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
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”).
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.)
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”).
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”).
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.
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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Dan is former Macworld senior editor. You can find him on the web at danfrakes.com.