Don't wait for Snow Leopard—slim down, speed up Leopard now

Apple hasn't done much talking about Snow Leopard, the next-generation update to Mac OS X that's due to be released in 2009 (possibly within the first quarter of the year ). But in what came as a surprise to many, the company has said that the new operating system will contain a limited number of new features.

Instead of going the route of Leopard, which added more than 300 new features, Snow Leopard is designed to focus on the underpinnings of the operating system. The result, according to Apple, will be an operating system that takes greater advantage of multicore processors, is able to leverage the often-untapped power of graphics processing hardware for general computing operations and extends 64-bit architecture compatibility—all of which will deliver much higher performance over Leopard.

At the same time, reports indicate that Snow Leopard will actually slim down the code required by Mac OS X and its installed applications, not only improving performance, but also freeing up large amounts of hard drive space in the process.

It seems clear that Apple's biggest focus with Snow Leopard is slimming down and speeding up its flagship operating system—both of which are attractive to any computer user. But why wait until Snow Leopard ships? There are a number of ways you can slim down and speed up your machine right now.

While the following tips probably won't deliver the dramatic improvements we expect to see in Snow Leopard, they can make a noticeable difference—particularly on slightly older Macs or those where hard drive space is getting cramped.

Warning: A number of tips in this article require modifying system or application files. Be sure you have a solid backup of your system before trying them in case you experience any problems or need to restore specific features later on.

1. Get rid of the languages you don't speak

Mac OS X has always supported a wide range of world languages. The entire interface (menus, dialogs, help files, etc.) is localized for over a dozen languages and included in the Mac OS X system files automatically during installation (the exception being languages that require non-Roman alphabets, such as most Asian languages). This makes it easy to switch the language used on your Mac using the International pane in System Preferences.

Like Mac OS X, many applications are written to support more than one language, allowing all their user interfaces to display in the preferred language(s) along with Mac OS X. Since not all languages are supported by every application developer, the International pane in System Preferences lets you provide an order of preferred languages. Applications that don't support your first choice will display using the highest preferred language they do support.

While the diversity of language support is a must for Mac OS X and applications to be sold around the world, chances are that you speak only one or two languages. That means all those extra language files are taking up valuable space on your hard drive. You can trim down the footprint of Leopard and most individual applications (particularly apps with heavy language support like Microsoft Office or Apple's iLife, iWork and Pro apps) by removing unneeded localization files.

There are a couple of ways to go about this process. You can manually remove language files from applications by selecting an application in the Finder and using the Get Info command (from the File menu or the command-I keyboard shortcut). In the Get Info window, expanding the Language section will show you a list of language localization files bundled in the application. To remove any you won't need, select them and click the remove (minus sign) button beneath the list.

Note: The checkboxes in this list denote which languages you are choosing to enable; unchecking languages will prevent their use but not remove the localization files.

While manually removing localization files from individual applications is an option (and it's interesting to see which languages each application supports), it can be a time-consuming process. Another option is to use a tool such as Xslimmer ($13; free trial), TinkerTool System ($9.75; free trial) or Monolingual (free/donationware) to remove localization files from both Mac OS X and installed applications.

These tools make quick work of the process and also offer additional features that can be used with some of the other tips in this article. (Monolingual has not been updated to specifically support Leopard, though most users have not reported any problems using it with Leopard.)

2. Cut out the non-native code

When Apple made the transition from PowerPC to Intel processors in early 2006, it needed to provide solutions for two major problems. First, since Intel processors couldn't natively run code designed for PowerPC processors, Apple introduced Rosetta, a technology that allows an Intel Mac to emulate a PowerPC processor on the fly as needed to run PowerPC code. Rosetta makes all Intel Macs able to run software that has not been updated to run natively on an Intel processor.

As with any type of emulation, however, this is a drain on processing power and performance. So one of the biggest performance advances you can make on an Intel Mac is to get rid applications that are PowerPC native. Unless you're working with specific older applications, you should be able to manage this by updating your installed software , as most developers now offer Intel-native or universal binary applications. (The last major holdout was Microsoft Office, which now supports Intel processors with Office 2008.) You should also ensure any non-application executables like third-party preferences panes are also updated.

The second challenge Apple faced in moving to Intel CPUs was providing a mechanism, known as a universal binary, that would allow developers to offer a single application that would run natively on both Intel and PowerPC Macs. Universal binaries achieve this by including both the Intel and PowerPC native code. While effective for making application distribution easier for developers and users, universal binaries double the size of the code contained in an application.

The utilities mentioned in the previous tip can all be used to remove this excess code from your installed applications, slimming down your system. Don't expect all your applications to be immediately cut in half, however, as most applications include files beyond just code (files that define dialogs, windows and menu items, for example).

Note: If you have a mix of Intel and PowerPC Macs and you need to copy applications between them, you may want to skip this space-saving tip, since it will effectively create PowerPC-only and Intel-only versions of your applications.

3. Trim down iLife media libraries

Perhaps nothing takes up as much space on a Mac's hard drive as media collections. Apple's iLife suite allows you to maintain libraries for iTunes, iPhoto and iMovie that store your media; make them easy to search or browse; and make them accessible throughout Leopard and other apps. These libraries can take up a lot of space. For many people, however, simply culling material isn't a valid option, as that means giving up music, photos and video that you want to keep. Here are a couple of other options to consider.

First, if you have an external hard drive, consider relocating your media library to it. This will keep your media but free up space on your internal hard drive. This can be done with each library, but is probably most effective with video. While you may want your music and/or photos accessible at a moment's notice, that's probably not the case with your video library

If you're using a portable Mac, consider building separate libraries on both your internal and external drive. This gives you access to your entire library while your machine is plugged into the external drive at home or work, and you can also have a small subset of music or other media—such as movies to watch on a plane—with you at all times. Tools like Syncopation ($25; free trial) and iPhoto Library Manager (free; advanced version $20) can help you manage this dual-library existence.

Another option that has both organizational and disk-saving options for iTunes and iPhoto is to search for duplicates in your library. With thousands of songs and photos, having duplicate tracks or photos is a very real possibility.

Both iTunes and iPhoto provide basic duplicate detection features, but those features may not always turn up all your duplicates. iTunify ($15; free trial) and iSweep ($15; free trial) provide advanced duplicate detection for iTunes, and Duplicate Annihilator ($8; free trial) provides in-depth detection for iPhoto.

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