Essential Mac Maintenance: Rev up your routines

Macs are relatively hassle-free—most people can get by without doing any routine maintenance at all. But you can greatly reduce your chances of problems, both big and small, by regularly performing a few simple tasks. I recommend performing some—such as backing up your data—diligently and often. Others require your attention only occasionally. For tips for getting your computer set-up right in the first place, see “Essential Mac Maintenance: Get set up”.

Wondering how you’ll remember what to do when? Download the Macworld Maintenance Calendar, import it into iCal, and then customize it to fit your situation. You’ll never forget your maintenance chores again.

Back up your data

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 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. I use Time Machine to automatically back up all my personal data. (See “Time Machine tips and troubleshooting” for details about how to get started.) But I also create a bootable clone—an exact copy of my hard drive—using Shirt Pocket’s $28 SuperDuper 2.5 ( ), and update it each day. If my Mac’s hard drive ever bites the dust, I can boot off of 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, I keep a backup in a different location, in case disaster strikes my office.

For more information about how and why you might combine Time Machine with other backup methods, see “Is Time Machine all you need?”. If you don’t use Leopard, see “Easy Mac Backups” 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. In general, you want to make sure you’re running the latest versions of all your software. (Note that updates that provide bug fixes are often free; larger updates that provide significant new features may require purchase.)

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 launch and then check Apple’s servers to see whether any new Apple software is available. If it is, you can choose to install those updates right then and there. 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 you when one is available. You’ll often find this feature in a program’s preferences window (typically accessed through the program name: Preferences menu item). You can also find out about updates at companies’ Web sites, but if you have lots of third-party programs that don’t check automatically, a better approach is to take advantage of a site, such as or, that maintains a free, up-to-date list of software updates. A membership with either site ($50 per year for VersionTracker, or $40 per year for MacUpdate) buys you regular e-mail alerts about updated programs, as well as software that tracks updates for the programs installed on your Mac and even downloads the updates for you (see “Track New Versions”).

VersionTracker Pro makes keeping your software up-to-date easy. It monitors and alerts you when new versions of your installed programs become available.

One caveat is in order here. 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—to see whether the “early adopters” have any problems. A good compromise is to install security updates immediately but wait a bit for other types of updates.

How Often Set Software Update, and any other automated utilities or built-in update locators, to check for updates weekly. If you’re checking manually, do so every few weeks for software you use frequently.

Monitor hard-drive health

A hard drive is an amazing collection of technology: a few small platters, motors, and sensors can store gigabytes of data very reliably. But the technology isn’t perfect, so 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 your drive. This not only impairs performance, but can also damage the directory and make it inaccurate. Checking the directory periodically, and optimizing or repairing it when necessary, is one of the best ways to avoid system problems and data loss.

Apple’s Disk Utility (in /Applications/Utilities) 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 that the volume needs to be repaired, you can do so by booting from your OS X Install disc. Insert the disc, press and hold down the C key during startup, and then, once you see the Installer window on the screen, access Disk Utility via the Installer’s Utilities menu. 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 to repair the directory (see “Leopard troubleshooting guide”).

A more-thorough option is to use Alsoft’s $100 DiskWarrior 4.1( ), which has long been the gold standard for directory fixing. Instead of trying to repair your existing directory, the utility examines that directory, scours your hard drive for files and folders, and then creates a new, optimized directory. Like Disk Utility, DiskWarrior requires that you reboot from the DiskWarrior CD, or 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. To help you keep an eye on your drives’ status, today’s hard drives include Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology (SMART). This feature monitors a slew of performance indicators inside the drive and then determines whether the drive is operating normally. That status—OK or Fail—is made available to your computer and its software. If a drive’s SMART status is Fail, you should immediately back up your data and replace the drive.

The problem with SMART is that you need to run special software that works with SMART in order to see a drive’s status. Disk Utility displays each disk’s SMART status at the bottom of the Disk Utility window, but opening Disk Utility just to check SMART status is a hassle. An easier approach is to use a utility that monitors SMART status in the background and alerts you if a drive’s status changes. Commercial disk utilities such as DiskWarrior, Micromat’s $98 upcoming TechTool Pro 5, and Prosoft Engineering’s $99 Drive Genius 2 provide such automatic monitoring. Core Code’s free SMARTReporter 2.3.7 also works well.

SMART also has a couple significant limitations. First, the technology works only with drives connected to your computer via IDE/ATA, SATA, and (sometimes) eSATA interfaces; this means it won’t alert you to potential problems with FireWire or USB drives. Second, because SMART detects minor changes over time, it can’t protect you against sudden drive failure. Still, according to drive manufacturer Seagate, the majority of drive problems involve the sort of gradual degradation that SMART can detect, so it’s worth using.

How Often Check your hard drive’s directory once a month and repair as needed. Use a utility to set up automatic SMART monitoring.

Periodically restart your Mac

OS X is so stable that most people can go weeks or months without having to restart their Macs, and many do. 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 than when you first booted up.

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—an approach that conserves energy, too. (You can even use OS X’s Energy Saver preference pane to schedule automatic shutdowns and startups.)

How Often Restart your Mac once every week or two, or whenever you’re experiencing slowdowns. (If you shut down your Mac every night, you’re already set.)

