One of the most common question I get is, "How do I keep my Mac running in tip-top shape?" Depending on who you ask, you may get different answers. My routine is very simple, yet very effective. In fact, most of it is just simple common sense (no rocket science found here). Below is a list of things to do and watch for.
One of the easiest things you can do (and this should be done at least weekly), is to check for software updates. Not just for OS X, but for the 3rd-party software you use. To update most of your software, all you need to do is open the Mac App Store and click on the "Updates" button (you can also get here by clicking on the Apple logo on the menu bar, then choosing "Software Update..."
This will scan your system and compare what you have with what Apple has in their software database (at least those apps that were purchased via the App Store). For all other apps, you will either need to check for updates via the software itself (there's usually a link in the menu system somewhere) or the developer's site directly. Regardless, updating your software will ensure you are running the most stable, secure and feature-rich version available.
Install Only What You Need
This is especially relevant to those with younger children who tend to install anything and everything they come across on the web. Be careful and specific about what you install. Before installing, ask yourself the following questions... do I really need this? Is it from a reputable source/developer? If you answered yes to both, then install. Otherwise, hold off. If after a few days you find that you still need it, it's time to revaluate and likely install. Installing non-critical software unnecessarily adds clutter to your system.
Limit Administrative Access
When there will be multiple users using the same Mac, it's always a good idea to create a separate account for each user (this not only allows each user to have their own user experience, but keeps clutter from spilling over from one user to another). When doing this, don't be afraid to give additional users limited access. Doing so will reduce the risk that one user will accidentally remove something important that would affect the other users In OS X Mountain Lion, there are four account types to choose from:
- Administrator: An administrator can create, delete, and modify users; install software; and change system settings.
- Standard: Standard users can install software for their own use and change their own user settings, but can’t administer other users.
- Managed with Parental Controls: For these users, an administrator can restrict access to apps and inappropriate content, and limit the amount of time users can use the computer.
- Sharing Only: Sharing-only users on your network can access your shared files or your shared screen from their computers. They can’t log in to your computer or change its settings, and they don’t have home folders on your computer.
With this in mind, there are usually very few reasons why more than one user account should be an Administrator on a Mac. To create a new account, open System Preferences, then click on the "Users & Groups" icon.
Repair Disk Permissions
Mac OS X is a very efficient Operating System. However, it's not perfect. Over time, files tend to go "funky" (in technical terms, file permissions get corrupted). Fortunately, there's a utility built-in to OS X to help correct this. It's called "Disk Utility". To open Disk Utility, go to Applications > Utilities > Disk Utility in Finder (or search Spotlight for "Disk Utility"). Once open, highlight your internal hard drive (usually called "Macintosh HD"), then click "Repair Disk Permissions". This will reset each file's permissions to where they need to be. I usually run this process about once a month or so (or whenever I experience strange app behaviors like unexpected quits). Depending on how many issues it finds on the first pass, it may be necessary to run this two or three times. This utility is less necessary with SSD drives, but still not a bad idea to occasionally run.
Increase Your Memory
There are three key components to any computer: 1) storage (hard drive/SSD), 2) processor and 3) RAM (memory). Modern Operating Systems (like OS X Mountain Lion) do so many awesome things, but they also require more RAM than older OSes. As a result, we need to take that into account as we upgrade to newer versions. According to Apple's support site, Mountain Lion requires 2 GB of RAM. My recommendation, however, is at least 4 GB (8 GB will feel much more comfortable and still won't cost you an arm and a leg). For higher-end applications (pro apps), you may want to consider 16 GB or more. To see how much RAM you have, click on the Apple logo on the menu bar, then click "About this Mac...".
Hard Drive Utilization
Believe it or not, the amount of storage on your hard drive/SSD is finite... there is a limit to what you can put on it. Not only this, but the Operating System itself requires room to breathe (in technical terms, it needs space for its swap files). Therefore, my rule is never to exceed 80% utilization on your drive. To help put that into context, here are a few examples:
- If you have a 128 GB SSD, don't exceed 102 GB used
- If you have a 256 GB SSD, don't exceed 204 GB used
- If you have a 500 GB HDD, don't exceed 400 GB used
- If you have a 1 TB HDD, don't exceed 800 GB used
To check your current hard drive utilization, open the built-in "Activity Monitor" utility (Applications > Utilities > Activity Monitor), then click on the "Disk Usage" button at the bottom.
HDD vs. SSD
If you have an older Mac, and you really want to increase performance/speed, the number one thing you can do is to swap out your older hard drive for a newer SSD. Because SSDs have no moving parts (they're built using flash memory technology), the time it takes for OS X to read and write to the drive is much, much quicker than that of a hard drive. For example, a hard drive-based Mac normally takes between 30 and 45 seconds to boot (from powered off). The same Mac using an SSD would take about 10 seconds. The same speed increase would be expected when launching apps, opening files, etc. Below is a photo showing the physical differences between the two (hard drive on the left, SSD on the right).
The "3-year Rule"
Computers aren't designed to last forever. When all else fails, I generally recommend that you replace your computer every 3-4 years. Yes, it can get expensive, but remember... it's an investment. You're not just investing in technology, but in your time. If you continue to run older hardware, your wasting time waiting for it to do things that you wouldn't normally need to with newer hardware.