Is your memory bad?".) If you prefer something with a graphical user interface, use Kelley Computing’s Rember 0.3.4b (donation requested)—which puts a friendlier face on Memtest—instead (see “Test Your Memory”).

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