Occasionally 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, or logging out and then back in, are ways to solve this problem, but before going to these extremes, try quitting and then relaunching your 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, quickly getting you right back to where you left off. (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.

Check hard-drive space

Today’s hard drives hold more stuff than ever, but we also seem to be finding 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, virtual-memory files, or temporary 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 my personal guideline is approximately ten percent of your hard-drive capacity or 10GB, whichever is less. In addition, if you work with programs that store large temporary files—for example, Photoshop needs scratch space, and 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 How do you free up disk space? 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 years. And be sure to store copies of important data with your off-site backups.)

You might also have space-hogging files and folders you’re not aware of. My favorite tools for finding them are Eriban’s free GrandPerspective 0.9.3( ) and ID-Design’s $13 WhatSize 4.2( ). Both utilities scan your hard drive to show you 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”). Once you’ve located the worst offenders, you can free up drive space by deleting the unnecessary ones (but never delete something if you don’t know what it is).

GrandPerspective can give you a graphical view of what’s hogging your hard-drive space.

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 so, ending up with gigabytes of unwanted data on their drives. If you tend to forget, set up a repeating event in Apple’s iCal (/Applications) to remind you. (The downloadable Macworld Maintenance Calendar includes one.) Alternatively, check out Fastforward Software’s $20 Compost 1.9( ), a utility that provides many options for automatically processing deleted files.

Buy a Bigger Drive If deleting unwanted files doesn’t free up enough room on your hard drive, it’s time to buy a larger drive. The good news is that internal hard drives are relatively inexpensive these days: a 300GB desktop hard drive costs less than $100, and a 200GB laptop drive costs around $150. Alternatively, you can buy an external drive and offload some of your files onto it to make room on your startup drive. (See our most recent backup and storage reviews.)

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 the programs you need

The more programs you run at once on your Mac, 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 likely has a good number of running programs that you didn’t launch yourself, and even some that you can’t see in the Dock. (The latter are commonly called background processes.) One way to cut down on this superfluous activity is to weed out items that launch automatically when you log in to your account. Go to the Accounts preferences pane, select your user account, and then 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 the delete key on your keyboard. If you don’t recognize 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; doing so just prevents it from launching the next time you log in. If the program doesn’t appear in the Dock, the easiest way to quit it is to log out of your user account and then back in; alternatively, you can use Activity Monitor, in /Applications/Utilities, to quit background processes.)

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 and free up any system resource it’s using, 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 months (do it more often if you frequently try new software). Disable unused Dashboard widgets whenever you install a new widget.

Keep a clean machine

It’s important to keep your Mac clean—virtually and physically—for optimum performance. That means more than just clearing out unused files.

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, so it’s a good idea to occasionally straighten up.

You may find it easier to sort through lots of Desktop detritus if you open the Desktop folder (your user folder/Desktop) itself. 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. If you must store lots of stuff on your Desktop, create a few folders there—for example, one for each project or each type of file—and put items inside those folders.

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 key 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, preventing the cooling system from working properly. This can shorten the life of your computer’s components over the long term, and can also cause seemingly random lockups and shutdowns when your Mac overheats (see “Gumming Up the Works”).

Without regular cleaning, a Mac’s internals can get so dusty that components—such as this video card—may stop working properly. You probably won’t be able to figure out why until you open the case.

Luckily, keeping your Mac clean doesn’t take much effort. You can use a damp (not wet) cloth to wipe down your Mac’s exterior, and 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 to try to suck away dust, as static electricity may damage your computer. If you want to use a vacuum, you need a special anti-static model.) For more information about keeping laptops and LCD displays clean, see “Notebook cleanup and protection”.

If you’ve got a Mac Pro or an older Mac tower, open it every few months and make sure there’s not a significant amount of dust inside. And avoid eating over your keyboard or typing with sticky hands.

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. Inspect the inside of tower Macs every few months.

Calibrate your laptop battery

Today’s laptop batteries are much better than those of just a decade ago, but they’re not perfect. While current power cells no longer experience the memory effect—a phenomenon whereby repeatedly using only a portion of a battery’s full charge would lead to the battery being unable to provide its full charge—your laptop can still exhibit similar symptoms, such as shorter-than-expected use time.

This is because each of Apple’s laptop batteries includes a tiny processor that monitors the battery’s charge and usage and then provides OS X with an estimate of the remaining battery life; over time, these estimates can become inaccurate. The result can be your Mac alerting you that you’re about to run out of power, or your laptop abruptly going to sleep, when you should have more than enough juice left.

To avoid such problems, Apple recommends that you calibrate your laptop battery once a month to get the battery and its microprocessor back in sync. Basically, this involves running your battery down until it’s completely depleted, and then charging it back up to its full capacity. However, the exact procedure depends on your Mac laptop model; see Apple’s instructions for calibrating different Mac model batteries.

How Often Recalibrate your laptop battery once every month. Apple hosts an iCal calendar, with monthly reminders, that you can subscribe to, or you can use the reminders in the downloadable Macworld Maintenance Calendar.

[Senior Editor Dan Frakes has been writing about Mac maintenance and troubleshooting since the early days of the Power Macintosh.]

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